The Messiah poked his head around the door of a committee room in the Knesset one Monday morning a few weeks ago. His appearance was not widely reported in the mainstream media, but it did not go unnoticed by all of those present.

The occasion was a discussion of MKs, ministers, advisers and assorted activists about the coming shmittah (Sabbatical) year. It was convened by the extraordinary Ruth Calderon. Not content with demonstrating from the Knesset podium that learning Talmud is too good to be left to the religious, Calderon is now proposing that in practice too, thoughtful and innovative implementation of Jewish praxis could enrich and unify the public life of the State of Israel.

A parade of ministers, advisers and Knesset members spanning left, right and centre, religious, traditional and secular, spoke in favour of initiatives to enact the shmittah’s values of community, equality and sustainability in public policy next year.

Environment Minister, Amir Peretz discussed plans for a partial moratorium on fishing in the Kinneret to allow the replenishment of almost exhausted fish stocks, in the spirit of the shmittah’s command to let the land rest and renew itself. (Leviticus 25)

The Welfare Ministry announced proposals to raise 10,000 Israeli families from the curse of  crippling debt, allocating 70 million NIS for debt relief, and working together with banks, utilities and NGOs. This would be a practical and feasible fulfilment of the Torah’s command to forgive debts in the shmittah year. (Deuteronomy 16).

The Education Minister, Shai Piron, declared that learning about shmittah would be part of the school curriculum next year in religious and non-religious schools alike. MKs Aliza Lavie and Shuli Meullam (yes, both women) gave moving mini shiurim, teaching sources that conveyed personal visions of what the shmittah year could be.

Anyone who’s been paying attention will note that this is not shmittah as we have known it in the State of Israel. The sabbatical year has degenerated into an unedifying septennial squabble between different religious factions in which rabbis denounced other rabbis for their excessive leniency and communities boycotted each other’s kosher certifications.

The origins of this sorry situation lay in Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s bold and compassionate support of the “heter mechirah” leniency of selling the land. In advance of the 1909-10 shmittah, he saw that rigorous observance of the commandment to cease agricultural work for a year could starve the pioneering Jewish farmers and uproot the precarious foothold they had established in the Land of Israel. He therefore permitted the farmers to sell their land to non-Jews for the duration of the shmitta, allowing them to work and avoid impoverishment.

The most radical part of Rav Kook’s position was its meta-halachic basis. He was adamant that any solution had to work, at least potentially, for the whole Jewish population of the yishuv. He was not willing to accept, for example, the idea of making a fund-raising trip to Europe to raise funds for just the religious farmers who didn’t work during the sabbatical.

Rav Kook believed that returning to Israel necessarily transformed our understanding of the boundaries of community. Halachah could no longer speak only to the religious sub-sector; it had to have something relevant and coherent to say to the entire Jewish community living here.

This assumption made the heter mechirah anathema to the haredi community. Its saintly leader, the Hazon Ish saw no justification for sweeping leniencies in the laws of shmittah in order to make them practical for those outside the religious fold. The audience for halachah consisted of those who observed it, not those who didn’t. This fundamental difference of approach made the question of whether you “held by the heter” a lightning rod of increasingly bitter controversy between the haredi and religious Zionist camps.

These disputes reached the pits in the last shmittah year of 2007-8.  Until then, the Chief Rabbinate had given gave its kosher certification to all heter mechira produce. In 2007, however, the Haredi then-Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, (now under investigation for fraud, taking bribes, money laundering and tax evasion) announced that any Rabbinate-employed city rabbi who did not support the heter was allowed to revoke the kosher certification of restaurants and hotels in his city that bought heter mechira produce.

Metzger created an absurd situation in which the body that implemented the heter could also refuse to recognize it. Confusion and anger reigned. Rabbis and religion were subjected to unprecedented levels of ridicule. The Supreme Court intervened and ruled that the Rabbinate could not revoke the heter nechira without a public process. The New York Times covered the story, and your humble correspondent himself underwent an excruciating interview on NPR attempting to explain these shenanigans.

Quite a few people silently swore “never again” after the shambles of the last shmittah. Among them was former MK Rabbi Michael Melchior who, together with Einat Kramer founded the “Shmittah Yisraelit” initiative in 2010. Their goal was to make the sabbatical year a public celebration and enactment of the shmittah’s ideals of social solidarity, equality before God and living in harmony with the land. The modest proposals announced that morning in the Knesset were among the first fruits of their work but assuredly will not be the last.

The biblical shmittah and Jubilee commandments are immensely radical. They legislate a septenial time out in Jewish economic life, a year of spiritual renewal, a holiday for the land, a year-long cease-fire in the economic struggle of all against all, temporary abolition of many of the rights of private property, a leveling of rich and poor, man and beast, earth and earth-dwellers, an amnesty on debt and, every half a century, a reset on the vicissitudes of the free-market. In sum, these mitzvot represent a periodic challenge to the whole socio-economic order.  

It is not surprising then that the history of these commandments has been marked by conflict between their exacting requirements and the demands of economic reality, (the heter mechirah controversy being a case in point.) Rav Kook, like Maimonides before him (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, 11:1) suggests that they will not be fully observed until messianic times.

Can we take practical steps towards a richer realization of shmittah that fall short of the messianic culmination, yet bring it tangibly closer to fulfilment? Could we find ways to make the values of shmittah real in an economy that is no longer agrarian but driven by hi-tech? Could shmittah stop being another excuse for strife and start to become a source of societal solidarity?

The “yes” to these question that echoed through the Knesset holds out hope that Judaism may yet have something surprising to say to the whole of Israeli society.