by Yigal Deutscher
Commonly translated as the ‘Sabbatical Year,’ Shmita literally means ‘release.’ Many may recall the year of Shmita as a time when agricultural lands were collectively left fallow. Yet, the Shmita year had a depth that reached into every aspect of society and culture. This was only an ‘agricultural’ year in the sense that it directly involved food and land, something which affects all of us, not just farmers.
If we were really celebrating this tradition, here is how it would look: On the final year of a seven year calendar cycle, there will be no seeding or tilling of the soil, private land holdings will be open to the commons, everyone will have equal access to food storage and perennial/wild harvests, foods will not be sold as a commodity, and all debts will be forgiven. Everyone will share in widespread abundance, as resources are redistributed and shared equally. Repeat this all again seven years later, and on every seventh year that follows. The powerful values of this Shmita Cycle were integral to the vision of healthy society, as originally mapped out by the Torah.
Can you envision this? Take a moment to realize just how radical and audacious that sounds. As an equivalent, since most of us are not farmers in this age, imagine a year when every shopping mall and bank would be closed; when products were not sold for profit but shared widely in the commons; when your time was dedicated to embodying rest and release, as you watched the systems around you function on their own. How might that sound to you?
Let’s be honest. Today, in a world so heavily influenced by the dominant systems of agribusiness, real estate, banking, and the global marketplace, the idea of working with the rhythm of the Shmita Cycle may be more impractical than ever. To embrace Shmita would lead to a systematic societal collapse. On a personal level, it is not much easier. Shmita asks us to truly step away from a sense of security we feel when we are in control, or at least when we think we are in control, of our resource production and wealth accumulation. The symbolic and tangible ‘release’ that Shmita calls forth this is no easy thing to do- on a personal level or a societal level.
There is a depth of possibility within this year, but Shmita is an invitation so much deeper than just the seventh year. To fully drink from this wellspring, we need to let it overflow into the six years before and after it. Taken on its own, Shmita is an isolated moment in time and a riddle with no answer.
In order to begin to understand the intricate puzzle that is Shmita, we must first connect the 6 years to the 7th, the individual parts of the cycle to its flowering conclusion. We are invited to see the 6 years of the Shmita Cycle as those of cultural design, and the 7th year as the indicator year; the ultimate ‘check-in’ to see how we are collectively doing as a culture. The Shmita Cycle presents a way of being, a blueprint for a resilient, whole-systems culture, one grounded in vibrant, healthy and diverse relations between community, ecology, economy, and spirit. To truly celebrate this cycle is not simply to mark our calendars. Rather, it is to genuinely embrace a value system which calls for a paradigm transition from global to local, from profit to wellness, from the realm of the private to the realm of the communal, and from short term thinking to long term visioning.
As we begin the process of reclaiming Shmita, let us do so us a Cycle, not simply as a Year. Let us study and experiment with Shmita as a value system that can have deep and powerful guidance for all years. As we begin to re-imagine the Shmita Cycle, these are the questions to ask: What would a culture look like if it actually did prepare itself to fully celebrate this year? How would their food systems function? How would their economic systems function? How would their communities be organized? And how might we apply such value systems to our cultural practices today?
The reimagination of the Shmita Cycle begins with you, at home, with family, with friends, and with neighbors, at the most local, grassroots level. This process will actively take shape as a community effort, on our streets, in our synagogues, in our schools, and in our community commons. Shmita has been dormant for thousands of years. In its rebirth it will look different; it will feel different. It will be whatever we will make of it. Will you join this journey?
Yigal Deutscher is an educator, farmer and permaculture designer. He has participated in the Adamah fellowship, and trained with the University of California, Santa Cruz (Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems), as well as with the Permaculture Research Institute in Australia. Until 2010, he was the farm manager and permaculture educator at the Chava v’Adam farm in Israel, where he also founded the Shorashim/Eco-Israel apprenticeship program. He is the founder of 7Seeds, an educational platform combining Jewish indigenous teachings & Permaculture Design strategies, as well as the former manager of Hazon’s Shmita Project.