The Land Shall Rest: Exploring Shmita in the Diaspora

New from the SOVA blog by Rabbi Ebn Leader and Rabbi Margie Klein.

Original post can be found at

In the Jewish calendar, the next Shmita year will commence in 2014, and Jews around the world are beginning to think about it.

In North America for example through the Shmita Project and other efforts, Hazon, the Jewish Farm School, and other groups are embracing Shmita as an opportunity to explore Jewish values around land, food, and sustainability. The Shmita Project encourages people not only to hold study groups, but to plant “Shmita gardens” that follow the Shmita laws in our own backyards and practice alternate economic models that promote collaboration and sharing.

The Torah’s mandate to let the land lie fallow for a year raises many serious questions. What would it mean to forgo agricultural activity and the economic structures that follow from it? What would it mean to spend a year treating the fruit that then grows of its own accord as ownerless, so that everyone has the same right to resources of the land?

The struggle with these questions is of course as old as the practice itself, going back to the book of Leviticus (25:20-22), which offers a divine blessing of bounty in response to the claim that this practice is financially impossible. Debated through millennia in the halakhic literature, these questions took on new urgency with the renewal of large scale Jewish agricultural activity in The Land of Israel at the turn of the 20th century. Of the various issues, the most widely known is the controversy that erupted around the halakhic proposal of the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Mandatory Palestine, Rabbi A.Y. Kook, who suggested a way for Jewish farmers to avoid the practice of Shmita altogether.

On the other hand, the question of observing Shmita outside the land of Israel is almost uncharted territory. Are we talking about fulfilling the commandment in the same way as halakhic Jews in Israel? On what basis will we decide which practices are applicable and which are not? Or, if “Shmita values” is a more general category, how do we decide what “Shmita values” are? Are they limited to farming practices or are they as broad as spiritual connection with land, environmental sustainability and social justice? Do they include practices such as praying on a mountain top, lobbying for a better farm bill, or finding ways to share our economic resources?

We will not attempt to answer these questions here. We will present some of the theological challenges of taking on Shmita outside of Israel and propose a theological basis upon which some of the questions can be debated and answered.

The Mishnah (Kiddushin 1:9) states: “Any mitzvah that is not earth-dependent is practiced in the Land of Israel and outside of it. Every mitzvah that is earth-dependent is practiced only in the Land of Israel with the exception of Orlah and Kilayim.” Quite clearly, according to this definition the agricultural aspect of Shmita (the “earth-dependent” parts) should not be practiced outside Israel.

Interestingly, a similar categorization that appears a few sentences earlier in the same chapter has garnered a great deal of interest in the 20th century: the ruling that excludes women from active time-dependent mitzvot. While over the past forty years the Jewish community has been debating the nature of active time-dependent mitzvot, we have paid little attention to earth-dependent mitzvot. Regarding time-dependent mitzvot, Jewish women and men have argued (successfully in progressive communities) that women should be allowed to opt in to time-dependent obligations from which they were traditionally exempted. The Conservative movement further forwarded the claim that once obligated, women should have the right to lead other obligated people in time-dependent activities. That said, we must note that most of the discussion on this topic in the North American Jewish community was not focused on the traditional category of obligation. Mostly men and women expressed their desire for inclusiveness in religious practice and equal recognition in their communities. Regardless, to the extent that time-dependent and land-dependent mitzvot are both still operating halakhic categories, are these categories similar to each other? Can the expansion of one (which the authors fully support) teach us something about expanding the other?

One of the interesting differences between the two categories is the role of the notion of kedusha – holiness – in both discussions. While many traditionalists claim that exempting women from certain practices does not imply a lesser degree of sanctity attributed to women, the discussion of practices unique to the Land of Israel and particular locations within it explicitly and repeatedly returns to Israel’s elevated status as the holy and holiest land (see for example Mishnah Kelim, 1:6-9).

The concept of kedusha (holiness), and specifically the kedusha of the Land of Israel, is thus central to the discussion of adopting earth-dependent practices outside Israel. Is practicing Shmita outside the Land of Israel a rejection of Israel’s holiness? Does it detract from the unique place Israel has taken in Jewish tradition?

