The Shmita Year as a Laboratory for Jewish Sustainability

Click image for a Shmita Catalogue (in Hebrew only)
Click image for a Shmita Catalogue (in Hebrew only)

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

By Einat Kramer

I have been thinking about and working on Jewish sustainability for many years, and could easily write a theoretical essay with my many thoughts on the subject. Yet this is not any time, but rather the beginning, not only of the one-in-seven-year opportunity to observe the mitzvot of shmita, but moreover, the first shmita year in which a large-scale comprehensive effort is underway to reinterpret these mitzvot and render shmita relevant to contemporary Israeli society. So I would like to begin not with ideas but rather with events and actions taking place right now in honor of the shmita year.
Here are seven examples of many events and projects underway, under the auspices of Israeli Shmita, a broad platform of organizations, businesses, and public institutions that seeks to restore the meaning of the shmita year as a time of personal reflection, learning, social involvement, and environmental responsibility in Israel:

  • An online Time Bank enables one to “give up” time and to volunteer on behalf of youth at risk, disadvantaged families, and others in need, based on one’s availability and skill set.
  • BEIT AVI CHAI, a center for Jewish Israeli creativity, is leading a think tank for cinematographers, designers, and new media specialists to explore shmita and create innovative productions on the subject.
  • A financial recovery program, spearheaded by MK Ruth Calderon, engages philanthropists, banks, and professional consultants (Pa’amonim, Ezra Migad, Hasdei Lev, and others) in helping needy families settle their debts and begin the journey toward financial recovery. A fund has been established that enables the public to contribute to the financial recovery program.
  • The Mirkam youth group – a network of secular and religious communities – has initiated a collective “disconnect” from Facebook for the sake of real social interaction, face to face, with dialogue groups for young people from diverse backgrounds.
  • The Israeli Shmita Sukkah, a tent-like traveling meeting place, began its year-long journey across Israel, with a reading and lending library, a recycling center (including a special container for the remains of shmita produce) and above all, an open space for shared thinking and discussion on how to create sustainable social change in the spirit of shmita.
  • The Jewish National Fund has integrated activities in its forest and nature tours, stressing the ecological, social, and Zionist aspects of shmita.
  • Hikes for gathering wild plants and learning how to cook with them revive ancient practices during the year in which farming and cultivating ceases.

Significantly, only the last two examples relate in some way to the agricultural aspects of shmita, which lie at the heart of the Torah verses regarding the sabbatical year. One of the hallmarks of Israeli Shmita is the attempt to apply the spirit of shmita to a mostly non-agrarian society. This effort has completely changed the focus of the year. Until now the laws of shmita had lost most of their meaning, since few farmers actually let their plots lie fallow, and erasing loans was deemed impractical already in ancient times (under Hillel’s prozbol). Indeed, two main methods for rendering produce “kosher for shmita” today actually circumvent the law, by either selling the land to a non-Jew or importing produce from abroad, since the laws of shmita apply only to Jewish-owned land in Israel. Ironically both of these methods for observing shmita actually weaken the connection between the people of Israel and the land.

Israeli Shmita, by creating new connections with the roots of the ancient customs, is reviving the fundamental spirit of the Law as it widens its interpretation. Furthermore, this creative effort contributes to Jewish peoplehood as it furthers values and actions that are equally relevant to Jews in Israel and around the world. Thus shmita, classically defined as part of the category of mitzvot that are only applicable in the Land of Israel, may now be viewed as a growing set of practices and commitments developed every seven years in Israel, a place that will serve as a laboratory for sustainability ideas and practices that may radiate across the globe.

The shmita year is part of a cyclical system which conditions the consciousness of an entire nation regarding how to relate to the building blocks of life: land and possessions, work, the Creator, and the “other” – our neighbor, the poor person, the convert, the stranger, and animals. shmita challenges the Western consumer mindset, confirming that the source of our strength and blessing does lie beyond us – the land rests, we refrain from working the land, and God provides. Shmita is an opportunity to step back for a year from the overload of work (agriculture, in the past) for the good of the family, community, culture, and spirit. It is a time for learning and dreaming on a personal, communal, and national level. From an environmental perspective, shmita offers the radical perspective of seeing our role in Creation as more than just utilitarian – a chance to acknowledging the gifts of nature, and to allow natural resources to replenish after overuse. Debt forgiveness, the financial aspect of the shmita year, encourages us to re-examine our economic structures and to give vulnerable members of society a chance to start over.

Back to the list of initiatives and projects that opened this essay: they have all stemmed from a process of thinking and planning that began years before the current shmita year, successfully gaining the support and involvement of government ministries, organizations, businesses, and individuals from diverse secular and religious backgrounds. The most exciting aspect of the list is that it is a growing and dynamic one. Every week new initiatives are born, so that the year to come will generate more and more sustainability projects whose effects will continue way beyond the seventh year, in the spirit of Leviticus 25:21:

“Then I will command My blessing upon you in the sixth year, and it shall bring forth produce for the three years.”

Einat Kramer is the founder and director of Teva Ivri, leading the “Israeli Shmita” initiative.