The shmita commandments are immensely radical. They legislate a septennial time-out in Jewish economic life, a year of spiritual renewal, a holiday for the land, and a yearlong cease-fire in the harsh economic struggle for survival. Shmita calls for the abolition of many of the rights of private property; a leveling of rich and poor, man and beast, earth and earth-dwellers; an amnesty on debt; and, every half-century — in the 49th year, known as the Jubilee — a reset on the vicissitudes of the free market.
These mitzvot represent a periodic ethical challenge to our entire socioeconomic order. As the scholar of Jewish thought Gerald Blidstein wrote in the Orthodox journal Tradition in 1966: Shmita represents “more than the commonplace struggle between a radical religious demand and an unconsenting world. Rather, we have here an institution that contests the legitimacy of that world.”
It is not surprising that, historically, these commandments have generated conflict between those who want to observe the requirements exactingly and those who want to follow the demands of economic reality. Given the conflict around this commandment, it is remarkable that shmita was observed as diligently as it was. There is overwhelming evidence that the sabbatical for the land was strictly observed throughout the Second Temple period. We read in the book of Nehemia (10:32), for example, that at the assembly described upon returning to Israel in 516 BCE, the Jews publicly declared that they would observe shmita.
The remission of debts (shmitat kesafim), though technically binding both inside and outside Israel, became largely moot after the first century BCE. Though the Torah warns the community not to withhold loans in the run-up to the shmita year, Hillel saw that the people were doing exactly that. The poor suffered most from people’s reticence to lend them money, an unintended consequence of a law that was meant to help them. So, Hillel instituted the famous prozbul (a Greek word whose precise meaning is unclear), which gave authority to the courts to handle outstanding debts: As a public authority, the courts collected debts, and, thus, observance of shmitat kesafim was circumvented.
Compromises have also marked the observance of shmita in Israel over the past century. The legal fiction of selling the land to non-Jews (known as heter mechirah) has enabled farming to continue more or less as normal in the shmita year. This arrangement was strongly supported by Israel’s first Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who argued in his book Shabbat Ha’aretz that the leniency was necessary in order to support the nascent Jewish agricultural communities in the early 20th century.
But throughout Shabbat Ha’aretz, and particularly in its introduction, Rav Kook outlines a vision of how shmita could be much more than it is today. He believed that shmita had the power to effect a social and spiritual reawakening. He hoped that the leniency afforded by legal fictions — such as enabling the land to be sold — would be a step on the journey toward a deeper and more pervasive renewal of shmita. As he wrote in Shabbat Ha’aretz: “We must recognize that we are obligated to strive with all our strength so that in the end, the sabbatical year will be increasingly observed in all its holiness.”
When is this “in the end” going to be? Arguably, it begins now, in 2014, 5775, with this shmita year. Motivated by the tent protests of the summer of 2011 as well as by frustrations with the religious politics that have come to define shmita observancein Israel, among other things, Israelis are finding a plethora of initiatives aimed to move beyond the institutionalized avoidance of shmita and to actualize the ethical values of shmita in innovative and effective ways.
Here are a few examples of how shmita is ethically informing the political and economic policies this year in Israel:
The Ministry of Welfare and Social Services has announced proposals to relieve 10,000 Israeli families of the curse of debt, allocating 70 million NIS for debt relief, and working together with banks, utilities, and NGOs such as Pa’amonim to forgive and reschedule debts. This is a practical and feasible fulfillment of the Torah’s commandment to forgive debts in the shmita year. (Deuteronomy 16) This policy will lift from some families the crushing debts that weigh them down and permanently cripple their chances for a flourishing life. In another fascinating initiative, the Ministry of Environmental Protection is planning a yearlong shmita moratorium on fishing in the Sea of Galilee to allow the nearly exhausted fish stocks to replenish themselves.
Profound ethical teachings about economic equality, environmental sustainability, and human dignity are embodied in the idea of shmita. At last they are starting to be expressed in Israel’s public life.email print