2014 Shmita Sourcebook Download

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Biblical Foundations: Shmita in the Torah

 The entire Torah can be viewed as a collection of teachings and stories for a wandering people, a diverse collection of tribes, about to enter a land they will call home, where they will settle and build societal structures for generations to come. Within the vast collection of laws, a pattern emerges around the cycle of seven, beginning with the seven days of creation. This is a personal rhythm, as well as a collective one, for the entire nation to share in together. Today, while the weekly seven day cycle of Shabbat is widely celebrated, the yearly cycle of seven is less known. In this section are the core Biblical texts which elucidate the cultural tradition known as Shmita. Have you heard of this before? Is this something that has personal meaning for you? If so, perhaps these texts will enable you to think more deeply about this tradition. And if not, perhaps these texts will introduce a whole new way of considering time, community, property, land, and food.

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Recalling Ancient Memory: Shmita in Early Israel & Temple Periods

Perhaps one of the first questions that might come to mind after learning about Shmita, is: Was it ever entirely observed? What historical knowledge do we have of Shmita? In truth, the evidence is sparse, which leads us to think that perhaps the tribes of Israel were not able to meet the high expectations of the Sabbatical Cycle. This section includes a collection of sources (most are dating from roughly 1200BCE to 200CE, while the Rambam is writing later, but looking back towards that time) which recall the Temple periods of early Israelite culture when Shmita was and was not practiced, as well as the challenges and benefits it brought to communities trying to follow such a societal structure. Looking back at the lives of our ancestors, can you empathize with their struggles? Or do you wish they had done better in establishing a Hebrew culture rooted in the Sabbatical Cycle? Do you think Shmita, at its core, is primarily intended to be a symbolic spiritual metaphor and value system? Or do you think Shmita is a cultural system that was intended to be followed strictly and literally?

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Codifying the Sabbatical (Part 1): Sabbatical Food Systems

Agriculture is at the root of our wider cultural systems. For all our production, consumption, creativity, and growth, it is agriculture that provides the nourishment and the energy for our own physical development. Agriculture is an intimate relationship of delicate giving and receiving. It is the collective process of working with land for production and consumption, using the life of the soil and plant communities to collect for our own needs. While we are not all farmers, we are all consumers of food that has been farmed. The way we develop our food system—the practices, ethics, and values of the way we plant, harvest, and consume foods—has a direct parallel on our own culture. A healthy agricultural system will likely manifest in a healthy societal system, and vice versa. In this section, we explore the food system of the Sabbatical year. How did agriculture change during this year? What foods were eaten at this time? How were foods distributed? And how would these Sabbatical food ethics affect the relationships and practices within the wider society?

View and Download ‘Codifying the Sabbatical (Part 1): Food Systems

Codifying the Sabbatical (Part 2): Sabbatical Economic Systems

The Shmita Year was directly linked to economic systems, as much as it was to agricultural systems. Similar to agriculture, our economic systems are a clear reflection on society’s wider values and priorities, especially in terms of how we determine wealth and its measurements. At its core, an economy is a collection of societal agreements based upon on how people come together to produce, consume, and exchange products, commodities, and services. So in this section, we explore Sabbatical economics and its systems of exchange. How was the marketplace affected during this Shmita Year? How did business transactions and monetary use change during this time period? What was the nature of the debt release? How were relationships between rich and poor affected? And perhaps most important, what were the interpersonal dynamics between giver and receiver, between producer and consumer, on this year, and during the other six years, in anticipation of the Shmita Year?

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Rabbinic Voices & Visioning of Shmita: From Exile to Return

Traditionally, Shmita applied only in the land of Israel. It is not considered a halacha (law) to observe Shmita outside of Israel. In the more than 2,000 years since being exiled from the land of Israel, Jewish tradition continued to evolve and develop, forming a strong identity that did not include the practice of Shmita. Yet, throughout this time, Jewish sages and leaders carried the spark of this tradition, writing romantically and powerfully about this practice. In this section, we offer a few of these voices, ranging in time from the immediate post-exile period to the early settlements in pre-state Israel.

