The end of the ‘shmita’ year: An opportunity to begin again

Even one of the greatest Jewish philosophers of the modern era admitted that the limitations to creativity and action that Shabbat observance places upon us can be “annoying."

As the sun sets on the last day of 5775 and we usher in the new year, we will simultaneously take leave of the shmita year (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
As the sun sets on the last day of 5775 and we usher in the new year, we will simultaneously take leave of the shmita year
Every week, as Shabbat comes to a close, we mark the departure of the Shabbat Queen with a short havdala ceremony, as one weekly cycle ends and the next begins.
Often, havdala leaves a bittersweet taste in its wake. On the one hand, we are forced to lower the curtain on our much-needed day of rest, and return to the mundane concerns of our daily life. On the other hand, the day’s end also frees us from the many prohibitions of Shabbat.
Even one of the greatest Jewish philosophers of the modern era, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, admitted that despite its holiness, the limitations to creativity and action that Shabbat observance places upon us can be “annoying.”
In much the same way, as the end of the Jewish year approaches, we are on the cusp of a new annual cycle as well as a new seven-year shmita cycle. As the sun sets on the last day of 5775 and we usher in the new year, we simultaneously take leave of the shmita year, its unique holiness – and its unique restrictions. Although there is no havdala ceremony to mark this transition, we would be well served by putting some thought into the start of a new seven-year cycle.
The desire to live in the Land of Israel is multifaceted. For some of us, it is mainly an outgrowth of our awareness and desire to connect to this land’s history, while for others the excitement of building Israel’s future is the strongest bond.
There are those for whom Israel is a natural expression of our peoplehood, while others are swept up by the holiness of this unique place – holiness which is often associated with the very earth beneath our feet, the ground on which our patriarchs and matriarchs carved out our national ethos, the fields and plains that have served as the bedrock of our national history for millennia.
Jewish law has always addressed this holiness, serving as a tool to heighten our awareness and connection to the land itself. The laws of the sabbatical year are a primary example, but they are much more: By encompassing aspects of spirituality, social justice and socioeconomics, they mirror many other facets of our national existence.
Allowing the land to “take a break” is sound agricultural practice. It is also healthy, both physically and emotionally, for the farmer – although it is far less healthy for the farmer’s bank account.
The laws of shmita seem to compound the difficulty. Not only is it forbidden to work the land in the seventh year, but the land and all its produce become ownerless for the duration of the year. Anyone and everyone, humans and animals, are equally entitled to enjoy what the Land of Israel brings forth.
It is therefore not difficult to understand why the laws of shmita have historically been quite difficult to observe. Farmers and, by extension, the entire economy were faced with a Herculean challenge, as the nation’s finances shifted to “faith-based economics.” In a preindustrial society, alternative food sources were scarce, even nonexistent; the prospect of hardship must have been overwhelming, and the required level of faith in God extreme. And yet, the sanctions and consequences spelled out by the Torah and the prophets are severe: Failure to observe the shmita will result in exile.
No wonder, then, that at the end of the shmita year, not unlike the end of Shabbat, our feelings are mixed. For some, a sigh of relief is in order – not only relief from the prohibitions and limitations on proactive working of the land, not only the rush of adrenaline that Israel’s farmers feel as they are permitted to rekindle their active love affair with the land, but, in recent times, relief from the divisiveness that has come to be associated with shmita observance.
There may be no area of Jewish law marked with as high a level of discord as shmita, whose observance is marred by competing kashrut sensibilities that are often diametrically opposed to one another. The irony is poignant, since even the most secular modern Israeli is familiar with the famous adage, borrowed from rabbinic commentary to the Torah, “What does shmita have to do with Mount Sinai?” Today, this phrase usually points out that two subjects are completely unrelated, but a cynical reinterpretation of it may aptly describe today’s shmita observance: There is no connection between shmita, the most fractious of all subjects, and Mount Sinai, where the nation stood “as one man, with one heart.”
Perhaps we can draw from another aspect of our weekly experience. As Shabbat wanes, we begin looking ahead to the next Shabbat. For some, these thoughts and musings are of a culinary nature: Which food or wine would we like to have at our next Shabbat table? Others look ahead to the social opportunities, planning who their next guests will be or with whom they would like to spend their next day of rest.
As the shmita year comes to an end, we should be thinking along these same lines: How will the next sabbatical year look? What does shmita mean in a modern, mainly non-agrarian, industrialized society? How can we make shmita more relevant and more significant to our lives in the modern State of Israel? How can we improve the shmita experience and reconnect with its original purpose? Can we find better ways to tap into the social underpinnings of these laws and apply them in a postindustrial economy? How can the benefits and the burdens of shmita observance be shared among all sectors of society? Is there a way to apply debt cancellation, an integral part of shmita observance, in our current financial system, and to allow Judaism’s vision of social justice to help bridge the vast chasm between Israel’s haves and have-nots? These are questions that we should address right now, as we end one shmita cycle and begin again. If we put shmita on the back burner and wait six years to ask these questions, it may be too late to formulate any meaningful response to the challenges and opportunities the sabbatical year holds in store.
As the shmita year draws to a close, we would do well to ponder two diametrically opposed talmudic teachings.
The first is dark and somewhat ominous. In a discussion of the destruction of both the first and second Jewish commonwealths, the sages note (Ta’anit 29a) that in both cases the destruction took place in the post-shmita year. Apparently the Jewish people had not properly observed shmita; society, unraveled from within by discord and disheartened by a lack of faith, was unable to withstand the external threats it faced.
However, on a more positive note, the Talmud (Megila 17b) records a tradition that, ultimately, redemption will come at the end of the shmita cycle. In a sense, this upbeat teaching is a challenge. Proper observance of shmita creates social justice and unity, and these, without a doubt, are the key to our national and personal redemption.