For thousands of years, Jews have observed every seventh year as a sabbatical, or shmitta. Here, we give you an in-depth look at shmitta, its observance, and its meaning for us, far from the Holy Land.
The shmitta year gives us an unusual chance to think about Jewish time, Nigel Savage said.
The nattily dressed, Manchester-accented Mr. Savage is the founder and president of Hazon, whose name means “vision.” Hazon, which is headquartered in Manhattan and based more pastorally and picturesquely in Camp Isabella Friedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Conn., is an organization whose mission, according to its website, is to “work to create a healthier and more sustainable Jewish community, and a healthier and more sustainable world for all.” It sponsors retreats and bike rides in the United States and Israel and works with Adamah, a working Jewish farm, among many other programs.
Before he got to the content of shmitta, Mr. Savage talked about its form – about how it fits into Jewish time. “Jewish life runs on Jewish time,” he said. Each holiday, major and minor, has its own themes, feelings, melodies, and season – Rosh Hashanah cannot be mistaken for Pesach or Shavuot, or, for that matter, for Chanukah or Purim. And every shul across the spectrum, “from ultra-liberal to ultra-Orthodox, will recognize Rosh Hashanah,” he said. “The only piece of the Jewish calendar we don’t recognize is shmitta.”
Of course, he acknowledged, part of that lack of recognition is that the observance of shmitta is limited to produce coming from the land of Israel, so if we were to look at it only literally, most of us here would be entirely unaffected by it most of the time.
But we are Jews. We do not limit ourselves to the literal. We find meaning, metaphor, wisdom, and depth in unexpected places.
So, Mr. Savage said, let us look at the shmitta year and see what there is in it for us. If we do, we will see great opportunity.
To begin with, “the seven-year cycle that will start a year from now,” once the shmitta year is over, and will end in the next shmitta year, “will form a discreet cycle in Jewish life. It is an open question for any Jewish institution – shul, day school, JCC, private business, federation – how this year is going to be different from the other six years of the cycle, and how you will think of the cycle.
“Where were you in 2008, and where will you be in 2022?
“Where was the Jewish Standard in 2008? Where will you be in 2022? What about changes in technology? In your subscriber base?
“The first thing to do is to start to think about Jewish life in terms of Jewish time. A shul might say, OK, we will use the shmitta year to reflect on where we have come in the last six years, what we have learned, and how we have changed. Are our members older or younger? More or less observant? And it might start to vision the next seven-year period, on what should be its focus – on learning, on families, on the relationship with Israel, whatever – but the notion of reconnecting to Jewish time is an incredible gift of shmitta.
“It’s really interesting, thinking in terms of a seven-year cycle,” he said. “The electoral cycle is four years. The stock market really runs on a one- or two-year cycle. Undergraduate school and high school are four years. Seven years is interesting. It’s not pie in the sky – it’s not 50 years from now, or even 20 – but it is a slightly longer time frame than we’re used to.
“The thing for organizations to do might be to take staff, some board members, and other key people to a retreat where you think about those questions. That is a gift of the shmitta year.”
Then Mr. Savage began to talk about the content – what the shmitta year actually demands, and what that might mean.
“The primary texts about shmittah in the Torah are slightly contradictory,” he said. “Some of them are about letting the land lie fallow. It’s not totally clear why, but in at least one of the texts, the larger reason seems to be not for sake of the land, but for people who are poor. It really seems to be about reducing the difference between people who have more and people who have less.” (That’s from Exodus 23:11, where we are told that “For six years you are to sow your land and to gather in its produce, but in the seventh, you are to let it go and to let it be, so that the needy of your people may eat.”)
“So what does it mean for Jews in the 21st century? Could it be about Israel? Could people say ‘Davka, this is the year that I will go visit there, learn more about food systems there?’ Is it about learning more about how to help people in need in Israel? About maybe giving a little money to an Israeli nonprofit like Leket, which essentially redistributes leftover food from those who have it to those who need it – and which, coincidentally, was started by Joe Gitler, who made aliyah from Teaneck?”
Shmitta rules apply to annual crops – corn and wheat and soy, among others – but they do not apply to perennial crops, including fruits and nuts. “So someone might say, ‘OK, the way I’ll observe shmitta in New Jersey this year is to become more aware of the difference between annual and perennial crops, and make sure that there are perennials at every one of my Shabbat meals, and to point them out to my guests.'”
Mr. Savage said that Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin of Baltimore points out that although the most vibrant aspects of Jewish life tend to have a lot of ritual associated with them, there is no ritual for shmitta. She suggests creating such a ritual, Mr. Savage said. “What if we created a shmitta seder plate to have on Rosh Hashanah?” A seder plate has seven things – we already have apple and honey and challah and wine, so what should the other three things be? Maybe one is a pomegranate. And then what about the other two? It leaves us a space both to be creative and to think about tradition.”
He has some suggestions for a shmitta observance outside Israel. “Shmitta means letting go. We all have to figure out what to let go,” he said. It is that act of letting go, of making do, of creatively repurposing, of working with what’s there, that is the essence of the concept.
“In my household, that might be buying books,” he said. That is a habit to which he is addicted. “Several months ago, I started taking books I haven’t read off my shelves and wrapping them in newspaper. We now have a stack of newspaper-wrapped books, at least 0 or 70 of them. They are not labeled.
“One of my ideas is to disable the one-click on Amazon – to take my credit card off. That will make it a lot harder for me to buy books. So every time I have the craving for a new book I will go into my study and pick one of the books and unwrap it. And then I will say, ‘Oh my God, I always wanted to read this.'”
Similarly, he said, an artist friend has decided not to buy new art materials, but instead to use what he has and to try to work with found objects for the year.
Shlomo Carlebach said that “the Torah is a commentary on the world, and the world is a commentary on the Torah.” True to his idea of recycling, Hazon has taken that saying and applied it to shmitta. “It means that the conversation goes both ways,” Mr. Savage said. “Shmitta is a great time to go between tradition on the one hand and new ideas on the other.”
Hazon has created a sourcebook for shmitta. It’s online; you can find it by googling Shmitta Hazon sourcebook.