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Confessions of a Shemitah Skeptic

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Two weeks ago, on Rosh Hashanah, we marked not only the beginning of another year in the Jewish calendar, but the beginning of Shemitah, the Jewish sabbatical year.  Every seven years, Jewish farmers in Israel are commanded to let their lands lie fallow, not to plant, plow, prune trees or in any way improve the land, to harvest only what they can eat themselves (from perennial plants that do not need to be sown each year), and to leave the rest for whoever wants to pick them. In addition, at the end of the Shemitah year, we are commanded to release debts.

Shemitah has become a hot topic among progressive American Jews, largely as a result of an awareness campaign by Hazon, the largest Jewish environmental organization in North America.  Given my involvement with Hazon, and the Jewish environmental movement more broadly, people I speak to are often surprised to hear that I am deeply ambivalent about efforts to adopt some form of Shemitah-observance outside of Israel.  My reservations are threefold:

  1. As an Orthodox Jew, who sees Shemitah primarily in halakhic (legal) terms, I’m leery of efforts to redefine Shemitah in a way that is counter to the halakhic tradition. By suggesting that Jews outside of Israel should be practicing some version of Shemitah, we risk disparaging the halakhic tradition, which tells us Shemitah is primarily about agriculture and exclusively applies to the land of Israel.
  2. There also seems to be something almost anti-zionist about taking a commandment that by law only applies in the land of Israel (a “mitzvah teluyah ba’aretz”), and applying it elsewhere.  This would seem to represent a basic denial of kedushat ha’aretz, the sacred status of the land of Israel in Jewish law and imagination.  To be sure, in the days of the Sages, Jews in Egypt and Babylonia adopted practices that by law only apply in Israel, such as tithing their produce, but even so, they stayed away from Shemitah (and, in fact, tithed even during the shemitah year, when Israeli farmers practicing Shemitah were of course exempt from tithing).
  3. Any effort to transpose Shemitah outside it’s existing halakhic framework depends on a clear understanding of the underlying values of Shemitah. While I have no theological or halakhic objection with the attempt to identify the underlying values of mitzvot such as Shemitah, this is a process that requires serious study, and must be approached with deep humility and an open mind. Otherwise, it is all too easy to just look for our own pre-existing values in the mitzvot.  As an environmentalist who believes that in order to survive as a society, we need to move beyond industrialized, petroleum-driven mono-crop agriculture, it would be very easy for me to say Shemitah must be about practicing sustainable agriculture. It’s much harder to honestly ask what Shemitah is doing, and to look for answers with an open mind among the details of the law and the writings of great thinkers.

Because of these serious reservations, I have been hesitant to join in with others in the Jewish environmental world in adopting shemitah-type practices outside of Israel, or practices deemed to be “in the spirit” of shemitah.  But I do want to participate participate in this once-every-seven-years opportunity for a conversation about halakha, values, and utopian social visions.  As an Orthodox rabbinical student, the most obvious and natural way for me to start engaging with Shemitah, is simply to study the sources. After spending this past summer studying the laws of Shemitah as found in the Mishnah, the Yerushalmi and in Rambam, and reading what some Jewish thinkers over the centuries have said about the underlying values of Shemitah (for an excellent summary, see Shemitah by Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon).  I found myself, in spite of all my reservations, thinking about taking on practices for the year that would embody some of the underlying values of Shemitah.  The question remained how to do so in a way that would be respectful of halakha and sanctity of the land of Israel, and that would be intellectually honest.

The third concern is in some ways the easiest to address.  While I still believe it’s impossible to fully understand the meaning of a mitzvah without actually practicing it, in the case of Shemitah this is not a realistic option. Even in Israel, less than 2% of the Jewish population is professionally involved in agriculture, and in any case, legal work-arounds enable the agricultural economy to continue to function during the Shemitah year with some minor adjustments.  Without the option of an immersion in the gestalt experience of keeping Shemitah, our next best option for understanding the mitzvah and its underlying values is a thorough study of the halakhic and philosophical literature on the subject.

Even after spending a summer studying the subject of Shemitah, I don’t feel like I can say what THE value behind Shemitah is. Even were I much more learned and wise than I am, and even if I felt I understood Shemitah perfectly, my instinct tells me that few mitzvot, if any, can be boiled down to a single motivating value, certainly not a mitzvah as complex as Shemitah.  However, I do feel that, based on what I’ve read as well as my own thinking, I can with some confidence describe SOME of the values that seem to be inherent in Shemitah.

This removes the third concern.  What about the first two? These amount to a worry that by removing Shemitah from it’s traditional halakhic parameters, we risk insulting the halakhic system and denying the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael.  Both of these concerns can be addressed by adopting practices and a rhetoric that make it clear that we are not attempting to co-opt halakhic Shemitah for Chutz La’aretz.  While I know that others have made different choices, I would never dream of refraining from plowing, pruning, planting, or harvesting in the United States, the activities which constitute the core of Shemitah observance in Eretz Israel.  However, by taking on some purely voluntary restrictions that are intended to have some of the same effects as Shemitah, without attempting to mimic the form of the mitzvah, I hope to experience a taste of Shemitah without doing a disservice either to the halakha or to Eretz Yisrael.

I’ve been particularly interested Rav Kook’s idea of the Shemitah as a special year to disengage from the burden of worldly pursuits, in order to allow the inner divine light to shine more fully.  I’m also interested in the Chinukh’s idea that Shemitah is about relinquishing personal control over the earth and recognizing God’s sovereignty over the earth.  So, beli neder (without taking a vow) I’ve decided to adopt three special practices for the year that seek to reduce my own exploitation of natural resources, help me reduce my involvement with an unsustainable and spiritually toxic consumer culture and allow me more time and energy to focus on the things that really matter in life, all without attempting mimic the halakhic observance of Shemitah in Eretz Yisrael.  First I plan to forgo recreational air travel (one of the most expensive and resource-intensive means of getting from point A to point B). I’ve also decided to avoid buying any new non-consumable goods— any clothes, appliances, hardware or books I buy for myself this year must be used.  Third, I’ve decided give up my mobile data plan, in order to take back some the time and mental space that I had relinquished to the constant checking of my mobile device.

I feel it’s important to emphasize that I do not see these choices as way of observing Shemitah.  The halakha is very clear about what observing Shemitah means, and that, with the exception of releasing debts, it only applies in Israel.  They are, rather, my way of trying to bring some of the values of Shemitah into my life this year.

Finally, I want to say that my intention in writing this has not been to disparage anyone else’s approach to Shemitah.  For all the concerns I’ve described, I think it’s exciting that Jews of all stripes are talking about what Shemitah means and trying find ways to live the fundamental rhythms of Jewish time.  Moreover, I think anything that gets more Jews thinking about how to live a more spiritually and ecologically sustainable life, in a way that is authentically Jewish, is a good thing.

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  • Garth, I really appreciate your honesty and depth of thinking on the subject of Shemitah. Although I have not studied Shemitah you have done, I have nevertheless been struck by the enigmatic nature of this mitzvah, and the sense that it has a spiritual depth and breadth that may be beyond our ability to understand. I feel you have touched on this, and your thoughts make me wonder all the more what Shemitah is really about.
    When we make the kinds of changes in our lives that you are doing, from a spiritual perspective, they become so much more meaningful than if we just do them out of the blue. Thank you!


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