Shmita 101

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On the side of a highway in southern Israel, a field of dried out sunflowers likely strikes observers, initially, as abandoned — a sprawling, desolate pasture, unattended and still except for the inaudible decay of the remaining brown blooms.

Before the field stands a large, yellow poster, with green Hebrew letters declaring, “We observe the shmitayear.”

A fallow field in Israel during the 2007/2008 shmita. Courtesy Yaakov via Wikimedia Commons. 

This seventh year of the Jewish agricultural cycle, where we are called to rest the land and to forgive any outstanding known as the shmita, represents an opportunity to refocus, to strategize, and to ask: what will our community look like seven years from now? Indeed, several commentators suggest that It is the years that lead up to and follow shmita that matter far more than the year itself. It is a period to reflect on the past, and to vision forward.

Shmita is not without its challenges, and not only for those Jewish farmers who seek out loopholes to get around the commandment. The term is translated as “release” — and, realistically, it’s not always easy to let go. Carving out time to rest, to reflect, and to plan can be difficult to prioritize.

But shmita is process-oriented — it is a proactive project of critically analyzing our behaviour towards implementing positive changes. This can be a personal process, reflecting on the way we go about our lives — where our food comes from, what we eat, or how we relate to the environment, for example. But it can also be communal, asking big questions about our community and how we can implement systemic changes with broad impact.

Shoresh is participating in the shmita, and we’re certainly not alone. In this blog post, we take a look at how other organizations are approaching the seventh year, as well as gather some essential resources on the subject with the hopes that you can incorporate some of the deep wisdom of shmita into your life.
Diverse contemporary approaches to shmita

The Shmita ProjectThis collaborative initiative by American organizations Hazon, 7Seeds, and the Jewish Farm School aims to increase awareness and understanding of shmita and its modern applications, and to foster a global network of Jewish organizations and individuals towards implementing shmitavalues into communities worldwide. The project provides comprehensive educational resources on shmita, programming ideas, and several online networks for participants to connect with one another.

Give it a rest: Shmita, social action, social justiceA campaign by the Jewish Social Action Forum (JSAF) in the UK offering educational resources those wishing to participate in the sabbatical year and hosting related events. The theme of the JSAF’s campaign is inequality, drawing attention to stark income gaps in the UK and encouraging individuals to donate to local food banks.

Israeli shmitaA nation-wide coalition based in Israel organized by Teva Ivri, with the goal of ensuring that every person in Israel knows that shmita is happening. The campaign also aims to provide tools for interested individuals to incorporate shmita values into their lives. Their projects include establishing community volunteer banks wherein community members can withdraw or deposit volunteer time; swap markets; free entrance to 15 nature reserves; and advocating for a moratorium on fishing in the Kinneret.

How is Shoresh participating in Shmita?

To honour the Shmita year and its ethic of rest, release, and balance, we are devoting the fall and winter months to strategic planning for our young, small, not-for-profit organization.  In order to do this, we have limited the amount of educational programs we are running and have put the annual Shoresh Food Conference on hold until 5779 (2016).

    Produce for sale at an Israeli shmita store. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Discover shmita: Resources for understanding the sabbatical year

The Shmita Sourcebook — A free, comprehensive resource put together by Hazon containing biblical, rabbinic, and modern texts on shmita, accompanied by commentary and discussion questions.

What is shmita and where did it come from? — A brief, easily digestible history of shmita from Ha’aretz featuring some interesting insights into how ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel observe it.

Envisioning sabbatical culture: A Shmita manifesto — A short collection of poetry, art, and brief essays from 7Seeds that delves into the mythic symbolism of shmita and questions the depth of potential that shmita offers modern Jewish communities. 

Shemita as a Foundation for Jewish Ecological Education — A helpful article from Jewish Education News to understand the connections between shmita and environmental issues.

Rav Kook’s Introduction to Shabbat Ha’Aretz — “What the Sabbath achieves regarding the individual, the Shmita achieves with regard to the nation as a whole,” writes Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, in his 1909 essay in which he offers a halakhic framework for shmita. For this year, Hazon has a released a new translation of the work.

More shmita resources can be found at Hazon.

5 ways you can get started with shmita

  1. Join the conversation on social media by sharing articles and thoughts on Facebook and Twitter with #shmita. Hazon also hosts both a network and a Facebook group for those participating in their Shmita Project.
  2. Host a potluck shmita Shabbat or, looking ahead on the calendar, a shmita seder, using locally-sourced perennial or wild ingredients and preserves. Hazon offers a guide containing sources and discussion questions for hosting a shmita seder.
  3. Organize an exchange meet at your home or synagogue to trade anything from items like clothing, books, or food; to skills, like sewing a button back on a sweater or fixing a wobbly table leg. Rather than buying new or outsourcing assistance, share what you have to offer with your community in the spirit of the shmita principle of local collaboration.
  4. Create a shmita book club with texts focusing on sustainable agriculture and Jewish approaches to environmental issues.
  5. Start your own shmita project — whether it’s planting a garden of perennial plants, or developing long-term 7-year personal goals.

Want more ideas? Check out 100 ways to get started with shmita from 7seeds.

Photo courtesy Yaakov via Wikimedia Commons

More shmita facts: 

  • A line from Leviticus referencing the shmita year can be found on the Liberty Bell in the U.S.: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”
  • Stefan Sagmeister, a New York-based graphic designer who has designed album covers for the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith, closes his studio to clients every seven years for the sabbatical to “experiment” and refresh his creativity and that of his staff. He gave a TED talk about it called “The power of time off.” 
  • In Israel, low-income families can have their debts cancelled this year if they participate in a finance management course as part of the Israeli Shmita initiative.

Danielle Klein is a student at the University of Toronto studying literature, history, and Jewish Studies. She is interning at Shoresh through a service-learning course offered by the Centre for Jewish Studies at U of T called “Community and Identity,” which explores Jewish social philosophy.

© 2018 Shoresh.