A shmita year: Why we need to give it a rest in 5775

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Sidebar: “Sabbatical year yields a crop of critical resolutions”

Adam Berman is about to give his Berkeley farmland a break.

Rye and other cover crops that have been planted at Urban Adamah, the nonprofit Jewish educational farm he directs, will draw nitrogen out of the atmosphere over the winter and return it to the soil, rejuvenating it.

The timing is not coincidental. Shmita — a Torah commandment that requires croplands in Israel to lie fallow every seventh year (shmita means “release” in Hebrew) — begins on Rosh Hashanah, at sundown on Wednesday, Sept. 24.

Besides resting the land, Jews may not eat anything sown or grown in Israel during the shmita year. They may eat only from perennial plants or wild edibles — though anyone may take crops growing untended on private lands. Also, personal debts must be forgiven if the debtor so requests.

This is how shmita has been observed for centuries by observant Jews in the Holy Land. When it comes to agriculture, property and social inequality, shmita provides the ultimate clean slate.

“Shmita is the most economically, environmentally and socially radical idea in the Torah, hands down,” Berman said.

This year, there is a concerted effort in some circles to extend the principles of shmita beyond the letter of the law. Metaphorically, Jews are finding new ways to embrace the idea of lying fallow.

“Shmita is a comment on what society should look like,” Berman said. “If we took it literally and applied it in a meaningful way to the nonagrarian society we now inhabit, it would have profound impact.”

For seven years, since the end of the last shmita year, Nigel Savage has been urging Jews to create new ways to mark the commandment.

Adam Berman in the Urban Adamah greenhouse photo/cathleen maclearie

As founder and executive director of Hazon, a nonprofit that focuses on a Jewish approach to food, environment and sustainability, Savage believes the time is ripe for this kind of reimagining.

“Let’s consider what shmita is about,” Savage said. “It’s a series of obscure, ancient concepts about how we relate to land, to food, about inequality in our community, the nature of work and rest in our lives, our relationship to debt. Those issues are central to our lives today in 2014.”

Hazon’s Shmita Project involves a full-court press on shmita education, including a comprehensive sourcebook and the first full English translation of “Shabbat Ha’aretz,” the seminal 1909 manifesto on shmita by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.

Hazon has encouraged Jewish institutions and individuals to ring in the shmita year with local farm tours, wild food walks, crop swaps and community feasts, among other suggestions.

In the Bay Area, Jewish institutions have climbed aboard. Several synagogues have scheduled sermons, Shabbatons and Torah study sessions focusing on shmita.

Recently, Rabbi Yonatan Cohen of Congregation Beth Israel gave a sermon on shmita to his Orthodox congregation and hosted a discussion led by Rabbi Yedidya Julian Sinclair, a British-born Israeli who translated Rav Kook’s book. Sinclair is helping Hazon spread the word about shmita, speaking at federations and JCCs across the country.

Sinclair, who runs a clean energy company in Israel, said Israelis in all walks of life — government, agribusiness, nonprofits — have shown enthusiasm for shmita during this cycle.

“People are talking about how to make their organizations more sustainable,” he said. “Part of the value of shmita is sharing. In the Bible you open up your fields in the shmita year, and everyone can come. Most of us don’t have fields, literally, but what is your field? What is your expertise, your source of your livelihood that you could share more widely?”

Merav Tzur working on her “Grafted Arboreus sabius” photo/google plus

“What begins as a disposition toward the land is supposed to then lead to a disposition towards the things one owns,” Cohen added, “with the idea that this gets extended to feelings we hold onto, people we hold onto. Sometimes it might even be false images of ourselves.”

At Oakland Reform congregation Temple Sinai, Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin has been educating members about shmita and making programming plans for the coming year.

One of her High Holy Day sermons will be on the topic, and she plans to hold several services outdoors next year to tie in with shmita’s connection to the natural world. The synagogue’s green committee also will offer shmita-related programs in the coming months.

