Shmita Sourcebook Section VI: Reclaiming The Sabbatical Tradition – Exploring Shmita Today

If you haven't yet, check out section 5 of Hazon's Shmita Sourcebook.

We now stand in an age of global connectivity, in an age of interfaith sharing, in an age of diversified, multi-layered, international Judaism. While Shmita may not define us as a Jewish people or be on our highest cultural priority list, a conversation and movement is growing to reclaim and re-imagine Shmita for our modern era. If Shmita was a radical, challenging proposition back in early Israelite culture, how much more so today, in an era of industrial agriculture and the global marketplace! After all this time of dormancy, the time has come to once again explore this question of Shmita. And in so doing, let us meet this ancient tradition anew, ripe and fresh, to harvest her lessons for us today, and begin a conversation which will ripple into years to come, many generations ahead. What does Shmita mean for you today? What do you think we should do with Shmita right now? And how can we creatively adopt the core values and principles of this tradition to empower healthier, more sustainable, and resilient Jewish communities, both in Israel and beyond?

1. Shmita as a Bubble in Time…

The Political and Social Philosophy of Ze'ev Jabotinsky: Selected Writings

The Shmita/Jubilee idea is not dissimilar to the Socialist order: for it aims that society should, periodically, institute a great fundamental social revolution; that it should equalize all classes; that it should take from the wealthy and give to the destitute. There is, however, one real difference: the Shmita/Jubilee idea infers that after such a revolution, every man is free to start anew his social battle, free again to aspire, to utilize his energies and talents according to his desire. Here we do not find any 'once and for all'; here the reverse is true…
This concept of repeated economic upheavals [such as Shmita/Jubilee] is an attempt to correct the ills of economic liberalism, not to forestall them. Quite on the contrary, this concept is clearly based on the conviction that free economic competition is one of the most powerful motivations in life. Let people struggle, lose and win. It is only necessary to cushion the arena with soft grass, so that whoever falls will not be too painfully injured. This cushion is the Sabbath [and Shmita], the gleanings, the tithes, all the various means by which the State takes pains to prevent use from turning into exploitation, and poverty from becoming destitution.

Rest, Share, Release, Avi Sagi and Yedidya Stern, Ha’Aretz, Sept 24, 2007

It is difficult not to be impressed by the profundity of the idea that moves cautiously between the desire to preserve private property and the wish not to see property as the be-all and end-all. Shmita is a call to set apart a bubble in time, which slows economic activity down, and which fosters care, compassion and even partnership between all those who share the earth, including animals. The race will resume in the eighth year, because humanity needs it, but the idea and its memory will linger on beyond the confines of the sabbatical year, to the other six years of feverish productivity.

Questions for discussion:

According to the authors, what is the purpose of Shmita and how might it co-exist with the other six years of the cycle?

Do you agree that ‘free economic competition is one of the most powerful motivations in life’ and that ‘humanity needs it’?

2. Shmita as the Ultimate Aim…

Shabbat Ha’aretz, Rav Kook

The forcefulness that is inevitably a part of our regular, public lives lessens our moral refinement. There is always a tension between the ideal of listening to the voice inside us that calls us to be kind, truthful and merciful, and the conflict, compulsion, and pressure to be unyielding that surrounds buying, selling and acquiring things. These aspects of the world of action distance us from the divine light and prevent its being discernible in the public life of the nation. This distancing also permeates the morality of individuals like poison. Stilling the tumult of social life from time to time in certain predictable ways, is meant to move this nation, when it is well-ordered, to rise towards an encounter with the heights of its inner moral and spiritual life. We touch the divine qualities inside us that transcend all the stratagems of the social order, and that cultivates and elevates our social arrangements, bringing them towards perfection.

Questions for discussion:

According to Rav Kook, what is the ultimate purpose of Shmita in relation to the other six years? How is this similar or different to the views of the authors on the previous page? Which perspective do you resonate with more strongly?

Do you think that striving towards the values of Shmita can serve to bring us towards ‘perfection’?

Man and Nature in the Sabbatical Year, Gerald Blidstein

We have here more than the commonplace struggle between a radical religious demand and an unconsenting world. Rather we have here an institution that in essence contests the legitimacy of that world, and threatens to become not merely the symbolic repudiation of its normal social and economic patterns, but its real menace and ultimately its victor. The potency of Shmita has been its historical doom.

