Shmita 5775 – Restoring the soul of an ancient tradition

Shmita has become mired in legal, political and economic issues that obscure its historical and ethical origins.

Jewish farming 521 (photo credit: Paul Foer)
Jewish farming 521
(photo credit: Paul Foer)
The Jewish commandment of Shmita obligates every farmer in the Land of Israel, once every seven years, to leave his fields fallow, relinquish ownership of the fruit, let the soil rest, and enable all people (and work animals) to take part in the land’s abundance. During this year, financial debts are canceled, and people receive the opportunity to start a new period of financial freedom. The Shmita year calls for a collective break from the race of modern life – an entire year to focus on community, culture and spirit.
Around the world, Shmita is becoming a focus for Jews concerned with the links between social justice, environmental responsibility and Jewish life. In Israel, however, Shmita has become mired in legal, political and economic issues that obscure its historical and ethical origins.
For most Israelis, the topic of Shmita has been relegated either to the farm (farmers must strongly consider the market implications of their growing practices during the Shmita year) or to the kitchen (kashrut observers must choose between a complex set of Shmita standards). The fierce debates around these issues not only exacerbate tensions between the secular and religious communities, but also detract from the underlying significance of Shmita.
It is time that we transcend these conflicts, and return Shmita to its rightful place in Jewish life – as a once-in-sevenyears chance to slow down, reconnect and rejuvenate.
Next year in Israel, we have the opportunity to focus on Shmita not only through grassroots learning and activism, but also through top-down practical work in a myriad of government, social and educational frameworks. Shmita is a concept with the potential to fundamentally change the existing social order, which is, most would agree, in dire need of changing.
Though Shmita is still months away, preparations are already in full swing.
During the past year, I (as director of Teva Ivri, an NGO promoting Jewish social-environmental responsibility in Israel) have been working overtime to launch the Israeli Shmita Initiative. The Initiative is an impressive platform of individuals, NGOs, government officials and even corporate executives from all points on the Jewish spectrum, all of whom are working together to make Shmita more accessible and alive to the Israeli public in the coming year.
The collective goal of the Israeli Shmita Initiative is to restore the meaning of the Shmita year as a time of personal reflection, learning, social involvement and environmental responsibility in Israel.
Shmita is turning out to be a remarkable source of inspiration, impetus for change, and medium for unprecedented cooperation.
With the support and encouragement of Rabbi Michael Melchior, former MK and president of the Israeli Shmita Initiative, government offices and influential NGOs are collaborating to create several groundbreaking (one might even say “radical”) programs.
One project in the works is a Shmita-year economic recovery program, in which debt forgiveness is the first step on the road to financial rehabilitation for Israeli families in severe need. Recently, MK Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid) declared her intention to make Shmita the focus of the Lobby for Jewish Renewal in 2014 at the Lobby’s annual conference in the Knesset on January 6, 2014, and invited a range of MKs to propose their own meaningful Shmita-year activities.
On the grassroots level, an ongoing series of events and social activities will enable Israelis to relate to Shmita through special opportunities for recreation, culture and spirit. Cultural events will include pluralistic study sessions, musical evenings in community gardens, and nationwide forest “happenings.” Community leaders and educators are beginning to come up with their own local Shmita initiatives.
With the return to the Land of Israel in the past century, Shmita has once again become a practical reality for Jews living in Israel. In an ideal Jewish society, however, the values and practices of Shmita must reach far beyond the realms of agriculture and kashrut.
By placing Shmita back into the hands of the Israeli public on the one hand, and using it as a tool for systemic, government- supported change on the other, there is hope that Shmita will become, as it was once meant to be, a means for restoring both individual and communal balance.
May this Shmita year set a higher standard for Israeli society – one which expresses the country’s Jewish identity by promoting responsibility for its environment and all of its citizens.
The author works with Teva Ivri, a non-profit that advocates environmental responsibility.