Two ‘shmitot’

There is something to be said about the zealous adherence to Halacha.

farmer with grapes  (photo credit: courtesy)
farmer with grapes
(photo credit: courtesy)
The nature of Halacha is such that an inordinate emphasis is placed on details. Shmita (the jubilee year) which begins this Rosh Hashana, is no exception.
Every seven years, enormous media attention focuses on the intricacies of the laws governing shmita, as the world’s only Jewish state does it best to combine adherence to ancient traditions with the running of a modern democracy.
Technical terms in Jewish law become a part of public parlance. Large swathes of Israelis learn, for instance, that it is forbidden simply to throw out fruits and vegetables that grew in the Land of Israel, because that would be a desecration of their unique holiness – kedushat shvi’it in Hebrew.
The prohibition against exporting these fruits and vegetables outside the borders of the Land of Israel arouses interest as well.
And of course there is the controversy surrounding heter mechira, a loophole in Jewish law that allows Jewish farmers to get around the prohibition against plowing, planting and selling vegetables grown during the shmita year. Similar to the practice of selling Jewish-owned hametz to a gentile before Passover, it entails temporarily selling Jewish-owned land to a non-Jew before the shmita year, thereby abrogating the halachic prohibitions governing agricultural activities.
Of course, many religious Jews do not rely on this leniency, and this causes tension between Jewish farmers trying to make a living and institutions such as the IDF, which have to cater to the needs of religious soldiers.
For many Israelis, all of this emphasis on the letter of the law is a maddening preoccupation with unimportant details and a disregard for the bigger ideals behind the shmita year. As many Orthodox Jews split hairs over the minutiae of the laws of shmita, claim critics, the larger issues of social justice, equality, environmental sensitivity and acknowledgment of mankind’s limitations – all values reflected in the biblical commands governing the shmita year – are utterly ignored.
THIS SHMITA year more than in previous shmita years, there has been a concerted effort to give voice to some of these underlying values. The Israeli Shmita Initiative is perhaps the most ambitious attempt to turn this shmita year into a meaningful experience for Israelis.
During the shmita year, argue those behind the initiative, we should all try to be less materialistic and try to devote more time to deepening connections with family and loved ones. We should develop a heightened sense of social responsibility and look at nature as something more than simply a resource to be exploited.
One example of a project planned for this year is the creation of community volunteer banks, in which members of the community “deposit” volunteer time that those in need can “withdraw,” provided they, too, “deposit” their own volunteer time.
Other examples include swap-markets; fruit harvesting for the needy; designated Jewish study days in municipalities and business that will focus on shmita-year ideals; discounted entrance fees at national parks and reserves; debt forgiveness for the poor; and even a moratorium on fishing in the Kinneret.
What all these initiatives have in common is a concern less with the precise dictates of Halacha and more with the underlying principles on which shmita is based. When, for instance, the Bible commands the farmer to relinquish his right to plow and harvest, this can be seen as a call to eschew materialism and recognize the limitations of man’s rights as an owner of material things.
We should not lose sight of these larger goals. Still, there is something to be said about the zealous adherence to Halacha. With all their preoccupation with the intricacies of the law, the religious faithful have ensured Jewish continuity in the face of assimilation and modernity. Abstract and universalistic ideals such as social justice and environmentalism might be easier to identify with than strict loyalty to seemingly trivial or incomprehensible dictates, but they often lack concrete substance and are difficult to apply to real-life situations.
As we begin a new year – 5775 – we should keep in mind the importance of both aspects of the shmita year. As a nation living in a sovereign state, remaining faithful to our tradition keeps strong our link with previous generations of Jews. Reminding ourselves of the high ideals expressed in the laws of shmita encourages the perfection of our society and keeps alive the aspiration to become a true light unto the nations.