The experience of shemitah is both fascinating and iconic. Occurring once in seven years, it carries the mystique of something “extraordinary” or even enchanted. Intended as a seminal national experience, it was rarely practiced in its truest form. In the modern context, our encounter with shemitah has dramatically shifted from the fields and orchards to the rows of the supermarket. What are the deeper meanings of this multifaceted and complicated mitzvah?
Shemita distills several important Jewish values. It qualifies our ownership of land while moderating our response to financial successes. Returning the land back to its Creator prevents the arrogance that typically follows economic success. A full year of work stoppage underscores that human wealth is Divinely allocated and therefore transitory.
Additionally, shemitah reaffirms our national rights to the Land of Israel. As God’s chosen people, we possess moral and historical warrant to this land. Throughout history, our deed to our land has been vehemently disputed. Every seven years, shemitah certifies that it will be Divine allocation and not political diplomacy or military aggression that will dictate the future of this land.
Furthermore, shemitah reorders socio-economic hierarchies. Lands are left barren, and produce is equally and readily available to both rich and poor. The related laws of “shemitat kesafim” or the annulment of loans, in theory, are meant to dissolve all debt, effectively resetting financial imbalances. Every society struggles with wealth inequality and its potential social repercussions. The rich accumulate more wealth as the poor sink into greater debt, eroding social unity and destabilizing economies. At our particular stage of history, wealth disparities are particularly exaggerated, as 1% of the world’s richest possess twice as much wealth as 6.9 billion people. By resetting financial parity, shemitah rebuilds a more egalitarian and classless social fabric.
Finally, shemitah serves as a spiritual and personal “retreat” from the hustle bustle of society and the pressures of our daily routine. Functionally similar to Shabbat, it provides a yearlong “leave of absence” enabling spiritual, personal and communal rebooting. As shemitah incorporates so many core elements of religion, it serves as a benchmark for Jewish residence in Israel. Adherence to shemitah secures our presence in Israel, while violation of this commandment ousts us from the land of God.
Historical Cycles of Shemitah
Similar to the Jewish people, shemitah has undergone dramatic shifts throughout history. Many of the Torah’s commandments are static and remain more or less unaffected by history. Other mitzvot are more fluid, fluctuating with the revolutions of Jewish history. Shemitah has been deeply impacted by Jewish history and, particularly, by our unending struggle to settle our homeland. The journey to full shemitah observance mirrors the odyssey of Jewish history.
Tragically, during the First Temple era, shemitah was largely ignored. During that deeply flawed 400-year period, 70 shemitah and yovel periods were disregarded. A 70-year exile in Babylonia provided respite, allowing the land to recoup its lost shemitah cycles. Ironically, the Jews of the Second Temple era did adhere to the laws of shemitah. However, during this period, the caliber of this mitzvah was compromised. Most Jews did not return from exile, as the majority of our people resided outside the boundaries of Israel. Under these disappointing conditions, the Biblical experience of shemitah no longer applied. Shemitah was still practiced at a rabbinic level, but the ideal performance of the mitzvah remained elusive. In effect, during the initial 900 years of residence in our homeland, shemitah never achieved its full stature. In the year 70 AD, the long night of Jewish exile began and shemitah, effectively, faded from view for close to 1,800 years. When it resurfaced, it would become entangled in significant controversy.
Toward the end of the 19th century, Jewish settlement in Israel expanded beyond the vicinity of Jerusalem. New agrarian settlements, almost exclusively dependent upon farming, were sprouting up. The specter of a full year of shemitah, absent any agricultural activity, threatened both the livelihood and the lives of these new yishuvim or moshavot. In the lead up to the shemitah year of 1889, a fierce controversy erupted surrounding potential workarounds for shemitah. Leading Israeli and European rabbis debated the legality of circumventing shemitah prohibitions by selling Jewish lands to gentiles. Many authorities rejected this legal fiction known as “heter mechira,” recommending instead full compliance and a complete work stoppage. Alternatively, many rabbis who were exposed first-hand to the dire situation were more supportive of this potential leniency. Shemitah became a divisive issue.
