Putting Shmita Back On The Jewish Map

By Nigel Savage, President, Hazon

Cycles of time are central to Jewish life, and they are amongst the most significant of our contributions to the world around us. The modern weekend of western tradition is simply the extension of the Sabbath from one day to two; without the Sabbath there would be no weekend. And without the Torah, and the Shabbat of Jewish tradition, there would be no Sabbath. In practice, today, Shabbat remains central to Jewish life, though Jewish people observe Shabbat differently from each other. But it’s literally impossible to imagine Jewish life without Shabbat.

And just as Shabbat punctuates the week, so too the chaggim – the holidays – punctuate the year. Tu b’Shvat and Purim and Pesach herald the spring. Shavuot marks early summer. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur provoke self-reflection as a new Jewish year begins. Succot celebrates the harvest and the end of summer. Chanukah offers light in the darkness and the knowledge that a new natural cycle will shortly begin.

In recent years there’s been a flowering of interest and awareness in the rhythms of the calendar. The every-28-years blessing of the sun was a big deal when it happened in 2009; I hope I’ll be around to celebrate the next one in 2037. More people probably count the omer, today, than did so a dozen years ago. New books have come out looking at the entire period from Rosh Chodesh Elul, through to Simchat Torah, as a single period of time, focused on teshuvah. More people each cycle seem to be learning daf yomi – a seven-and-a-half cycle of Jewish life that is an early twentieth-century innovation, but one which shows signs of lasting for a long time to come.

The one long cycle of Jewish life that remains relatively unexplored is the cycle of Shmita. The sabbatical year is no less central in the Torah than is Shabbat itself. Six days you should work, and on the seventh you should rest; six years you should work the land, and engage in commerce; in the sixth year (somehow) the land should rest, you should rest, and debts should be annulled. After 49 days, seven cycles of seven, the 50th day is Shavuot. And after 49 years, seven cycles of seven, the 50th is Yovel – the Jubilee year.

In a formal halachic sense – in terms of Jewish law – Shmita only applies in Israel. In practical terms, therefore, Shmita becomes headline news once every seven years when, invariably, there are arguments about how it should be observed in practice in the modern land and state of Israel. There is a good deal of work in Hebrew about Shmita, what it means, how it can and should be observed, and so on.

Even so, inside Israel Shmita is mostly the intellectual property of the orthodox and ultra-orthodox. Until perhaps very recently, few non-orthodox Israeli Jews have much engaged with Shmita, either as an idea or as a potential range of practices. Outside Israel, Shmita remains obscure. In the last two Shmita cycles – in 2000-2001, and in 2007-2008 – I’m aware of a number of synagogues, mostly orthodox, which held study sessions on Shmita. Beyond a few one-off learning sessions: not much.

It was in response to this, in December 2007, following a keynote given by Nati Passow of Jewish Farm School at Hazon’s second Food Conference at Isabella Freedman, that I said that Hazon would launch aShmita Project. Its goal would be – and remains – simply to put Shmita back on the agenda of the Jewish people; and in due course, through us, to start to seed it as an idea in wider public awareness, beyond the bounds of Jewish life.

There are, I think, two broad – and somewhat distinct, albeit overlapping – ways for us to engage with Shmita. One is, in a sense, instrumental; the second has a deeper kind of intellectual integrity, but may also be vaguer.

The instrumental use is simply about putting Shmita literally back on the calendar. Non-orthodox synagogues may well not observe Shabbat in a halachic way; yet Shabbat is nevertheless different from other days of the week. Jews go to a Seder, or eat matzah on Pesach, even if they don’t keep all of the halachot of Pesach. So Shmita ought, in the first instance, to come back into active Jewish life as a distinct time-frame – regardless of the content with which we actually mark it. I mean by this, things like:

  • Using the time from now until the next Shmita year (which starts at Rosh Hashanah 5775, i.e. on September 24th 2014) as a distinct time-period in relation to Shmita: learning about it, getting people excited about, thinking about how the Shmita year could be different; and doing this in advance of the year itself. This involves publicly framing the Shmita year as a year distinct in the life of a particular Jewish institution. How could or should we be different, during this year, than during the other six years of the cycle?
  • Then using the Shmita year itself not merely to be different, in some way, than in the previous years; but also – for the first time in modern Jewish history; perhaps for the first time since Second Temple times – using the Shmita year itself partly to start a public conversation about the entire next seven-year Shmita cycle;
  • and then entering into a full seven-year cycle, from 13th September 2015 to 25th September 2022, with Shmita firmly on the calendar of Jewish life – with a sense of seven-year goals for institutions, being worked on through the full seven-year period, and with the seventh year itself being both a celebration, a culmination, and a period of rest and reflection, following the preceding six years.

The second way for us to engage Shmita is indeed to engage intellectually (and indeed emotionally, creatively and spiritually) with the texts themselves: the primary, secondary and tertiary texts that introduce, explicate, and commentate on the various ideas encompassed by the idea of “Shmita.”

I have been learning Shmita texts steadily for the last five and a half years. The longer I have learned them the more fascinated I have become by Shmita. The primary texts are models not only of brevity but also of unclarity and contradiction. What exactly were you meant to eat in the Shmita year? How do the different aspects of Shmita stand in relation to each other? If the Jewish people bequeathed to human history only these primary texts, what theory of Jewish tradition – of our values and aspirations – might we derive from them? The prozbul and the heter mechira: are these in some sense regretful compromises, which dilute the pureness of the original biblical texts? Or are they vital innovations in Jewish life which should be celebrated because they are grounded in the reality of human behavior and the necessity to place central human needs (in the economies both of land and of money) above abstract aspiration?

These questions are open questions. Shmita is the public property of the Jewish people – and a gift from us to the whole world. So please read about Shmita – learn its various texts – and share them. I, and everyone at Hazon, hope that this exploration and internalization of Shmita will enrich your life; and in due course play some role in creating a healthier and more sustainable Jewish community, and a healthier and more sustainable world for all.

Oprah - head shot 2Nigel Savage, originally from Manchester, England, founded Hazon in 2000 by organizing and riding in a 3,600-mile Cross-USA Jewish Environmental Bike Ride, in which participants cycled from Seattle, WA to Washington, DC, teaching and speaking along the way.  Since that time, Hazon has grown to become one of the leading Jewish environmental/sustainability organizations in America.  Before founding Hazon Nigel was a professional fund manager in the City of London, the English equivalent of Wall Street. He has an MA in History from Georgetown, and learned at Pardes, Yakar and the Hebrew University.  He is a founder of Limmud NY and a member of its Advisory Board, and from 2003 to 2012 served as a board member of the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center.