Questions for discussion:

Do you think there can be a balance between the values of Shmita and the values of the ‘six year economy’? Or are the tensions between the notions of Shmita and the marketplace too radically in opposition to allow for a dynamic relationship?

3. Tapping into Personal Faith

Rabbi Berel Wein

One should not be deterred from Shmita observance by the obvious impracticality of the mitzvah. Shmita, unlike many other mitzvot, becomes a test of belief and faith. The Torah, which otherwise adamantly dictates a practical approach to life, here demands a leap of faith and an abandonment of the everyday practicalities of living. I have felt that the mitzvah of Shmita is the Jewish community’s communal equivalent of the akeidah (sacrifice) of Yitzchak by Avraham, which was ordained on a personal level. The akeidah also was the height of impracticality. It flew in the face of all of the moral teachings and behavior of Avraham until that moment. Thus, it became the supreme test of faith in the lives of Avraham and Yitzchak and remains the symbol of Jewish belief and sacrifice until today…The modern world is long on narcissistic pleasure and short on faith and sacrifice. But without faith, without a feeling of the spiritual and supernatural, life is a very scary place and experience.

Questions for discussion:

Do you agree about the impractical nature of Shmita? If so, do you think Shmita itself is inherently impractical or does it just seem so because of the current cultural systems we have designed for ourselves?

How do you think personal sacrifice comes into play with the Shmita tradition? Note: The Hebrew word for sacrifice, Korban, shares the same root letters as the word me’karev, ‘to draw close together.’ How might this shift your perspective? What would your own personal sacrifice be in forming a relationship with a Shmita observance?

What is your own personal relationship to faith, trust, and belief? Is this something you try to cultivate in your life? How?

Rabbi David Ingber, Shabbat Behar Sermon, Romemu

Something miraculous happens when we stop. We get to experience the power that nature knows called dormancy. Dormancy, that which is holding; the heartbeat that rests; the hibernating animals, all of winter; waiting and waiting…There are seeds inside each and every one of us, inside this culture, that cannot emerge because we do not know that dormancy does not mean death, resting does not mean disappearing. What keeps us from stopping is that we are terrified of resting. We are afraid of the imaginative terrible things we will feel in the quiet. We fear that when we stop, even for a moment, the sheer enormity of our lives will overwhelm us. Our outspoken and unspoken fears, they speed up our lives. Like a stone being thrown over a lake, we've learned to skip so we don’t get too wet, and we are terrified that if we let the stone fall, we will disappear. And so we think that our speed will save us from the void. We dance around the security that is offered from touching what is underneath the speed. Can we let go of the obsession of finishing what can’t be finished?

Questions for discussion:

What security might you find by ‘touching what is underneath the speed’? Is the possibility of letting go of that speed something you would like to invite into your life? Is there a fear that comes along with such an idea?

4. Cycles of Growth and Rest

Godwrestling — Round 2, Rabbi Arthur Waskow

What would have happened if God had not paused—had become so joyful in the process of creating the Six Days that S/He had continued straight on, into a seventh and an eighth day of work?... An artist will tell you: if you are painting a picture, there comes a moment when one more paint stroke will ruin it. You have to know when to stop, catch your breath, and be at peace with your painting. Then, on another canvas, you can start over. But always, in a rhythm, there most be a pause to not-do. If you will not stop to rest, the work will stop anyway willy nilly. By ruination, if we refuse to rest.
We need the Sabbath. It is the acceptance of a Mystery, the celebration of a Mystery rather than of Mastery... This does not mean cursing technology, work, production, consumption, accumulation. It means putting them in their proper place: within the framework of the Sabbath. [And] let it be clear that when I say the Sabbath, I do not mean only the literal Sabbath of the seventh day, nor even the extended Sabbaths of the seventh month, the seventh year, the fiftieth year. I mean a whole approach of mind and practice, a path of life that would affirm the worth of dawdling on the path.

Questions for discussion:

As the artist of your own life, where would you like to put down the paint brush?

What is your personal relationship to this rhythm of creation and rest? Is this a rhythm you feel in-tune with?

Have you had moments where you have felt that times of non-action have been more productive and rewarding than the action itself?

