Kedushat Shevi’it – The Holiness of the Seventh Year

By Dr. Meesh Hammer-Kossoy

I recently ran, together with my entire family, in the Jerusalem Marathon. Admittedly, I ran merely the five kilometer non-competitive race, but it was a special feeling just the same. It was a chance to run with an amazing mosaic of people including Jews from America, soldiers from across the country, high school kids from Gush Etzion and even Christian pilgrims from Hungary and Italy. More than a dozen Pardes students, teachers, and staff from the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies (where I serve on the faculty) were out running the full marathon, half marathon, 10-K or family run, and it felt like the entire neighborhood was there, too. In fact, throughout the last months of training (yes, I had to train even for the 5-K run), there has been a feeling of camaraderie and excitement on the streets as the number of runners multiplied in preparation.   We got strength from each other, and the successes of the day have inspired us to push forward to greater heights.

Without detracting from the value of the marathon (Jerusalem should be home to earthly as well as heavenly pursuits), I find myself imagining what it might have felt like had we been gathering for the hakhel Torah reading ceremony as prescribed in Deuteronomy 31:10-13:

“Every seventh year, the year set for remission, at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God in the place that He will choose, you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel. Gather the people—men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities—that they may hear and so learn to revere the Lord your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching. Their children, too, who have not had the experience, shall hear and learn to revere the Lord your God as long as they live in the land that you are about to cross the Jordan to possess.” (NJPS Translation)

Like the marathon, the entire country comes together during hakhel for a common purpose. Men, women and children all participate, each according to their abilities; everyone must be included in the event. However, hakhel is not merely a one time happening but the culmination of the sabbatical year – which is essentially a year of “social training” geared to create deep and meaningful social solidarity from beginning to end.

Deep social solidarity needs to be rooted on multiple levels. Before we can even imagine thinking about our national spiritual needs, we need to take care of our physical needs.   That is why seventh year produce is described as “holy.” (P. Sheviit 4:7 (35c), based on Leviticus 25:12) Whereas sanctification normally indicates something circumscribed to a very limited elite (the Temple or the priests), the produce’s sanctity during the sabbatical year is rooted in its availability to all. It can be eaten anywhere in the land of Israel, and by anyone, even the animals: “you, your male and female slaves, the hired and bound laborers who live with you, and your cattle and the beasts in your land may eat its yield.” (Leviticus 25:2-7) It may not be hoarded or sold. As the 11th century French rabbinic commentator Rashi explains: “you may not act as owner, rather everyone is equal with respect to it.” (Leviticus 25:6, s.v. v’hayta shabbat ha-aretz) In an overturning of the standard understanding of holiness, sabbatical produce enshrines the holiness of equality.

This egalitarian vision is amplified in other ways as well.   Not only is both the land and the produce considered ownerless and available to all, lenders must forgive all debts on the sabbatical year (Deuteronomy 15:1-4).   The hierarchy of rich and poor, lenders and debtors, employers and employees, slaves and slave owners is eliminated and a new age of social solidarity is inaugurated.

Once we have worked towards closing economic gaps, we can move forward towards shared culture. The sabbatical year is called Shmita, the year of “release.” This notion of release points beyond economic equality towards a process of spiritual growth.   By letting go of our quest to produce, Shmita gives us the opportunity to rest together with our land, thus grounding ourselves, literally and figuratively.   We are empowered to direct our thoughts beyond acquiring material wealth. Social solidarity becomes more fundamental than accumulation of wealth, and by consuming less, we become aware of our own excesses. That is why the 11th-12th century Spanish rabbinic commentator Abraham ibn Ezra suggests that the hakhel ceremony is not an isolated event, but is symbolic of what is done all year. (Rabbi Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra, 108-1164, Deuteronomy 31:12, s.v. ul’ma’an ilmedu, Mehokkei Levi edition) In working less, we enable reflection no less vital to our existence than owning. But again, that release must be available to everyone; Torah learning must be done by one and all as a community: “men, women, children and the strangers in your communities” (Deuteronomy 31:12). Standing together as one for hakhel is the perfect climactic end for the Shmita year.

This coming year (5775) we will be inaugurating another sabbatical year. Of course, we’ll mark it by utilizing technical halakhic loopholes, like the prozbol to avoid forgiving our loans and the heter mechira so we can continue to work our land.   But let’s also mark it with a year of building social solidarity on both economic and spiritual/cultural levels.   If we could design a hakhel ceremony that does not reflect one isolated morning of messianic aspirations and petty politics, but a process of deep cultural renewal accompanied by expanded economic opportunities for the weak in our society—now that’s a marathon I would really love to participate in.

Dr. Hammer-Kossoy, originally from Washington, D.C., has a B.A. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University, and a M.A. and Ph.D. from New York University. Her dissertation explored the courageous manner in which the rabbis of the Talmud created a new criminal punishment system.

Dr. Hammer-Kossoy is also a graduate of NATIV, Pardes, Midreshet Lindenbaum, MaTaN, Drisha, and ATID. She has received many fellowships including Lady Davis, National Foundation for Jewish Culture, Memorial Foundation and ATID. Dr. Hammer-Kossoy has also taught at NYU, Drisha and Midreshet Lindenbaum and currently teaches Talmud and the Social Justice Track at Pardes.

Despite having written her dissertation about criminal punishment in the Talmudic period, Meesh is known by her husband and three children as a lover of mercy and kindness.