“I thought it would be a great theme for the community,” Mates-Muchin said, “not only for the planet and the Earth, but [in terms of] the need to do some reflection. The significance of shmita is not only renewal but that we have a break in our usual patterns. When we stop our habits, we look around and make sure they are suiting our purposes.”

On Oct. 2, a panel discussion on shmita called “Give It a Rest” will take place at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley, the first of three public conversations about Jewish learning, art and culture called “Ideas of Late,” a program of the Jewish Federation of the East Bay and co-sponsored by the Magnes Museum Foundation.

The panel will include Berman, along with Asa Bradman, a U.C. Berkeley professor of environmental science, and Merav Tzur, an East Bay–based artist. The discussion will be moderated by J. columnist Dan Schifrin.

Bradman’s field of study has been pinpointing health hazards to those working in agriculture while promoting healthful and more sustainable alternatives.

Nigel Savage at JCC in Manhattan in 2014

He believes shmita “at its core reflects a sense of ethics and a moral compass that looks at our food and how we sustain ourselves as a larger community.”

Added Berman: “From an environmental perspective, shmita says every seven years the tools and mechanisms of production should stop. It’s like Shabbat, except it lasts for an entire year.”

Schifrin said shmita matters because Jews are duty-bound to probe tradition to find ways of improving the world.

“Any rituals in [Judaism] that help us understand how we as a society can take a step back and treat the land better, we should take a look at,” he said. “Even if the rules don’t apply to us.”

The rules most definitely apply in Israel, with laws governing what one may or may not do in the garden, and how to properly dispose of fruits and vegetables. However, forcing agribusinesses to rest their lands and mandating debt forgiveness go against the grain of the modern world. So Israel has found ways to observe the commandment without undue sacrifice. While planting is forbidden during the shmita year, some watering, pruning and weeding is allowed. During the last cycle seven years ago, some 3,500 Israeli farmers observed shmita and rested 400,000 dunams (about 100,000 acres) of land, according to the Jerusalem Post.

As for debt relief, Jews are forbidden from withholding loans just because of a looming shmita year (during which debts may be forfeited). On the other hand, over the centuries a system has been worked out whereby personal debts can be transferred to an ad hoc court that is empowered to receive repayments.

Rabbi Yedidya Julian Sinclair

This year, as Sinclair pointed out above, Israelis are taking a fresh look at shmita and how its emphasis on social justice can be more fully expressed. For example, a group of activists led by a former Knesset member, Rabbi Michael Melchior, approached the Ministry of Welfare seeking up to NIS 100 million (about $27.5 million) for debt relief for some 10,000 families. The request was approved.

In keeping with the environmentalist precepts behind shmita, Israel’s Ministry of the Environment has proposed a yearlong moratorium on fishing in the Sea of Galilee to replenish depleted fish stocks.

Shmita enthusiasts hope many Jews will draw from the tradition to add meaning to their lives. At Urban Adamah, Berman admires the ancient Jewish inspiration for this radical notion. He calls it a “utopian vision that at the time everyone had what they needed, and the resources and land to support themselves.”

He likes the idea that every few years, Jews have the opportunity to get back to that.

Said Berman, “There’s a huge social and human value to getting everyone to the same starting place.”

Read more about shmita at

“Give It a Rest: Food Rituals and the Biblical Sabbatical Year.” Part of the Jewish Federation of the East Bay’s new “Ideas of Late” series, evening conversations about Jewish learning, art and culture. Shmita panel will feature Adam Berman (Urban Adamah), Dr. Asa Bradman (U.C. Berkeley Food Institute) and Merav Tzur (Bay Area artist), with moderator Dan Schifrin. 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 2 at Magnes Auditorium, 2121 Allston Way, Berkeley. Free. or (510) 839-2900



Sabbatical year yields a crop of critical resolutions

My new year’s resolutions for Rosh Hashanah will look a bit different this year.

They will include:

• Eating more perennial foods.

• Reducing new acquisitions whenever possible, and frequenting resale shops or borrowing from family and friends.