Stop the Machine! Rabbi Jeremy Benstein, The Jerusalem Report, May 21, 2001

What if we looked at Shmita not as a problem, but as a solution, and then considered what problems it’s meant to solve? In that light, Shmita becomes a political statement of social and environmental import, raising deep questions about the nature of a healthy and sustainable life, for individuals, society and the land.
For instance, currently only academics have a sabbatical year. Why? Our “affluent” society actually decreases leisure and family time, as more people not only choose to work to fulfill what they want to be, but feel compelled to work, in order to afford what society says they should have. Consumerism necessitates “producerism” to keep both supply and demand high. Yet as Shmita hints, people are indeed like the land, in ways that are more obvious in the modern world: For both, when overwork leads to exhaustion, we engineer continued “vitality” not with true renewal, but with chemicals… Just as silence is an integral part of speech, punctuated periods of fallowness are crucial for guaranteeing continued fertility.

Questions for discussion:

How often to you experience a personal ‘fallow’ period? How do you perceive this period: is there any self-judgment or guilt? Or is there simple pleasure? Does it feel like an escape, or a return?

If you could craft a full year Sabbatical, how would you fill this time?

5. Inviting Wilderness into Our Lives

As of 2008, 27% of the land area in the United States was under some type of ‘protected’ status. According to the Bureau of Land Management (U.S. Department of the Interior), there is only 2.5% of wilderness land in the lower 48 states. This percentage is not evenly distributed across the country.

Wilderness in Time, Sabbath in Space, Evan Eisenberg, Torah of the Earth Vol. 2

Man-made landscapes survive only at the sufferance of the wildness around them, or the wildness that remains in them. The flow of energy, water, nutrients, and genetic information; the maintenance of temperature and the mix of atmospheric gases within narrow limits; the fertility of the soil: all these are achieved by wild nature in ways we do not fully understand... In other words, humans and their allies are able to conquer the world, but they are not able to run it all by themselves. If the waves of human advance go too far or run too deep, they may finally bring about their own undoing.
Ecologists estimate that at a bare minimum, 5 to 10 percent of an ecosystem must be preserved if it is at all to stay healthy. Make it a seventh and you have a margin of error. Besides, it is hardly arbitrary—or it is arbitrary in a useful way—to join a culture’s sense of space to its sense of time, and to ground both in the bedrock of ancient symbols... If we can set aside sevenths of our time for holiness—that is, for purposes higher than human aggrandizement—why not sevenths of our space?

Rabbi Jill Hammer, Shabbat Behar Sermon, Romemu

The land is a resource that belongs to God, not a resource that belongs to us. The land requires redemption. What does that mean? When people require redemption it means they’ve been sold into slavery or they’ve been sent into exile and they are to be brought back. When the land requires redemption, it means restoration to its state of fertility and connection to God. And how does this redemption get accomplished? The land has to be fallow. It needs this period of rest, which is also a period of temporary wildness in order to be whole. And this process of re-entering that state of rest and fallowness is holy, just like the Temple. The Jubillee is a massive Temple in time; it’s a time when all space becomes sacred space that is owned by God... So the rule of the Sabbatical Year is not only a technical mitzvah. It’s a reminder that letting the earth be free of our control is good for us, and it is what God wants. Wild spaces are a delight for God, we need them, and they may save our lives.

Questions for discussion:

How might our human landscapes and societal culture be altered if a ‘seventh’ of each country, each state, each city, and each property was devoted to wilderness preservation?

How might you consider infusing an aspect of ‘wilderness’ into a ‘seventh’ of your own life practices?

Do you agree that the way we celebrate our relations with time should be reflected in the way we design our relations with space? What would this look like to you?

6. Long Term Planning

Permaculture is a social and ecological design system that is modeled upon interconnected relationships and patterns of resiliency we see in nature and all her diverse ecosystems. It stands for ‘Permanent Agriculture’ or ‘Permanent Culture,’ which its design principles aspire to help its users create.

K Ruby Bloom, Institute For Urban Homesteading

When you take the time to slow down and simply observe something—a plot of land, a group dynamic in your office or chicken flock, it gives you time to reflect on what is actually happening right in front of you. This gives you information that can be useful as you move forward in creating better, more efficient, and abundant designs for living. The classic exhortation in a Permaculture design system is to observe your land for ONE YEAR before placing any permanent features. This gives you time to observe microclimates, the path of the sun, different types of soil in your plot, rainfall, neighbor impacts, and so on. When every action is a response to what you are actively observing, your efforts become more effective and there is less need to undo mistakes.

Questions for discussion:

Do you see a connection between the Shmita Cycle and the concept of observation, as practiced in Permaculture Design?

