This Rosh Hashanah will mark the beginning of a Shmita or Sabbatical year. According to the Torah — as featured in this week’s Torah reading, Behar — every seven years the land must be allowed to rest “a Sabbath for YHVH.” Working the land is forbidden; so is harvesting more than what you immediately need. Property rights are suspended, an amnesty on debt is enacted, ownership is transcended — equal access to the land and all its bounty is the rule of the day for all, human beings and the beasts of the field alike.
Since the return of the Jewish people to Zion, and to the cultivation of its land, Shmita has been associated in the minds of Israelis mostly with technical questions about whether the laws prohibiting food production during Shmita can be halachically circumvented. The religious Zionists as a whole say yes, the Haredim as a whole say no, and together, the discourse around piety and identity has been allowed to obscure the enormous social justice and environmental implications that Shmita has if not read — or not only read — through the prism of contemporary notions of Halacha.
Judaism’s great spiritual teachers have long advocated a broader reading of Shmita. The founder of Chabad, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, more than two hundred years ago, wrote that during the Shmita year a light shines into our world from beyond creation, and that all creatures, human and animal, are transformed into equals in the face of this transcendent light.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook — whose ruling allowing the temporary sale of land during Shmita to a Muslim is at the center of the Halachic controversy around Shmita — understood Shmita as a practice aimed at loosening the hold of free market capitalism and its excesses on the human spirit: Writing in the introduction to his Halachic treatise “The Sabbath of the Land”, he describes the effect Shmita should rightly have on society:
A year of equality and of tranquility, expansion of the soul and its widening towards the directness of the divine which sustains life with loving kindness, without defined private property, and without the right of insistence (that what is mine is mine) and a divine peace that dwells on all that has the breath of life in its nostrils…There is no violating of the holy that comes with insistence on private property in all the produce that is produced this year, and the desire for riches, which is aroused through commerce, is quieted.
As Shmita approaches this year, a broader, deeper reading of Shmita is being resurrected by a coalition of Jewish forces in Israel and abroad. In the political sphere, MK Ruth Calderon and other Knesset members are promoting Shmita-inspired debt forgiveness for some of Israel’s poor, along with other initiatives. Siach, a network which includes NGO’s from Israel, North America and Europe, recently held a conference in London to brainstorm about how to turn Shmita into a meaningful practice in today’s Jewish communities. Teva Ivri, a Jewish environmental NGO is spearheading the Israeli wing of the Shmita movement, promoting an array of new Shmita practices.
The ultimate hope of Shmita activists is that the principles underpinning Shmita will begin to penetrate the global culture in much the same way as the idea of a weekly rest day eventually spread from Judaism to nearly every corner of the globe, becoming a major linchpin and catalyst in the ongoing movement for human and worker’s rights. I emphasize principles, because no one expects Shmita to be embraced as-is. Norman Gottwald, an American biblical scholar, expressed it well:
So we are left with the logically perplexing but morally empowering paradox that the Bible is both grossly irrelevant in direct application to current economic problems and incredibly relevant in vision and principle for grasping opportunities and obligations to make the whole earth and its bounty serve the welfare of the whole human family.
In other words, our task is to imagine and reflect on how Shmita should and could be observed and celebrated today. This requires a double feat of the heart and mind: analyzing and intuiting the intent and meaning of Shmita as it appears in our texts and traditions while understanding our current context and reality, how it has been constructed and how it might be healed.
Biblical commandments work on many levels simultaneously and have great potency, meaning they can be interpreted in many ways. Still, echoing Rav Kook, as well as Gottwald, I would like to suggest several ways in which Shmita speaks in a multi-faceted way to what I see as perhaps the greatest challenge facing the world in this new century. I mean the way in which the search for economic growth, led by gigantic corporations, when not held within a larger vision of the common good of humanity and all living things, threatens to create and make permanent gross inequalities that make progress towards democracy, freedom, and human well being impossible. By prioritizing the immediate and unchecked use of land, water, living organisms and the earth’s atmosphere, these same forces of growth imperil the incredibly intricate tapestry of life on which we all depend.
Shmita must be understood, first and foremost, as part of a cluster of commandments that unite both the narrative of the Torah and its normative economic and social commandments. They include the Sabbath, the Jubilee year in which land and thus wealth are redistributed, the amnesty on debt, and the prohibition against interest (given in the Torah within the context of the Jubilee) and much more.
The thrust of these commandments is to insure that the accumulation of wealth is balanced and held within a larger vision of society in which the needs of each human being for security, work, nutrition and wellbeing trump any notion of property as an absolute right. Every seven years we are reminded that in a deep sense, the earth belongs to everyone equally. Every 50 years, during the jubilee, we learn that the land and resources cannot truly be sold or owned: “For mine is the whole earth, you are strangers and sojourners with me.”
As someone who has been working and writing from the impoverished corners of the earth for the past twenty years, I can say with assurance that 90 percent of extreme poverty strikes populations who are landless or have only tiny plots of land, while others have enormous holdings; landlessness leads to terrible and debilitating debt through high interest loans, and as a result, impoverished villagers become even more miserable slum dwellers. If an appropriate form of the jubilee and the prohibition against interest — transformed to work in the modern context — were adapted, poverty would effectively be wiped out.
Shmita goes one step further, beyond the realm of the human. The Torah says that Shmita is a Sabbath of the land — “And the land shall rest a Shabbat of YHVH”. In parshat Bechukotai, the Torah warns that if the Shmita is not kept, exile will ensue — and then “The land will be satisfied with its Sabbaths.” The idea of the land itself as an independent, living entity is the continuation of a theme already introduced at the very beginning of the Torah, when Cain is told that “The land will not continue to give its power to you” because the land cannot tolerate murder. In a sense, the entire drama of the Bible is about the quest of a group of human beings, the people of Israel, to live in peace on the land. When morality and justice are violated, the land itself shall “vomit out” its inhabitants.
One can read the Shmita, of course, in a narrow Halachic sense: it only applies in the Land of Israel, and the violations that are punishable are specific and technical. But 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.