By Rabbi Danielle Stillman
Judaism is rich with agricultural metaphors that find their roots in the actual practices of our ancestors. Our holidays align with the seasons of the year and of the field, and although we are no longer a nation of farmers, this heritage continues to offer us a meaningful rhythm for our time.
This year in the Hebrew calendar, 5775, is a shmita year. The shmita, or sabbatical year, comes around every seven years, and its origins are in the Hebrew Bible. There we learn, in Exodus 23:10-11:
“For six years you are to sow your land and to gather in its produce, but in the seventh, you are to let it go and to let it be, that the needy of your people may eat, and what remains, the wildlife of the field shall eat. Do thus with your vineyard, with your olive-grove.”
This is a year of rest for the land. According to the Torah, it is also a year of releasing slaves, forgiving debts and setting the economy back to a more level, just, playing field for all. As Rabbi David Seidenberg writes: “Jews are not supposed to farm the land at all in the shmita year (even to water trees), and anything that grows belongs to everyone, even to the wild animals (even to the point of leaving all fences open).” In this explanation, you begin to see the connection between letting the land rest and striving for a more just economy – while the land is resting, whatever it does produce belongs to everyone to collect. The concept of private ownership of that land is shifted, just as it is for debts owed and slaves owned.
But what does all this shmita talk mean to us, here in the United States? After all, the agricultural laws of shmita only apply to the land of Israel, and even in the Land, there have been many ways created to bypass those laws and still stay within the system of halakah. So why should we pay attention to it over here? We can still give our land rest? Can we equalize our social systems, release our slaves, and forgive our debt?
Many Jews are taking the opportunity that the shmita year provides to do just that. Gardeners and farmers are giving their soil a rest. Nati Passow, the director of the Philadelphia-based Jewish Farm School, spoke earlier this year about how he and his neighbor decided to take down the fence between their yards, creating a larger open space for their families to enjoy and a closer relationship between neighbors. This is part of a larger urban trend of de-fencing.
People are also using shmita as a spiritual metaphor – extending the idea of rest for the earth, to rest for the hyper-productive or commercialized parts of our lives. Some have declared a rebalancing of our use of the Internet and social media. For instance, “Fallow Lab,” a project of labshul.org, “is a year-long journey of exploring better balance between our virtual and actual lives” (albeit online, which is ironic). Others are using the year to examine the practices we all have that may be contributing to social inequalities. Even just taking a different approach to one thing in your life this year can feel like a sabbatical – whether it is becoming more sensitive to where the food we eat comes from, or letting some of the habitual pieces of our lives rest for a while.
So whether you are observing shmita of the land or of the soul this year, I wish you a sabbatical year of rest and renewal – and may the positive changes that occur through this continue for many more years to come.