Shmittah’s message in the Land of Israel – and beyond (Pt. 2)
In my previous column, I looked at the upcoming shmittah year during which Israeli farmers and consumers are subjected to a multitude of restrictions concerning agriculture in that country.
As I looked over shmittah websites, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. For many, the tone related to the coming year of fallow is – while not quite dread – but of “oh no, here we go again! Yet another curveball that God has thrown at us.” But some others look at shmittah with a sense of anticipation and rare opportunity, and tie the age-old tradition to modern, green sensibilities.
“7SEEDS Envisioning Sabbatical Culture” presents shmittah in a unique lens: through a 60-page downloadable book with poetry and illustrations “weaving language and art into a Shmittah dreamscape.” It addresses these questions:
• What is the deeper mythic symbolism of shmittah?
• What is the hidden invitation that shmittah offers us today?
• How can we design and prepare for renewing and reimaging Sabbatical Culture for our own communities?
An excerpt from the 7SEEDS Shmittah Manifesto: “The word Shmittah literally means ‘to release’: To be able to access the gifts of shmittah, we must first allow for an unclenching, an exhalation, a letting go of a story in which we may have come to believe… It is a story we play out in agriculture, in industry, in the marketplace, in politics, in education, in the wild lands around us, and, perhaps especially, in our own heads… On the shmittah year, this story fades away, the veil is parted, and, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says, we come face-to-face with the realization that ‘the world has already been created and will survive without the help of man.’”
“Every human right, as the Torah understands it – the right to be fed, the right to feed oneself and one’s family, the right to have equal access to resources, the right to be freed from debt and from slavery – are all tied to the observance of shmittah and the cycle of seven years,” writes Rabbi David Seidenberg at Jewcology.com. “The model of justice between human beings is fundamentally grounded in the idea of justice for the land, and for the Earth.”
Although the rules of shmittah do not apply outside the Land of Israel, a growing number of people feel that its underlying messages can be shared everywhere.
Yigal Deutscher of hazon.org writes, “The shmittah question is profound in so many ways: What would it look like to develop our society around a seventh year fallow? This question alone is so valuable… Hidden within the laws of shmittah are potent values around faith, trust, generosity, and community. These values are at the heart of what the shmittah conversation in North America is about. While we are not in Israel, how can we distil the laws of shmittah into clear and potent values?”
The laws of shmittah are quite complex. For example, while some produce will fall under shmittah restrictions as soon as Rosh Hashanah is ushered in this year, others will only see restrictions start a year from now. The two best and most accessible English overviews that I came across are Shmittah 5768: A Practical Guide by the Council of Young Israel Rabbis in Israel and Shemittah for the Clueless by the Orthodox Union which includes Tips for the Tourist.
But why all these rules? And why in the 21st century? Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir says it reminds us that “Man is not the master of the world nor the source of blessing; God is. Our Sabbatical rest, like our Shabbat rest, gives us a break from productive activity to remind ourselves that we are not in control. Shmittah is a lesson in Divine providence.”
Rabbi Zalman Posner adds, “This is a difficult test, undramatic, there is no heroic martyrdom involved. There is no reason for its fulfilment but faith in God, and without faith its fulfillment is impossible.” Rabbi Moshe Bryski puts it succinctly. “Gut-check time can happen in the office, at the bank or in the supermarket.”
Eventually, the shmittah year will draw to a close, and those who sat it out will need to get back into the swing of things. Last time, Haim Step, a gardener at the religious kibbutz of Lav in the lower Galilee joked that, “I have to relearn how to hold a hoe. I started working on my fitness in recent days. That’s it. It’s all over. Now it’s time to start working again.”