How often do you jump into a project without a clear and well thought-out plan of action? What value does our society place on fast-paced action? What might be accomplished if we were to dedicate time for observation before action?

Great Law of the Iroquois, Seventh Generation Principle

In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the Seventh generation.

Questions for discussion:

In what areas of your life do you engage in multi-year planning? How different or similar was your life 7 years ago?

How easy (or hard) is it to imagine your life 7 years from now?

Do you think that wrestling with the challenges of Shmita today will help to create healthier, more abundant lives for our children’s children? Consider the source in section 1, source #6 on the tradition of Hakhel, and the role of children there.

7. A Vision Whose Time Has Come

Daniel Taub, Israeli Ambassador to the United Kingdom

By strange coincidence, I will be spending the sabbatical year… on sabbatical. And some weeks into my fallow year, I find myself joining the ranks of the Sabbateans. Sure, it was a mammoth task to clear my desk, tough to leave the shelter of my routine, and even harder to come to terms with the fact that I was not as indispensable as I liked to think. But all this only serves to convince me more of the universal need for time out; time to see ourselves not in terms of what we do, but what we are, and even, what we might become.
Run our lives according to ancient tenets? It wouldn’t be the first time. In a society in which, as recently as the last century, it was the norm for slaves to work from Christmas to Christmas, it was the notion of a universal weekly day of rest – the biblical edict of the Sabbath – that had more impact than any other single institution on preserving the dignity of the individual and improving their quality of life. If the weekly Sabbath could have such an impact, why not the sabbatical year? It may just be that the universal sabbatical is a 3000 year old idea whose time has come.

Judaism’s Next Great Gift to Humankind, Micha Odenheimer, Times of Israel, May 7, 2014

The great prophets and sages of Judaism have always known that Halacha is not a closed system, but a set of practices that point towards a higher ethics and morality that ultimately create a vision for all of humanity, and that the Jewish mission is to carry this message forward towards ultimate acceptance by all of humankind. The stirrings in Israel and the Jewish world around a broadening and universalization of Shmita and its meaning indicate that the time has perhaps come in which, like the Sabbath, the message of Shmita can be heard by a humanity thirsty for a way forward towards a more just, beautiful and sustainable world. If we can articulate this message in contemporary terms, the Jewish people may once again make an enormous contribution to a global culture profoundly in need of guidance, meaning, and a unifying ethics.

Questions for discussion:

The idea of a ‘sabbatical leave’ has become popular in certain professional fields. Beyond this one adaptation of Shmita, do you think this seven-year cycle, in all its components, can evolve into a universal message, similar to how the Sabbath has? Do you think this is a tradition that is meant to be shared with the wider world, and practiced on a global scale?

8. The Narrative of Shmita

The Narrative of Shmita, Nina Beth Cardin, The Sova Blog, February 3, 2014

Let’s face it: Shmita has a marketing problem. It comes only once every seven years. It has little name recognition. It treads perilously close to being confused with the handy but derogating Yiddish word shmata – rag. It has no memorable ritual to ground it; no identifiable symbol associated with it; no compelling narrative to frame it. It is – as presented in the Torah and in tradition – just a series of laws…So how do we capture the power of the seventh year in an image or symbol that can move the spirit? As a start, we have to embed it in a story. Perhaps that is one of our first jobs this coming Shmita year: figuring out how to articulate, frame and fashion Shmita’s irresistible, inspiring, integrated story.

Questions for discussion:

How would you share the message of Shmita with those who have not yet heard of it before, in a clear, compelling way? And even while talking among people who are familiar with Shmita, what part of the tradition resonates with you the most that it becomes the center of your own Shmita ‘story’?

9. Wrapping the Bundle

An Overview of Sabbatical Principles:

  • A Yearlong Shabbat

1. Let Rest & Lie Fallow: Take the time to form a new relationship with work and rest. Allow your land, your body, your workers, your economy of production and consumption, to rest.
2. Release With Faith: We are reminded we do not own our land, resources, or even time, and that these are Divine gifts. To enter into Shmita is to embrace a sense of security that is beyond our control.

  • A Sabbatical Food System

3. Land Stewardship: There is no seeding or plowing of agricultural land during the Shmita Year.
4. Perennial/Wild Harvest: Primary harvests include wild edibles and perennial produce.
5. Eat Local: Harvests must be eaten locally. They cannot be exported.
6. Seasonal Diet: Harvests should be gathered at full ripeness, and eaten in their natural growing season.
7. Animal Care: Wild and domesticated animals must have free access to range and food.

