Earth Etude for Elul 11 – The Shemittah Cycle

by Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin~

Do you know where this new year falls in the shemittah (seven-year) count? Or when the next shemittah year will be?

Even those of us who were deeply engaged in celebrating the last shemittah year may have difficulty remembering if it was 2 or 3 years ago. (It was 3 years ago – 5775, 2014-2015.) Yet shemittah, like Shabbat, is more than a slice of time. It is a presence, always with us. It is a practice, an attitude, a social, economic and spiritual ethic that guides our lives.

In the biblical era, this was evident, and the air of the shemittah ethic was an everyday reality. As weekdays counted up to the celebration of Shabbat, so years counted up to the celebration of shemittah. Years One and Two (as they were designated), as well as Years Four and Five, were years when the annual tithe (the gifts of the partnership of God, earth and humans – or the monetary equivalent thereof) had to be taken to the Temple and enjoyed there. Not just consumed or spent but enjoyed: “Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice.”

Years Three and Six were different. In those years, the gift of the tithes was to stay in the farmer’s home community – stored in a publicly accessible spot so that those in need could readily take when and what they needed. The handling of one’s harvest demanded that the farmer – and the indigent – know what year it was.

Even more, given that any debts owed would have to be reconciled before, or else be forgiven in, the seventh year, anyone on either side of an outstanding loan would have had a very good idea what year of the shemittah cycle they were in.

What a deep awareness of shared time these traditions must have conjured up. Everyone was immersed in the collective passage of years, knowing what is expected of them this year and next, all leading to the grand pause, the reset, leveling and renewal of the shemittah year itself.

I wanted to feel this presence; to be immersed in this cyclical flow of time of my people, to know what time it was, not just in hours or days, but years. So for this past shemittah year, I created a shemittah Rosh Hashanah seder plate

It is designed to be placed on the table the first night of the year, every year, as a visual mnemonic of this particular year. it is a circular platter with six small bowls around one central receptacle – representing the fullness of the shemittah cycle. Each year, the bowls are to be filled with foods symbolic of that year, with a different bowl (corresponding to the year of the cycle) being the lead each year. Ideally, the food in the bowls – and the telling that accompanies them – will heighten our awareness of the values and the tasks we are called to do, with an emphasis on our part in renewing all of God’s creation.

The sample shown here is a pale prototype of what such a shemittah seder plate could be. I hope that this idea excites potters, and other artists, so that they might craft their own versions to inspire us all.

Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin is working to discover the many legal, ecological and economic lessons embedded in the concept of Shemittah and adapting them to the needs of today.

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