Finding Meaning in an Ancient Farming Law

Why Shmita, the commandment to let Israel's farmland rest every seven years, is relevant even for today's urban Diaspora Jews.

Commentary on Parashat Behar, Leviticus 25:1-26:2

According to Rabbinic tradition, there are 613 mitzvot, or commandments, in the Torah: 365 things you should not do and 248 things you should do.

After one subtracts the numerous mitzvot specific to the Temple and its rituals — rituals that have not been performed since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE— 369 commandments remain, of which 26 are applicable only in the Land of Israel. (Sefer HaChinukh, a 13th-century Spanish text of unknown authorship, categorizes and explains the 613 mitzvot and their sources in the Torah). One of these 26 mitzvot appears in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Behar: the mitzvah of Shmita.

The basic elements of the mitzvah of Shmita are to allow land to lay fallow every seven years, or in the language of the Torah: “When you enter into the land which I am giving you, the land will have a Shabbat — a Shabbat for Hashem.” (Lev. 25:2) Shmita, which means remission, not only stipulates an agricultural remission as spelled out in Parashat Behar, but also includes an economic remission as explained later in Deuteronomy 15:1-6.

The last Shmita year was 5775 (2014/15); the next Shmita year will be seven years from then in 5782 (2021/22). Even as the specific laws of Shmita are applicable only to Jews living in the Land of Israel, the entire Jewish world still counts the Shmita cycle; the values that both play into and emerge out of agricultural and economic remission are as relevant today as ever, and many contemporary Jews are picking up on this.

The Jewish environmental organization Hazon has created an incredible resource for those who wish to delve deeper into how the ideas and ideals of Shmita are relevant to 21st-century Jews living outside of Israel — The Shmita Project. While many communities focused intently on the values inherent in Shmita during the Shmita year, the question remains what do we do between Shmita years?

When these laws were originally observed, it took an incredible amount of preparation and awareness to be ready for the Shmita year when it arrived. Likewise, the non-Shmita years of the cycle provide an opportunity for personal introspection and communal reflection. There are five years left in this Shmita cycle. Here are some questions you could ask of yourself, of your family and your community in looking forward to the next Shmita year:

  • Where do I see myself in five years? How will I have grown and changed?
  • What changes would I like to see take place in my own life? In my family? In my community?
  • What practical steps can I take to lead a more sustainable life?
  • How can I support a long-term five- or seven-year vision for my personal progress? The progress of my family? The progress of my synagogue (or other communal institutions)?
  • Are there actions in which I can engage to provide for the environment and/or the needy in my immediate vicinity?
  • What goals can I set for myself to make a plan of action to accomplish this long-term vision?

For many of us, some of the actual commandments in the Torah can feel arcane, outdated, irrelevant. Yet, when we push ourselves beyond the surface of any given law — beyond the “thou shalt” or “thou shalt not,” we will find openings to regain relevance over many of these values and principles. We refer to the Torah as an eternal document. And if the Torah is to truly be eternal, then we must push ourselves to see it as something more than merely a visage of a past culture; we must find practical ways to maintain its relevance through tapping into the deeper values that are the foundation for its laws and practices. Even as Shmita is an obligatory law only for Jews living in the Land of Israel, its values provide an opening for all of us to deeply engage in the cycles of our lives in a proactive manner.

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