There are two central paradigms of kedusha in Jewish tradition, both of which can be traced through the literature of Jewish thought and practice from their appearances in classical rabbinic literature into the writings of contemporary Jewish teachers.

One understanding, epitomized in the midrashic response to the command in Leviticus to “be holy”, understands holiness as an obligation to “separate yourselves” (Sifra 151:2). This understanding is well articulated by the contemporary scholar, Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz.

“The root meaning of the concept of “the holy” in the holy language [Hebrew] is separation: it implies the apartness and remoteness of something. The holy is that which is out of bounds, untouchable, and altogether beyond grasp; it cannot be understood or even defined, being so totally unlike anything else. To be holy is, in essence, to be distinctly other”. (The Thirteen Petalled Rose, p.51)

In this framework it probably makes little sense to apply the practices of Shmita outside the Land of Israel. Since these practices are an expression of the uniqueness of the Land of Israel (without debating whether they create that uniqueness or result from it), practicing them in another place is at least meaningless, most probably detrimental to the practitioners’ awareness of kedusha, and possibly even detrimental to the kedusha itself. Because kedusha is a category of separation, lessening distinction works against it. Thekedusha of Shabbat (or the awareness thereof), for example, would be lessened if we applied its practices to other days of the week as well, and the same should be true of applying Shmita to other locations.

This notion of kedusha is connected to the theological notion of a God who is “unlike all else, being immeasurably remote, elevated, and transcendent” (Steinzaltz, ibid).

A second understanding of kedusha, related to the notion of a God immanent in all existence, understands holiness as the expression of the common ground that all existence shares. The more that connection and commonality with the rest of existence is expressed, the more we partake in the holy. As opposed to the notion that God is the paradigm of holiness because God is the ultimate other, in this understanding God is the paradigm of holiness because God is the ultimate common ground.

With this frame of reference, it is difficult to understand why our religious tradition puts such emphasis on particular days, locations and people. If everything is holy, why the focus on Shabbat as the holiest day of the week, or Israel as the holiest place?

This sensibility is expressed by the 17th Century Polish Rabbi Isaiah Horovitz, known as “The Shlah” for his major work, Shnei Luhot Habrit.” He writes,

If there had been no sin [in the Garden of Eden], everything would be holy, and there would be no such thing as holy place, holy time, and holy person. In the World to Come, there will be no distinctions, as there were none in the world before the sin. Everything will be equally holy. It is only in between, in this imperfect situation, where some things are holier than others. (Shnei Luhot HaBrit, Torah Sh’b’chtav, Torat Kohanim)

In Horovitz’s messianic vision, there are no distinctions and everything is holy. As opposed to a common messianic vision (based on Isaiah 61:5-6) in which non-Jews farm and serve the Jews food, in Horowitz’s vision, the distinctions between Jews and non-Jews have evaporated. For Horovitz, distinctions between holy and not holy only exist in the imperfect world in which we live. Separation is not the ideal, but only a concession to imperfection and division created through sin.

But even beyond being a concession, separation can serve as means, as a way to work towards greater unity within an imperfect reality. This notion is expressed by Rabbi A.Y. Kook, on the passage from the Book of Exodus (13:2) about sanctifying firstborn Israelite children and animals by dedicating them to God.

…there is a dynamic holiness spreading through human and animal, for their true essence is of God, but that holiness is not (usually) visible. Revealing the sanctity of the first-born of Israel will lead to exposing the holy light that is in all existence, in all life – human and animal. (Olat Re’iyah, Seder Tefilin, p. 37)

In other words, picking one holy thing is a starting point. According to Rabbi Kook, it is not that there is anything special about the first born, but rather that uplifting the first born is a first step toward a time when everyone can be close to God. Instead of trying to grasp everything, which is often a recipe for failure, we start with a small but attainable goal and grow from there. Likewise we envision in Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals) that the World to Come will be yom she’kulo Shabbata time when every day is Shabbat. The goal of exposing the holiness hidden in one particular day is to move us toward a time when we open our eyes to the holiness in every day.

