Rosh Hashanah and the Shmitah
Our New Year starts on the evening of September 6 (year 5782 in the Jewish calendar), and ushers in the new Sabbatical year. In Hebrew the word for the Sabbatical is Shmitah. But what is it? And is it relevant now?
In Exodus Chapter 21, the Torah says: “If you acquire a Hebrew servant, he may work for you for six years. But in the seventh, he must go free … and if he says I do not want to go free, then the master brings him before the judges and his ear is pierced and he serves permanently.”
According to Biblical laws, a Hebrew male could be sent to serve in a family as a punishment, to repay a debt, or as an indentured servant simply to feed his own family. It was part of the charitable system to give people work and avoid starvation.
I know of course we are highly sensitive to the idea of slavery, and the Bible goes out of its way to limit slavery and includes compensation or freedom for injuries suffered. Even so, it does not make for pleasant reading.
In Exodus Chapter 23.10, we see that the seventh year is more than a release of servants; it also has an agricultural purpose: “You may plant your land for six years and gather its crops. And on the seventh year, you must leave it alone and withdraw from it and the poor shall eat, and what is left over will go to the animals, and the same for your vineyards and olives.”
In Leviticus, the emphasis is on a Sabbatical, as a rest period, in the way that Shabbat is a rest and break from the working week.
According to Leviticus, “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 … the land is resting.”
From this, it sounds much like medieval crop rotation and good agricultural practice. However, Deuteronomy adds another dimension and focuses on debt remission: “At the end of every seven years, you shall celebrate the Shmitah. The idea of the remission year is that every creditor shall remit any debt owed by his neighbor and brother when God’s remission year comes around”(Deuteronomy 15:1–6).
These complementary texts are all the different reasons for having the seventh-year release.
The prophet Jeremiah focuses just on the employment issue: “Thus saith the Lord, the God of Israel: I made a covenant with your fathers in the day that I brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, saying: ‘At the end of seven years ye shall let go every man his brother that is a Hebrew, that hath been sold unto thee, and hath served thee six years, thou shalt let him go free from thee’; but your fathers hearkened not unto Me, neither inclined their ear.”
It is clear from the Bible that the idea of Shmitah played a very significant role in the First Temple era, even if there is no record of it being formally declared. Given that these laws officially only applied to the Land of Israel, as the Diaspora grew, they became less relevant. And as many Jews left agriculture for trading and commerce, the issue of debt remission became more urgent.
The great Rabbi Hillel was worried that people were withholding loans, and he found a way of dealing with the issue. The Torah had only spoken about personal debts, not public ones. If one transferred one’s debt to the courts, they would not be canceled. This contract of transfer was called the prozbul, an Aramaic term for document transfer. This creative way of dealing with a halachic problem became the standard for rabbinic innovation.
With increasing Jewish presence in the Land of Israel in the 18th and 19th centuries, the issue of Shmitah again became a practical issue rather than an abstract one. Agricultural settlements, such as Petach Tikva and Zikhron Yaakov, turned to the major rabbinic authority of Eastern Europe, Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor of Kovno, who issued a ruling referred to as Heter Mechirah (dispensation to sell) permitting the “sale” of farmland to local Arabs for the duration of the sabbatical, so that the produce did not count as Jewish. This is similar to the universal custom of selling chametz to a non-Jew before Pesach and then reclaiming it afterward.
Many elements in the Orthodox world objected in principle to this. And when the charismatic new Chief Rabbi of Jaffa, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook (1865-1935), permitted the Heter Mechirah, he and those who supported him were vilified and maligned by the extremists. Over the years, as the extremists have grown in strength and influence, the opposition to the sale has grown. During the Shmitah year of 2014-15, almost 3,500 Israeli farmers allowed their land to remain fallow. Nowadays the issue is not as pressing as it once was due to government subsidies, and the fact that most food is produced outside Israel.
In 1958-59, I was studying in Israel during the second Shmitah year of the State of Israel. And during vacation time I volunteered to help bring Shmitah produce to the religious communities of Jerusalem. I witnessed produce grown on secular kibbutzim being sold surreptitiously to Arab farmers who then passed it on at a profit to the ultra-Orthodox agencies. It was of course a sham, not even pretending to find a way of respecting the law — but no one seemed to mind.
But the issue that interested me was the very idea of getting around the law which most people understand as pejorative. Why not just cancel it and forget the whole issue?
The Talmudic masters always tried to find ways around the law, because the only alternative was to remove the law. But by doing this, you are in danger of forgetting the very important ideas behind the law, which are often as valid today as they were once upon a time.
A legal fiction, which all legal systems employ, is a practical way of keeping the law on the books while also preserving the spirit.
Whether the original reason for the Shmitah was agricultural good practice, providing the equivalent of food stamps to the poor, or taking time off to study — which is where the idea of a sabbatical comes from — they are all just as important ideas that are still valid today.
Sadly, in our times, the attitude of many rabbis has been to pile on restrictions and refinements — which is fine for those who can afford them or want to be strict. But to impose such strictness on those who do not have the resources, or the capacity is to harm the overall community for the sake of a small minority.
The important message of Rosh Hashanah is to remember and celebrate our survival. The holiday also celebrates our tradition that does indeed make serious and regular demands of us. But it can also find ways of making life easier without sacrificing what remains a perfectly valid principle in theory, if not otherwise.
May you all have a very sweet and healthy New Year.
The author is a rabbi and writer currently based in New York.