As you read these texts, consider how the Rabbis had the opportunity to explore Shmita and embrace its spiritual and moral values without also having to face the challenges it came with. How do you think this may have changed their relationship with this law? What do you think the intention of the Rabbis were, in teaching about Shmita, and keeping its memory alive, in a period when it was not being observed? And for those of us still living outside of Israel, how might these voices influence our own thinking about Shmita today?

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Back to the Land: Shmita in Israel, From Early Pioneers to Modern Times

It has been over 100 years since the Jewish people have returned to the land of their ancestors, the stories of their indigenous past. It has been 65 years since the formal state of Israel has been established, and the question of what to do with Shmita is very much alive. Today, the arrival of the Shmita Year in Israel brings with it heated debates. For some, this tradition is a burden, an archaic notion worth forgetting. For others, it is a symbol of the hopeful culture that the Torah challenges us to create. As you read these texts considering Shmita in Israel today, try and shift your perspective towards the emotions, hopes, fears and desires of a young nation, taking shape once again, on a land they only dreamed about until now. Not only must they learn how to live on a land so different from where they came, they simultaneously must face many cultural riddles of how to renew the relationship between Torah laws and the land, in modern times. For Shmita, this means bringing abstract ideals to real-time applications. In this section, we introduce some voices grappling with this Shmita riddle, and some of the creative solutions that are emerging.

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Reclaiming the Sabbatical Tradition: Exploring Shmita Today

We now stand in an age of global connectivity, in an age of interfaith sharing, in an age of diversified, multi-layered, international Judaism. While Shmita may not define us as a Jewish people or be on our highest cultural priority list, a conversation and movement is growing to reclaim and re-imagine Shmita for our modern era. If Shmita was a radical, challenging proposition back in early Israelite culture, how much more so today, in an era of industrial agriculture and the global marketplace! After all this time of dormancy, the time has come to once again explore this question of Shmita. And in so doing, let us meet this ancient tradition anew, ripe and fresh, to harvest her lessons for us today, and begin a conversation which will ripple into years to come, many generations ahead. What does Shmita mean for you today? What do you think we should do with Shmita right now? And how can we creatively adopt the core values and principles of this tradition to empower healthier, more sustainable, and resilient Jewish communities, both in Israel and beyond?

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An Incentive for Shmita Today? Agricultural & Economic Perspectives

Today’s modern cultural systems seem to be dramatically shifting. The symptoms of cultural uncertainties are hard to ignore, as climate change, economic collapse, loss of local community culture, and rising social inequality have become widespread concerns. The doubts are growing around our industrial agricultural systems and speculative economic systems, and the voices in this conversation are becoming more and more pronounced.

From this perspective, the rise of curiosity around Shmita today seems quite timely. While Shmita is not a synonym of “sustainability” or “social justice,” many of the components of this ancient system can lead us in that direction. On the one hand, we know this tradition comes along with deep, unsettling challenges. On the other hand, it is the values inherent within these challenges that seem to hold the idealistic vision for a long-term, holistic, sustainable future.

In this section, we have highlighted some of the agricultural and economic challenges that we face today, and paired each one with relevant Shmita principles. Far from seeking to reduce Shmita to a directive, we present these texts as a place to begin a conversation around making Shmita more relevant and accessible, in modern terms. Ideally, by looking at such societal patterns and challenges in this way, we can begin to creatively think about how to brink Shmita to life today. And not just for one year out of seven, but for all years of the Shmita Cycle.

This section has been adapted from educational resources created by 7Seeds.

View and Download ‘An Incentive for Shmita Today?  Agricultural & Economic Perspectives

And be sure to check out ‘Envisioning Sabbatical Culture: A Shmita Manifesto’ from 7Seeds, co-founder of the Shmita Project. Enjoy a narrative of awakening and reclamation; a blueprint for a more sacred, resilient, and holistic future. Included within is a collection of poetic essays and graphics inspired by the weaving together of Jewish Mythology & Permaculture Design.

Questions? Contact us at shmitaproject@hazon.org