Shmita – bringing balance to your year of rest

For those farming in the land of Israel, shmita may present a very specific set of challenges, though of course the rabbis also provided for plenty of ways around this.

farmer with grapes  (photo credit: courtesy)
farmer with grapes
(photo credit: courtesy)
Seven years ago, shmita made a tiny bit of a splash. There were some conversations about Palwins disappearing off the shelves, and fruit and veg going up in price in Israel, but beyond one or two other articles there was very little to be said for this ancient cyclical system. Over the past few months though, the conversation has been changing. Educators, Jewish farmers and ecologists from around the world have been excitedly planning and debating, trying to work out how we might take some pretty radical ideas and apply them to our 21st century lives, whether rural or urban, communally or deeply personally.
Shmita is a biblically mandated year of release. Every seven years the land is rested, food is available pretty much to anyone passing, and the Torah frames this as a Shabbat for the land, so that the poor of the land shall eat. On top of that there are also references to debt release and to the release of slaves. So to the modern reader shmita presents itself as an amazing opportunity to explore care of the earth, modern farming and food production, debt and just economic models, and the enormous challenge of modern slavery, whether literally or metaphorically.
For those farming in the land of Israel, shmita may present a very specific set of challenges, though of course the rabbis also provided for plenty of ways around this. Yet even within Israel, this year’s shmita is being played with, so that everyone can get involved and explore what release might mean for them, what economic justice might look like, what it means to allow access to the land for all. Responses vary from tech industry sabbaticals to open access to parks, and a campaign from The Israeli Shmita Initiative encouraging Israelis to take time off during the shmita year. It has the support of MKs and is encouraging Israelis to talk about more than the price of fruit this shmita year.
So where does that leave those of us outside Israel? Just as festivals which were focused on Temple ritual and life have been re-invented and re-spun to bring meaning and continuity to a post-Temple and Diaspora reality, why shouldn’t those outside Israel use the deeper meanings and themes of shmita to create change, deepen their Jewish experience of time, and challenge the status quo as they find it, whether that be in environmental challenges, our consumption, our enslavement to hand-held devices, or concerns around food production.
Personally I am hoping to put together a seven-point shmita manifesto, encouraging myself to explore real change in the behaviors I believe enslave myself, enslave others, damage the environment and damage my relationships. They will range from turning off my email from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., and a shopping ban for the year (apart from food). And as Shabbat feels different all day, I would like shmita to feel different all year, and so hope to create or share liturgy for each of the holidays that is shmita-specific. A Rosh Hashana Shmita Seder has already been created by Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, and I am working on Succot Shmita Ushpizin. Others are taking on challenges such as giving up car ownership or meat-eating for the duration. Communities are also getting involved, running events and raising money.
But importantly the Jewish Social Action Forum (JSAF) is also trying to take a lead, suggesting projects behind which the UK Jewish community might glavanize, and creating education resources for use in day schools, synagogue religion schools and youth movements.
They are asking communities and groups to collect food for local food banks on Mitzvah Day (in mid November), and throughout the shmita year. Shmita asks us to ensure the poor can eat, and gives, in theory, equal access to all food to all people for the duration. What would it look like if all our unused (and indeed often wasted) food was part of a community storehouse and if we couldn’t claim ownership over anything more than was necessary to meet our immediate needs? It’s radical, but it might just push us into really living the values the Torah asks of us. Shmita embodies a radical set of values. It isn’t saying consumption is always bad, or food production is a terrible thing.
What it is saying is that it is human tendency to perhaps let these things get a bit out of control, and so every seventh year (just as with every seventh day) we need to press the reset button, and bring a bit of balance. What will you be trying to bring balance to this year? The author is a rabbi and community educator in the Movement for Reform Judaism.