Yedidya Julian Sinclair

Shmittah in high-tech?

While they don't till the land, there are other areas where execs can 'let go'
View of Kiryat Atidim, the hi-tech business park of Tel Aviv (Photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
View of Kiryat Atidim, the hi-tech business park of Tel Aviv (Photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Could we find ways to make the values of shmittah, (the biblical sabbatical year) real in an economy that is no longer agrarian but driven by high-tech?

That’s a big question in the ferment of new thinking and doing that’s bubbling up in Israel around the upcoming shmittah, that begins in six months timeThe coal-face of the phenomenal Israeli high-tech sector is at labs and laptops. We are not working on the land. The closest I come each day to getting dirt underneath my fingernails is when it’s my turn to dump out the black gunk that accumulates in the filter of the coffee machine.

This year, a group of tech executives has developed a very cool list of 49 ways in which we could make shmittah real in Israeli high-tech. The guiding spirit of the initiative was Yossi Tzuria, co-founder and former Chief Technology Officer of digital security pioneers NDS, one of the most successful of all Israeli high-tech companies

The visionary work by Tzuria and his team flows from a deep understanding of the values of shmittah and a creative yet authentic and fairly realistic attempt to translate them into the high-tech context.

For example, the meaning of the word shmittah means letting go. In the 7th year the Bible commands farmers to let go of their exclusive ownership rights over their fields and allow everyone – the poor, needy and even animals to eat freely from what’s growing there (Exodus 23:11).

Could we let go a little of things that we hold on to very tightly as exclusively ours’ and share them more widely? What if companies would donate to a “patent pool” patents of inventions that were not part of their core business and anyone anywhere in the world could use them on an open source basis? What if managers would only hold their roles for six years at a time and then would have to let go and experience another position in the company? Could companies allow low-price or even free distribution of some of their output during the shmittah enabling poorer consumers to experience products that they could not otherwise afford?

Or take the core shmittah value of renewal. In the 7th year farmers got to take a year off from working the land (Leviticus 25:4). They devoted the time to rest, regeneration and studying Torah. We can’t shut down the high-tech economy one year out of every seven. But could we find ways nonetheless to enact this value in ways that would benefit everyone by catalysing a renewal of inventiveness and creativity?

What about free classes in your company enabling staff to learn about the latest science in their field – or any other field that interests them? What if (and I particularly like this idea) the company email stopped working outside normal business hours, so that emails sent at 2 am would bounce back with an auto-message explaining that this year we are working to get work-life balance back in whack.

And to take one more key value, every sabbatical year the Bible mandates Hakel (Deuteronomy 31:10-13) a society-wide taking stock of how we are doing, measured against ours’ – and the Torah’s highest aspirations.

Imagine if in the shmittah there were company-wide, industry-wide or global gatherings assessing how our technologies are impacting society and how all this ingenuity could be better directed in the coming seven years to addressing the world’s most pressing challenges?

Underlying this initiative is the profound insight that whereas the source of wealth in the Bible was land, today it is knowledge. Concentration of knowledge in a small sector of the population leads to concentration of wealth and power. Many of these suggestions are about sharing that knowledge more broadly and equally. Government has a role here, through education, but is not the whole solution. The people who have the knowledge i.e the tech companies, innovators and entrepreneurs are in the best position to share it, or empower others to acquire it. 

One of the things that I love about this list is the way it pushes the Israeli high-tech industry to raise its game and become even better. The frenetic pace of high-tech can be bad for work-life balance and lead to burn out. These ideas point to how high-tech could be a place of life-long learning and growth.

Moreover, the dynamism and success of Israeli high-tech have far outstripped other sectors of the economy and so unintentionally contributed to the socio-economic gaps in Israeli society. Around 20% of the workforce is in high-tech; too many of those in other areas have been left behind. Shmittah-inspired thinking points to how the fruits of the tech-industry’s astonishing success could be more widely shared.

Finally, although Israeli-founded companies have had a big impact for good in the world (Netafim in drip irrigation, Luz in solar energy, notable companies in pharma agro-tech and bio-tech, for example), the potential for Israeli ingenuity to address huge global problems is far greater.

Imagine what we could do if, every seven years we took stock of how to orient our thinking towards solving the biggest, most burning human challenges in the fields of energy, water, education, food, environment and health?

Imagine if, having created a world-leading tech industry, Israel, inspired by shmittah-thinking, would become a world-leader in the ethics and social responsibility of its tech industry.

In the spirit of shmittah, Tzuria emphasizes that these ideas are hefker – nobody’s private, personal property. Discuss them, add to them, experiment, pick them up and run with them!

Read Start-Up Israel to keep your finger on the pulse of Israeli high-tech and innovation!

About the Author
Yedidya Julian Sinclair works in the Israeli clean tech world. Before moving to Israel he was as an economist in the UK government. In his spare time he is a writer,translator, urban tour guide and teaches Jewish texts and sources. He holds semicha, degrees from Oxford and Harvard and lives in Jerusalem with his wife and five children.
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