• Paying all monthly bills in full and on time.

• Cleaning out my closets and giving away to family, friends, and philanthropic causes all that I do not need (using a complex calculus that includes decluttering, divesting, bequeathing, reducing, downsizing my appetite and simplifying my life).

• Planting berry bushes and fruit trees.

I will do this because this year is unlike other years. This year is shmita — the sabbatical year, the seventh year in an ancient cycle of recurring sevens whose chain reaches back to the generation of Sinai.

Shmita is a year of environmental, economic and social reboot. It is a year when lands lie fallow, private fields become public domain, physical (and social) barriers are torn down, personal loans are forgiven, debts are erased and human relations assume a social — not transactional — quality.

While standing at Sinai, our ancestors were told: When you enter the land of Israel, “For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat” (Exodus 23:11).

Leviticus expands on the shmita laws this way: “When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land must be given a rest period, a Sabbath to God. For six years you may plant your fields, prune your vineyards, and harvest your crops, but the seventh year is a Sabbath of Sabbaths for the land. It is God’s Sabbath, during which you may not plant your fields, nor prune your vineyards” (Leviticus 25:2-4).

Deuteronomy adds the erasure of debts: “At the end of every seven years, you shall celebrate the year of debt forgiveness … every creditor shall remit any debt owed by his neighbor and brother when God’s year of debt forgiveness comes around …” (Deuteronomy 15:1-6).

Each book adds a layer of freedom and equity. They all add up to a vision that creates a world of sharing and release, satiety and ease, sufficiency and equity — at least temporarily.

Ever since Sinai, the observance of shmita has largely been limited to the land of Israel. But this year, through a confluence of reasons — the growing crises of environmental degradation, climate destabilization, radical wealth inequality, the global obesity epidemic, global food insecurity and the false promise of the marketplace that having more things will yield more happiness — shmita has grabbed the attention of diaspora Jews.

This year we ask: How shall we, those of us guided by Torah but unencumbered by the literal constraints of the law, live a year of shmita? Beyond the technical biblical and rabbinic laws that are observed in the land of Israel, how can we understand, honor and observe the deeper meaning and ethic of the shmita year, both as individuals and as a community? (Actually, many Israeli Jews are going beyond the letter of the law and engaging in this broader question as well.)

Shmita encompasses three areas of essential ethical behavior and unavoidable engagement: food, money and people. It is hard to pass a single day without encountering every one of these. Thus, each and every time we eat, conduct an economic transaction or encounter other people, we are facing a shmita challenge. At each encounter of food, money or people, we are asked to consider two questions:

How is my behavior at this moment contributing to — or detracting from — a more equitable and enduring world?

What changes in society should we implement to create the scaffolding to bring about such a world in the other six years?

These are urgent questions. Through an exploration of a year of living shmita, we are being asked to do nothing less than to reimagine and realign our economic and consumer trends, which will, in turn, change our fundamental sense of self and the values we have lived by since the end of World War II.

We are being asked to take a leap of faith and seek to:

• Build a robust economy while making and buying less stuff.

• Enhance and appropriately reward the service sector of the economy.

• Create greater economic equality.

• Reverse the trend toward privatization and return to and celebrate the concept of the “commons” — those natural and cultural resources that belong to, and should be equally accessible to, all of us.

• Create a marketplace for people instead of using people to enrich the titans of the marketplace.

• Strengthen local ties and local economies.

• Personalize the exchange of goods.

• Reimagine a just construction of debt.

This leap is difficult, and that is why shmita comes only once every seven years. The first step is to commit to living intentionally this shmita year. Then, we must take the lessons we learn and begin to build them into the other six years.


Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin is co-creator of, a blog exploring a renewed economy inspired by the values of shmita. Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma ( September 2014, which is running a monthly column on the ethical questions associated with shmita.


on the cover

photo/daniel infeld

Fred Bahnson at Kvutzat Shiller farm in Rehovot on Hazon’s 2013 Israel Sustainable Food Tour

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.