“Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather in the produce thereof. But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath unto the LORD; thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard.” (Leviticus 25:3-4)
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Shmita, the sabbatical year, begins this Wednesday evening, coinciding with Rosh Hashanah. The practical halakhot, Jewish laws, pertaining to Shmita most directly impact those of us living in Israel, but there are implications for those outside of Israel, too. Beyond observing the laws of Shmita because we are obliged to under our covenantal relationship with G-d, we can use this holiday to embody holiness through our eating, and through our interactions, throughout the sabbatical year.
To understand the care we need to exercise in order to observe Shmita properly, we can begin by reflecting on its more familiar parallel: the seventh day, Shabbat. As the Talmud teaches us in Tractate Shabbat, one who prepares on Friday eats on Shabbat. So too with preparation for Shmita; in the sixth year, we begin harvesting to establish a stockpile of produce for the seventh year.
As Rabbi Michael Feuer, in his Shmita Overview, explains, the geographical boundaries for Shmita observance are the borders of Biblical Israel, which exclude much of the south of the modern State of Israel and all land outside it. Produce grown hydroponically is exempt and so too, according to some halakhic authorities, land in Israel that is owned by non-Jews.
In its purest form, Shmita requires a farmer to relinquish his land and the produce on it for the year, allowing others to come and take what is now hefker, ownerless, and not to work it himself nor to hire others to work it, Jew or non-Jew. The implications extend well into the eighth year, as no planting is allowed in the seventh.
A solution that does not require a farmer to abandon his land is for him to transfer ownership to the Beit Din, rabbinical court, which then, as a communal entity, supervises limited working of the land, and receives payment for the labor and costs it incurs, not for the produce itself. Due to the extra handling involved, this produce tends to be more expensive.
One perceived benefit to this collective method of agriculture is that the produce is invested with kedushat shevi’it, sanctity of the seventh year. This sanctity requires special care when preparing and eating, including respectful disposal of any waste. Kedushat shevi’it produce must be consumed in Israel, as its holiness remains connected to the land.
So what really is the “benefit” of kedushat shevi’it? It’s clearly not convenient or tangible. Rather, it’s purely spiritual. Imagine for a moment that every bite one takes of this Shmita produce is imbued with a special ingredient: holiness.
We are what we eat. During Shmita, we have the opportunity to continuously elevate our eating and ourselves.
Every week on Shabbat we elevate ourselves through our resting. According to Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, ”Rest, in Sabbath sense, is not interfering with nature nor exhibiting mastery over it. It is a state of peace between man and nature... We must leave nature untouched. We must not demonstrate our mastery over nature, nor change it in any way.” The parallel between Shabbat and Shmita is again very clear.
However, we shouldn’t make the mistake of understanding the non-interference inherent in this resting as an inactive state. One who would sleep through the 25 hours of Shabbat, while technically fulfilling its requirement, would miss its essence; the opportunity to connect with oneself, with family, with friends, and with G-d. A farmer, observing Shmita in an agrarian economy, has a year to connect, to fulfill his higher purpose. Collectively, for the Jewish people, fulfilling our higher purpose begins with the study of our holy texts, something we have the extra time for, given to us as a gift, every week on Shabbat.
Shmita, which means “release,” purposefully begins on Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Tishrei holiday cycle. This is a time of judgment, of heshbon ha’nefesh, accounting for our lives over the last year. It’s also a time of maximum opportunity, of wiping the slate clean, of rediscovering what is most important in our lives, of deciding, once again, what type of human beings we aspire to become.
Shmita also reminds us of our intrinsic bond to the Land of Israel, to its holiness, our reason for being here, our opportunity to connect with it and its inhabitants. When we take connection to its fullest expression through exercising concern and focusing attention, we embody holiness, which then becomes our paradigm for renewing and elevating all of our relationships – with other people, with G-d and even with the land we dwell in – throughout the sabbatical year. In this manner, we fulfill the Biblical commandment, “Ye shall be holy; for I the LORD your God am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2)
This year, in our teshuva process, that of return, instead of limiting ourselves to fixing our faults, through which perhaps we can achieve incremental improvement, let’s try for a game changer, something really positive and impactful. With Shmita as our guide for release of control and for the care that we must invest, let’s all of us bring more holiness into our lives through the relationships that we cultivate; starting with our relationship with ourselves, then extending to others around us, and then, even with G-d.
Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a teacher and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations. The opinions expressed are personal and not representative of any organization with which he is associated.