Shmita & the Unified Religious Personality

Hazon, together with the Jewish Farm School, invite you to be a part of the Shmita Project, whose purpose is to consider the role of Shmita, the Sabbatical year, in our lives. Shmita Project encourages people to do that in two ways: through using the laws and values of Shmita as the conceptual framework for creating a more sustainable Jewish community and a more sustainable world. Second, to encourage practical application of Shmita laws among individuals and communities. In honor of this week’s Torah portion which discusses the laws of Shmita, I would like to explore some of the themes behind the laws.

There are three things which the Torah calls “Shabbat Shabbaton.” The first is Shabbat itself, the second is Yom Kippur, and the third is Shmittah. These three concepts: Shabbat, Yom Kippur and Shmittah, can be seen as pathways to the unification of the spiritual/religious personality. On an ordinary weekday it is all too easy to maintain the distance between our spiritual life and what we might mistakenly consider our ‘secular life.’ We are caught up in the decidedly non-spiritual routine of the workplace, the highway, and the shopping mall. On Shabbat however, we are granted a sanctuary from these matters. We benefit from what Heschel calls ‘a cease-fire in mankind’s war against nature.’ On the Sabbath it is much easier to maintain a unified religious personality, to see the role of religion in our eating, resting and personal relations with others. The effect of this unity, however, is short lived. Even if we sanctify the Sabbath day to its full extent, by Sunday morning we have rejoined the rat-race and our religious personality has been left behind.

The second ‘Shabbat Shabbaton‘, Yom Kippur, presents us with a stronger framework for unification. We fast, we humble ourselves before God, we say in our prayer that “man has no pre-eminence over beast”, we say “al chet” for the sins we have committed. On Yom Kippur it is easy to appreciate the religious importance of each hour of the day and of each deed therein. Yet, despite the depth of our religious experience on Yom Kippur we quickly return to our split personality. Lamentably, those of us who were indifferent to the suffering of others on the day preceding Yom Kippur will retain this indifference after our fasting and confessions come to an end.

The third ‘Shabbat Shabbaton‘, the Shmittah year, differs from both Shabbat and Yom Kippur in that it denies us our retreat into the world of divided domains. From the moment the Shmittah year begins our field becomes public property and the poor will be eating of its produce. On Yom Kippur we say that ‘man has no pre-eminence over beast,’ in the Shmittah year we actually see it – as man and beast alike eat freely of the fields. On the first day of the sabbatical year we can no longer keep the poor and disadvantaged of society out of sight and out of mind. Indeed, they will be harvesting in our very backyard. During the Shmittah year every Jew must accept that his entire life is permeated with religious significance. Our fields and possessions have become the arena for chesed (loving-kindness) and tzedaka (justice) to our fellow man.

Unlike the day after Shabbat and Yom Kippur, the morning following the beginning of Shmittah does not allow us to regress into our divided realms. When we look out into our fields it will still be Shmittah, and the poor will still be enjoying its fruits. It will still be Shmittah tomorrow, and the day after, and next week, and next month until the end of the year. Twenty four hours a day for an entire year we fulfill the mitzvah of Shmittah. We can no longer maintain a dichotomy between our religious and non-religious domains. Regarding Shabbat and Yom Kippur the unification of domains is short-lived – with Shmittah, however, it is forcibly stretched across an entire year. Furthermore, after a year of feeding the poor and dedicating one’s fields to God, we might accept the centrality of religion in all spheres of life. Indeed, the presence and guidance of our tradition should shape every facet of our lives: our working lives, our relations with others, and our relationship with the world – even in the intermediary non-Shmittah years. We should not have to wait seven years to achieve this unified religious personality.

Daniel Bloom,  Communications Associate


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