Shmitah: Your Sabbatical Year
The new Jewish year, 5768, is a shmitah, or sabbatical, year.
In the Jewish tradition, the shmitah year is when farmers in the Land of Israel let their fields lie fallow in the seventh year after six years of planting and harvesting. Farmers let produce grow naturally from the previous season’s planting without any human intervention, and then, instead of harvesting the crops, rich and poor alike come and take what they need for their immediate use. Despite the distance that most of us have from hands-on farming, the idea of letting land rest resonates with us today, as we discuss contemporary food issues such as sustainability, organic pesticides, crop rotation, and supporting locally grown food to reduce carbon emissions. The idea of redistributing food from the wealthy landowner to the landless poor also resonates with us today, in an age when many rely on food pantries for their very subsistence.
As part of the Bible’s incremental process to eliminate slavery altogether, slaves are freed permanently from their masters during the shmitah year. In the Bible, slavery can only exist under very specific circumstances, and is only for a period of six years, which necessarily reduces permanent dependence on slaves. While slavery is an ethically perverse idea to us, what it means to treat workers fairly is a part of our daily discourse as a society.
Finally, in the seventh year, loans and debts are forgiven and some land that was sold in the intervening six years returns to its previous owner. While unbridled capitalism would reject such a stark redistribution of wealth, in our own time legislators and universities are discussing loan forgiveness programs as a way to ensure that recent college graduates who wish to pursue careers in public service are able to do so.
These three freedoms—for the land, for people, and from debt—serve to remind us that although we may feel that we are in charge of the food we eat, people we employ, and money we make, they are all beyond our ultimate control. The shmitah year is inaugurated by a public reading of the Torah, called hak’hel, the ultimate inclusive, free, public education. Hak’hel serves as a further reminder that it is text, not land, money, or employees, that we turn to in order to find meaning in our lives.
Throughout this essay, explore passages from the Bible from which we learn about the concept of shmitah. Read other texts, ancient and contemporary, that refer to our analogous struggles with these issues of land, food, work, and redistribution of wealth.
Just as a fallow period regenerates the land, the sabbatical year renews the human mind—and lays the groundwork for a richer future harvest. Celebrate shmitah by making it your year for a personal sabbatical, during which you take some time to study and reflect on Jewish texts, including the Bible, Midrash, and Talmud, short stories and films, and historical, theological, and spiritual texts.
“The mighty in strength that fulfill His word” (Psalms 103:20).To whom does the Scripture refer? R. Isaac said,“To those who are willing to observe the Year of Release. In the way of the world, a man may be willing to observe a commandment for a day, a week, a month, but is he likely to continue to do so through the remaining days of the year? But throughout that year this mighty man sees his field declared ownerless, his fences broken down, and his produce consumed by others, yet he continues to give up his produce without saying a word. Can you conceive a person mightier than such as he?”
—Midrash Leviticus Rabbah, 1:1
Freedom for the Land
“When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a Sabbath of the Lord. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of the Lord: You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the undergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. But you may eat whatever the land during its Sabbath will produce—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 all its yield.”
“We do not inherit this land from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”
—Native American proverb
“And should you ask, ‘What are we to eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?’ I will ordain my blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years. When you sow in the eighth year, you will still be eating old grain of that crop; you will be eating the old until the ninth year, until its crops come in. But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.”
“If you are planning for one year, grow rice. If you are planning for twenty years, grow trees. If you are planning for centuries, grow men.”
Freedom for People
“If a fellow Hebrew, man or woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall set him free. When you set him free, do not let him go empty handed: Furnish him out of the flock, threshing floor, and vat, with which the Lord your God has blessed you. Bear in mind that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today.”
“But what more oft, in nations grown corrupt, And by their voices brought to servitude, Than to love bondage more than liberty— Bondage with ease than strenuous liberty—”
—John Milton, Samson Agonistes
“What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist—the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too. Help, you women of privilege, give her the ballot to fight with.”
—Rose Schneiderman, garment worker and labor organizer, 1912
“Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom.”
Freedom from Debt
“Every seventh year, you shall practice remission of debts. … Every creditor shall remit the due that he claims from his fellow; he shall not dun his fellow or kinsman, for the remission proclaimed is of the Lord….Do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman.…Beware lest you harbor the base thought, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,’ so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing….Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the Lord your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings. For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.”
“Today, the average student leaves college with more than ,000 in student loan debt. This [is] discouraging many young people from choosing careers in fields such as teaching, social work and law enforcement— the low-paying but vital jobs that bring large benefits to our society…. The Higher Education Access Act of 2007 will… completely forgive the loans of those who enter society’s most needed professions….Our society needs more teachers, more emergency management and law enforcement professionals, more public health doctors and nurses, more social workers, more librarians, more public interest lawyers, and more early childhood teachers.… Under our bill,we’ll produce more of them, because they— and all the groups I’ve just mentioned—will be eligible for loan forgiveness.”
—Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA), at a press conference on June 20, 2007
“And Moses instructed them as follows: 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.”
“The hope of a nation lies in the proper education of its youth.”