September 24, 2014

The Challenge of Shemita - Part One

Rabbi Haber

wheatfieldA few hours from now, the Shemita year will begin!

Here in Israel, once every seven years we observe the Sabbatical Year, the Biblical commandment (Shemot 23:10; Vayikra 25:1-7) [1] to refrain from agricultural work, to allow the land to rest and to grant everyone equal and unencumbered access to agricultural produce.

As in previous Shemita years, there has been much discussion and debate about how this law should be observed in modern times.  (I’ve recently published a small booklet explaining the various issues and opinions from the perspective of the consumer.  If you haven’t seen it yet, you can download a copy here.)  These debates are important, and I hope to address them in a follow-up post in the next week or two.  But for now, moments before this awesome holy year is to begin, I would like to draw attention to the lofty and inspiring vision embodied by this commandment.

Shemita is described by the Torah as Shabbat HaAretz.  Just as we observe Shabbat once every seven days, the Land itself observes Shabbat once every seven years. [2]

But it is not only the land that rests.  All of the people who work the land rest as well.  In a pre-modern agrarian economy, this meant that probably upwards of 80% of the people (who earned their livings either directly from farming or indirectly from related fields like producing wine or oil, or selling agricultural products commercially) would have their employment drastically reduced for an entire year.  Just as we are commanded to cease our economic activity once every seven days in order to remember our Creator, to temporarily release ourselves from the “rat race” of pursuing a livelihood, to spend time with our families and to focus on spiritual matters like prayer and Torah study – so too once every seven years the entire economy was to go into massive slow-down mode, so that the same goals can be met on a national scale.

But Shemita isn’t only about God.  It is also about our relationship with each other.  It is about temporarily eliminating the gaps between rich and poor, between strong and weak, between master and servant.  The Torah specifically describes this aspect when it says “And in the Seventh Year you shall release and abandon [your land] so that the poor among your people can eat, and that which they leave over shall be eaten by the wild animals” (Shemot 23:10). [3] And to those people (a very small percentage in the pre-modern agrarian society) whose livelihood was completely unaffected by the cessation of agricultural activity, the Torah addressed the related commandment of Shemitat Kesafim – the requirement to release borrowers from the obligation to pay their loans, and to nonetheless lend money to anyone who needs assistance (Devarim 15:1-8).  The few people who were able to go about their jobs without restriction were obligated to essentially subsidize everyone else. [4]

Reducing our economic activity to such an extent requires us to rely directly on God for our sustenance, and putting our faith in Him to such an extent is very difficult.  For this reason, the Torah itself (Vayikra 25:20-24 and Devarim 15:9-11) uncharacteristically issues a special exhortation about keeping the mitzvah, and promises us a Divine blessing for doing so.

Unfortunately, due to a combination of the human weakness of Jews who didn’t live up to these challenges and various historical circumstances, much of Shemita observance today amounts to legal devices that allow us halachic legitimacy to sidestep these laws. In the case of the agricultural laws we have the Heter Mechira and other loopholes [5], and in the case of Shemitat Kesafim we have the pruzbul, an ancient device recorded in the Talmud that employs a legal loophole to enable lenders to collect loans in spite of the Torah’s commandment to release them.  Let’s be honest: these loopholes are legitimate but they are also, in a sense, cop-outs; we don’t violate the prohibitions, but we don’t live up to the Torah’s vision either.

The ideal of an entire society basically shutting down its economy for an entire year so that everyone, rich and poor alike, can spend the year focusing on spiritual matters and on social equality is apparently still beyond our reach.  It is for that reason that halacha gives us the loopholes, so that we can continue to function.  But that doesn’t mean we should reduce Shemita to a series of legal procedures.  If we can’t yet observe this mitzvah in its fullest, we can at least take a few steps in that direction.

For those of us here in Israel, that means making the effort to eat vegetables and fruits that are endowed with Kedushat Shvi’it (the special sanctity of the Shemita year) available through the Otzar Bet Din system.  More on that, b’ezrat Hashem, in the second post.  For Jews everywhere, though, the values of Shemita – taking time off to focus on our relationship with God and with each other, are still applicable.  And the imperative to help others financially even more than we do in other years, including lending money and forgiving debts when possible [6] also applies to all Jews everywhere.

I recently saw a fascinating website (in Hebrew) called “Shnat HaShevaThe organization behind this is pushing for the general public (with an emphasis on the non-observant sectors) to embrace the values of Shemita as a national social and spiritual imperative.

As we enter Rosh HaShana and begin this holy Shemita year, we should all be thinking about what each of us can do to help enhance the Jewish People’s observance of these commandments and to strengthen the fundamental values they embody.

Shana Tova and Shabbat (Ha’Aretz) Shalom!


[1]According to most authorities, contemporary observance of this law is based on a rabbinic ordinance and not Biblical law.  However, the rabbinic enactment is based on a Biblical idea.

[2]A friend of mine who lives near Kibbutz Shaalvim told me seven years ago that they held a cute little ceremony in the late afternoon on Erev Rosh HaShana.  The entire Kibbutz walked down to the fields in order to wish them “Shabbat Shalom!”

[3]This is an expansion of a theme inherent also in the weekly Shabbat.  Compare the two versions of the Fourth Commandment, Shemot 20:7-10 and Devarim 5:11-14.  Note the differences in the reason given for observing the law!

[4] This insight has powerful implications in our contemporary post-industrial economy.  Whereas in ancient times over 80% of people were affected by the agricultural restrictions, today only a miniscule percentage of the public works in these fields.  However, the mitzvah of Shemitat Kesafim applies to all Jews, even outside of Israel!

[5] See The Kosher Consumer’s Guide to Shemita for an explanation of Heter Mechira and the various other loopholes.  Although devices like Otzar Bet Din are much closer to actual observance of the laws then the Heter Mechira is, in its contemporary manifestation it is still far from the ideal described in the Torah.

[6] The pruzbul gives us the ability to lend money without having the debt cancelled by Shemita.  But there is no obligation to use it on every loan!  When lending money to a person with genuine financial need, it is praiseworthy to observe the mitzvah of Shemitat Kesafim in its most literal sense.

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