A Sabbath for the Land and the People – Rav Kook’s Shabbat Ha’aretz and The Peoplehood Potential of Shmita

Shabbat Haaretz

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 14 – Sustainability and Jewish Peoplehood – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Yedidya Sinclair

“As Farmers and Field Rest, a Land Grows Restless”
New York Times Headline about the shmita year in Israel”, October 8th 2007

“In Israel, Values of a Holy Respite are Adapted for a High-Tech World”
New York Times Headline about the shmita year in Israel, September 24th, 2014

The current shmita (Sabbatical) year, 2014-5 represents a remarkable renewal of the possibilities of shmita. After several decades in which the public face of shmita in Israel has been manifested in deepening disputes between rabbis and religious communities over kosher certification, the present shmita year has seen a proliferation of programs that stress the sustainability and social justice dimensions of shmita.

This shift enables shmita to become a unifying force in the life of the Jewish people. Whereas previously, shmita was, for diaspora Jews, mostly irrelevant (and occasionally embarrassing, when awareness of the political-religious squabbles around shmita in Israel intruded on the wider world, such as in the 2007 Times article) now shmita in Israel is beginning to express values that many diaspora Jews share and embrace.

I have been fortunate to view this shift over the past year through the prism of producing a book comprising an annotated translation of Rav Kook’s “Shabbat Ha’aretz,” a key, classic text on shmita. Preparing and promoting this book has included speaking at conferences on shmita in Israel, the UK and US, and undertaking a two-week, ten city speaking tour to talk about the book in the US. This journey took me to synagogues and JCCs, farms and federations, rabbinical schools and environmental organizations, from Orthodox to Reconstructionist and audiences with a very wide range of political views on Israel. From this perspective I have been able to view the response of diverse Jewish communities to the renewal of shmita.

In this short reflection, I will first outline briefly the nature and importance of Rav Kook’s work on shmita, then list a couple of personal observations on the peoplehood-related significance of the current shmita year.

Shabbat Ha’aretz, published by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook on the eve of the 1909-10 shmita year, is undoubtedly the most important and influential book on shmita to have appeared in the modern era. It is indispensable to understanding how shmita is currently observed and not observed. The context, arguments and aftermath of Shabbat Ha’aretz remain formative forces upon the status of shmita in the State of Israel today.

In advance of the 1909-10 shmita, Rav Kook, who was then Chief Rabbi of Jaffa, saw that the rigorous observance of the commandment to cease agricultural work for a year could starve the pioneering Jewish farmers and uproot the precarious foothold they had established in the Land of Israel. He therefore permitted the farmers to sell their land to non-Jews for the duration of the shmita, allowing them to work and avoid impoverishment. This permit, known as the Heter Mechirah had first been issued for the pioneering farmers of Israel during the shmita of 1888-9.

In Shabbat Ha’aretz, Rav Kook provided a thorough halachic grounding of the practice, which had the effect of essentially institutionalizing the heter (permit). Within the book is a rigorous and detailed halachic treatment of what was and wasn’t to be done in the shmita of 1909-10 and why. However, Rav Kook prefaced the book with an introduction that is a poetic and mystical paean to the possibilities of shmita. The introduction is an ecstatic effort to render the reminder, as vivid as possible, of what shmita could one day become.

In the prefatory section, Rav Kook paints a picture of Shmita as enabling a renewed connection to the divine life force in each individual and within us collectively. Like Shabbat, shmita quiets the tumult of the intervening periods and restores a more authentic relationship to ourselves, to each other, to nature, and to God. Its observance reveals the unique weave of socio-economic relationships that the Torah would have us pattern. The Jubilee year is a revelation of the cumulative insight and holiness that we will have achieved in the previous seven shmita cycles. Its ideals of liberty and emancipation bear universal meanings for the whole of humanity.

Shabbat Ha’aretz became a defining piece of Religious Zionist psak halachah (halachic decision-making) and has served as a lightning rod for controversy between Religious Zionists and Haredim about the proper parameters of halachic innovation in Israel – hence the growing controversy. Yet throughout Shabbat Ha’aretz, shines a vision of how shmita could be much more than it is today. Rav Kook believed in the power for social and spiritual reawakening embodied in shmita. He hoped that the temporary leniency he was proposing – enabling the land to be sold and shmita effectively not observed – was actually one step on the journey towards the eventual and full renewal of shmita. As he wrote in Shabbat Ha’aretz: “We must recognize that we are obligated to strive with all our strength so that in the end the sabbatical year will be increasingly observed in all its holiness.”

I conclude with two anecdotal observations based on my recent experience as a bridge between the Israeli and Diaspora experiences of preparing for and beginning shmita.

First, news of the shift towards socially and environmentally progressive shmita projects in Israel was met with tremendous enthusiasm and excitement at the US venues I visited. The current shmita year represents a sea change from the main mode of observing shmita in Israel, which was, in one way or another, by not observing it, towards an era where Israelis are starting to seriously ask, “how do we actually observe shmita? How do we actualize these extraordinary values and teachings in hi-tech based economy?” Initiatives such as a joint project of government banks and NGOs to bring 5,000 families out of crippling long term debt through a combination of partial debt relief, rescheduling of loans and counseling on financial planning have proliferated. They represent creative adaptations of core shmita values to a 21st century economy.

Most of the audiences I spoke to leaned toward the left of the American Jewish political spectrum where environmental concern tends to correlate (for complex reasons) with a critical stance towards Israel. Among these audiences, I sensed a feeling of desperation to learn of developments in Israel with which they could proudly identify. These innovations in shmita served that purpose.

Moreover, there has been a resurgence of interest in shmita both in Israel and in the Diaspora. While these movements have emerged in parallel, they have benefited from a cross-pollination of ideas through the recent Siach conferences, which brought together social justice and environmental activists from Israel and the Diaspora for annual discussions. Shmita is simply an idea whose time has come, and with its creative growth both in Israel and the Diaspora, has unique potential to promote the value of peoplehood that spans geography, politics and other axes of division.

Yedidya Sinclair is Vice President of Research at Energiya Global and also serves as Senior Rabbinic Scholar for Hazon. His translation of Rav Kook’s “Introduction to Shabbat Ha’aretz” was published by Hazon in September 2014.