From this perspective, God’s purpose in uplifting the people of Israel was for Jews to live in a way that inspires others to craft similarly close relationships with the Divine. What ultimately matters is not just that Israel is holy, but that we help reveal the holiness present all around us. If we stay closed off and do not affect anyone else, we have failed in our mission. Rabbi Kook argues that we must expand the boundaries of holiness (harchavat gvul hakedusha – a phrase meaning ‘expanding the bounds of holiness,’ originating in Kabbalah and common in Hassidic literature) step by step, in order to ultimately bring about a time when holiness has no bounds, when the Shlah’s messianic vision of a world of oneness is realized.

What might be the implications of this theology to the practice of Shmita?

According to this theology, the holiness of the land of Israel is not an expression of something inherently unique to that particular geographical location. Israel is rather a space that we have set aside in order to learn how people’s lives on the land can be true to the divinity that is inherent in that relationship. Our “earth-dependent practices” should therefore be understood as general practices for living on the land in the presence of God wherever people live.

Are we ready to apply those lessons to places other than Israel?

One of the rallying calls of the Zionist movement was the return of the Jewish people to agriculture and self-sufficiency. After 2000 years of exile a people that had been alienated from land were to reconnect with the earth. While some attempts were made at Jewish agriculture in Belorussia and South America, it took the symbolic power of returning to the physical land of Israel to allow Jews to put down roots after wandering for so long.

A great deal has changed over the past century in the ways the idea of “Jewish agriculture” is being realized. Jews in Israel, like the rest of the Western world, are most likely to be urban dwellers with little immediate connection to the source of their food. At the same time, there is growing awareness of the impact of the environmental crisis we have created, and in some circles a move towards reconnecting religious and spiritual life with the ways we sustain ourselves and particularly with the ways we produce food. In the Jewish community of North America this has found expression in organizations like Hazon, Adamah, Teva, the Jewish Farm movement, and kosher sustainable meat producers, all of which involve Jewish people turning to agriculture as part of their Jewish journeys and identities.

It may well be that the Zionist return to the land in Israel is part of what makes this 21stcentury Jewish environmental return to the Earth imaginable. If this is true then instead of seeing a North-American practice of Shmita or other land-based practices as a denigration of the holiness of Israel, we can see it as an expansion of the holiness of Israel, giving a new meaning to the phrase – reishit smichat g’ulateinu, a first flowering of our redemption. For Jews to reconnect with the earth, perhaps we needed the symbolic power of Israel as a geographical entity. But having used that as a starting point it would seem counter-productive not to broaden the boundaries of holiness. The lesson of Israel could well be that one of the ways we find God is through land, wherever we are.

Ebn with hairRabbi Ebn Leader grew up in Jerusalem and was a “talmid” (student-disciple) of Rabbi David Hartman, where he learned Talmud, and of Amos Hetz, where he studied movement and movement notation. He is currently a talmid of Hebrew College Rector Art Green, from whom he has received semicha. Leader has a growing international reputation as a Jewish spiritual teacher in the neo-Hasidic tradition and is an authority on Jewish prayer. He is co-editor, with Rabbi Or Rose, of “God in All Moments: Mystical and Practical Wisdom From Hasidic Masters” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2011)

Rabbi Margie Klein is one of America’s leading young Jewish voices. In addition to serving as the Interim Director of the Jewish Organizing Fellowship at JOIN for Justice, she serves as rabbi of Congregation Sha’arei Shalom in Ashland, and is the founder and a board member of Moishe/Kavod House in Brookline, a community of 600 Jews in their 20s and 30s dedicated to Tikkun Olam. A graduate of Yale University and Hebrew College, Rabbi Margie is a member of the Synagogue 3000 Emergent Communities Leadership Network, and was invited to the White House with other religious leaders to speak about her work. She is the co-editor of Righteous Indignation, a Jewish Call for Justice (Jewish Lights), and her efforts have been featured in the Boston Globe, Newsweek, and on CNN. Prior to rabbinical school, she founded and led Project Democracy, a youth voting organization that mobilized 97,000 college students to vote.  In 2010, she was a semi-finalist for the Jewish Community Heroes competition.


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