The struggle wasn’t only divisive, it was also sadly ironic. We had dreamed of this historical “moment” for centuries. Having been scattered across the globe, we yearned for a return to the fields and pasturelands of Israel. How sadly paradoxical that, clawing our way home in the late 19th century, we were obliged to sell our land to gentiles. What a sad commentary upon the imperfect nature of our return. Evidently, history and the land were not yet ready for a full Jewish return.
Gradually, as the cycles of shemitah passed, reality overcame ideology and the heter mechira policy of selling the land of Israel finally became institutionalized by Rav Kook in the year 1909.
Personal Religion or National Religion
For most of us who do not live agricultural lives, shemitah has transformed into a year in which we insert one more “check box” to our kashrut checklist. During shemitah, in addition to inspecting general kashrut, we also examine “shemitah kashrut.” Most of the overall population relies upon the heter-mechira sale, while continuing to purchase Israeli products, as they would during a non-shemitah year. Others, who are uncomfortable with this “halachic bypass,” import their produce or purchase it from local Arabs, or from farms located outside the boundaries of Biblical Israel. It should be plainly obvious that each of these solutions is severely deficient.
Interestingly, these two differing strategies reflect two fundamentally different attitudes about religious life in Israel. One approach places almost exclusive emphasis upon personal religious experience. Imported fruits or gentile-owned vegetables are optimal for preserving the kashrut level of my personal plate of food. If personal religious quality is the primary factor, this approach is far superior.
Other Jews adopt a more nationalistic view—one concerned with sweeping shemitah ramifications beyond their own kitchen or meal plan. Individuals may be able to import from Gaza, Turkey or Jordan. Nationally, though, a full cessation of labor would starve the agricultural industry. Shutting down this sector for an entire year and ceasing exports would practically forfeit international markets. My personal salad can be imported, but the agricultural industry—a vital national asset—requires a different shemitah solution.
Additionally, the heter-mechira bypass is valuable for national kosher “coverage.” Fervently religious people may be willing to incur greater cost or enjoy lower-quality produce to maintain shemitah laws. General Israeli consumers, though, may be less dedicated and less willing to sacrifice quality. To enable national shemitah observance, heter mechira is necessary to ensure readily available “kosher” produce. Heter-mechira may not represent the highest standard of kashrut but it remains the best vehicle for stretching shemitah to the national stage.
Shemitah possesses unifying potential: Collectively we return the land to God and retire for a year-long spiritual retreat. Economic ledgers are wiped and, for an entire year, the divisions between affluent and poor vanish. During Sukkot immediately subsequent to shemitah, in the aftermath of this economic and spiritual unity, an entire nation descends upon the city of unity for a public recital of Torah. The harmony of Hakhel Torah-recital caps the solidarity built during shemitah.
In the modern world we have lost so much of our shemitah experience. Can we at least retain shemitah as a unifier? Let us not turn shemitah into a “kashrut competition” or a smug conversation about which “flawed approach” to shemitah kashrut is halachically superior. If we still haven’t solved shemitah in the modern state, let it not degenerate into sanctimony or holier-than-thou posturing. Those who don’t rely upon the heter-mechira workaround should appreciate the needs of national shemitah. Those who do rely upon the workaround should have the intellectual honesty to realize how flimsy it is and how, in an ideal world, we would not sell off our country to non-Jews.
Shemitah is also a year of humility before God. Hopefully, we all navigate the upcoming shemitah with humility, appreciating and respecting different approaches to this quandary.
Shemitah holds a mirror to Jewish history. Do we trust God enough and are we spiritually courageous enough to adopt full shemitah compliance? Our track record isn’t great. We still haven’t cracked the riddle of returning to the modern Israel and maintaining shemitah. As we inch closer to a fully redeemed state we draw closer to full shemitah compliance. One day we will reach it. Until that day, let us stand together during shemitah united by one common dream.
The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.