  • Community & Food Security

8. Creating Commons: All private agricultural lands are declared public and become community commons.
9. Shared Harvest: All harvested and stored produce are declared ‘ownerless’ and shared equally.
10. Fair Distribution: When harvesting, only collect specific to your immediate needs and not beyond.
11. Waste Reduction: Harvests have a special sanctity. They cannot be wasted or thrown away.

  • Community & Economic Resiliency

12. Land Value: Land is not a commodity, and has no market value. If land is sold, the price is based on the potential harvest seasons remaining until the Jubilee.
13. De-Commercialization: Produce can be harvested and shared for nourishment and enjoyment; not sold in the marketplace as a commodity.
14. Generous Giving: The value of exchange is based on generous giving and lending practices, without the need for profit or monetary gain.
15. Debt Release: All debts from previous years are canceled at the conclusion of the Shmita Year.

  • Jubilee Release

16. Land Redemption: Land is linked to family heritage and ancestral lineage, and always returns to such tribal connections.
17. Release of Slaves: Slaves are released from their work and are free to return home, to their community and land.

Questions for discussion:

These are the core practices of the ‘Shmita paradigm’ as gathered from the three mentions of Shmita in the Torah, and numerous halachot compiled by the Rambam. Seeing the entire package all at once, can you imagine how all the pieces fit together? If so, what would the complete picture of this puzzle look like?

Where in our culture today are the tensions with these points? Where are some of these points already being observed, even loosely?

10. Blueprint for Sustainability

Rabbi David Seidenberg, Shmita: The Purpose of Sinai

The whole purpose of the covenant at Sinai is to create a society that observed Shmita…The Sabbatical year was the guarantor and the ultimate fulfillment of the justice that Torah teaches us to practice in everyday life, and it was a justice that embraced not just fellow human beings, but the land and all life… In modern parlance we call it “sustainability,” but that’s just today’s buzzword. It’s called Shmita in the holy tongue, “release”—releasing each other from debts, releasing the land from work, releasing ourselves from our illusions of selfhood into the freedom of living with others and living for the sake of all life…This is what it means to “choose life so you may live, you and your seed after you.” (Deut. 30:19) This is what it means to “increase your days and your children’s days on the ground for as long as the skies are over the land.” (Deut. 11:21)

Questions for discussion:

Do you think that Shmita, during biblical times, was a commandment rooted in ‘sustainability’ or is this more of a modern reading?

How might Shmita be used today as a Jewish offering to support the global movement for sustainability? What implications could Shmita have beyond Jewish communities?

Yigal Deutscher, Envisioning Sabbatical Culture

Taken on its own, Shmita is a riddle with no answer. In order to begin to understand the intricate puzzle that is Shmita, we must first connect the 6 years to the 7th, the individual parts of the cycle to its flowering conclusion. The 6 years of the Shmita Cycle are those of cultural design, and the 7th year is the indicator year; the ultimate ‘check-in’ to see how we are collectively doing as a culture. Shmita itself is not an isolated moment in time, but rather a cyclical expression of a vibrant culture rooted in local food systems, economic resiliency, and community empowerment. For us today, the Shmita Cycle can take shape as a story of transition, from the isolated self towards holistic community; from perceived scarcity towards revealed abundance. It is a story so old and ancient that we have forgotten just how much we need it today, now, for our own survival, for our own evolution and growth.

Questions for discussion:

Does thinking about Shmita in terms of a giant cycle of seven make it seem more or less “possible”?

How can we begin connecting the 6 years to the seventh year, so that the values and ideals of Shmita can influence the way we design our economies, food systems, and communities at all times?

Closing questions for discussion:

In which direction would you personally want to see this ‘Shmita movement’ go? What are your burning questions for this conversation? What are some ideas that you would love to see take shape? What is your Shmita Project?

The next Shmita Year begins on Rosh Hashana 5782 (2021-2022). How will we greet this year? And, perhaps just as important, is what we will be doing after Rosh Hashana 5783, when we have an entire Shmita Cycle ahead of us: How shall we, as individuals and communities, begin to prepare, from day one, for the seventh year? What are your seven-year goals, thinking ahead towards the next Shmita Year in 2028?

The discussion continues in section 7!