The views expressed on this site do not necessarily reflect the views of The Sova Project or its founding partner organizations.  All comments on this site are the responsibility of their writers.

Rest, Share, Release (Part II)

This piece is a continuation of the last post, a translated essay that was published in Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper, on September 24, 2007- before the start of the previous shmita year. The authors relate to the Israeli reality then – which is only recently beginning to change. Many of the recent new initiatives around shmita have been taken as a response to critical appraisals and calls for action similar to the ones expressed here, but their trenchant critique remains highly relevant.

By Avi Sagi and Yedidia Stern

tr. Yale J. Reisner

It is difficult not to be impressed by the profundity of the idea that moves cautiously between the desire to preserve private property and the wish not to see property as the be-all and end-all.  Shmita is a call for the creation of a bubble in time in which economic activity slows down, and which brings kindness, compassion and even partnership among all those who share the face of the earth, including the beasts of the field.  In the eighth year, the race will resume, because humanity requires it, but the idea and its memory are meant to reach beyond the sabbatical year into the six years of feverish productivity.

The idea of shmita was given to us in a time when all of economics was private: each under their grapevine and under their fig tree.  But today when we benefit from a national economy, shouldn’t we upgrade the personal and societal message to the situation of the state?  Is shmita to be observed only on the micro level and not on the macro level as well?  This question should have been the focal point of the religious discussion of our generation, since the restoration of Jewish sovereignty is the greatest novelty to have occurred in Jewish civilization over the last two thousand years.  And instead – how frustrating! – there is silence.

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Rest, Share, Release (Part I)

By Avi Sagi and Yedidia Stern

tr. Yale J. Reisner

Note: This essay was published in Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper, on September 24, 2007- before the start of the previous shmita year. The authors relate to the Israeli reality then – which is only recently beginning to change. Many of the recent new initiatives around shmita have been taken as a response to critical appraisals and calls for action similar to the ones expressed here, but their trenchant critique remains highly relevant.

Shmita in Israel is an oppressive experience that misses a potential moment of benevolence in our national life.  The biblical concept has turned into an additional battleground between the halakhic authorities, one forbidding, the other permitting, without regard for the noble idea which has been stripped of its meaning in the Jewish state.  The list of the injured is long:  the religion, which is decaying into irrelevance and worse; the state, which is missing an opportunity to improve its image by donning glorious ethical Jewish garb and contributing to the repair of the world; Jewish agriculture, whose withered belly is struck by the fist of halakhic prohibition; and the citizenry in general, one-fifth of whom are poor and who will be forced to pay an exorbitant price for basic goods, particularly in the shmita year.

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The Israeli Shmita Declaration

The following text is a manifesto that represents the spirit behind a fascinating initiative taking place in Israel, Shmita Yisraelit: putting the radical idea of Shmita on the map of Israel’s civil society. Scores of individuals, as well as 22 different organizations, have signed this declaration, with the intent of promoting initiatives that take their inspiration from the sabbatical vision of the Shmita year.

This unique integrative vision combines strengthening communities and renewing the commons, with combating entrenched poverty and debt release, and promoting local and sustainable food systems, with a strong statement of work-life balance. Spearheaded by Einat Kramer of Teva Ivri, and former MK Rabbi Michael Melchior, the organizations that have signed on range in their activities from environmental quality, debt relief, and social justice, to Jewish renewal, student organizations, community groups, and more.

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The Religious Responsibility for Creation

By Barbara K. Darling

We live on a fragile planet.  Frogs are disappearing; by some counts 1 in 3 amphibian species are at risk of extinction.   Twenty to 25% of all mammal species are endangered.  Water supplies are fouled; coral reefs are destroyed; soils are depleted.  Poisons from the air find their way into the lungs of human children, causing unprecedented occurrences of asthma.  Pelicans and cormorants appear on television news stories, their feathers drenched in oil from an oil spill.  All of these grim examples—and countless more—demonstrate how human activity has damaged the earth.

We have not even mentioned the harsh reality of human-caused climate change.  Polar bears are losing their frigid habitats.  Populations from the Philippines to Pakistan to Long Island to California experience extreme weather events.  The systems on which humans and all other beings depend are in danger of collapsing–soon.

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The Narrative of Shmita

By Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin

Let’s face it: Shmita has a marketing problem. It comes only once every seven years. It has little name recognition. It treads perilously close to being confused with the handy but derogating Yiddish word shmata – rag.  It has no memorable ritual to ground it; no identifiable symbol associated with it; no compelling narrative to frame it. It is – as presented in the Torah and in tradition – just a series of laws.

It’s as if we had to market in one spiritual bundle seat belts, the gas tax and city circulators. Those of us in the know could see the connection – safe, affordable, sustainable and equitable transit. We would know too the greater context: that the flow of people, ideas, goods and services form the backbone of the body politic.

But the whole is not intuitively obvious. Neither is Shmita. So how do we capture the power of the seventh year in an image or symbol that can move the spirit?

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What is Enough?

By Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg

“What is enough” seems to me the eternal question underlying the exploration of Sova and Shmita. This question calls out from every corner of our lives: Is there enough knowledge? Enough piety? Enough resilience? Enough money? Enough food/ land/water/oil/ copper/ iron – you name it? Enough time before things get worse? Enough community? Enough love? Enough faith?

How do we know if there is enough? How do we respond to this question when everything around us seems to be limited and running out? How do we take action that is not riddled with the anxiety of scarcity and absence?

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