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Bringing the Torah’s ‘Sabbath of the land’ to Jewish American farmers

The tradition of shmita, a Jewish answer to how to fight climate change, is spreading beyond Israel.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters/Unsplash/Creative Commons

(RNS) — When Jodi Kushins founded Over the Fence Urban Farm, a cooperative agricultural project that takes up her backyard in Columbus, Ohio, she considered it a “relatively secular endeavor.”

It wasn’t until 2018 that she started thinking of herself as a Jewish farmer.

Even then, her agricultural conversion was more a matter of getting better results than a spiritual breakthrough. As her yields diminished over time, she said, “I thought back to Hebrew school, and remembered something about the fact that every seven years we were supposed to let the land rest, and I could have used that as an excuse to take a break. So I started exploring shmita.”

“Shmita” — the transliteration of שמיטה, the Hebrew word for “release” — appears in the Torah for the first time in the Book of Exodus, and it indicates the biblically ordained sabbatical year. Just as Shabbat is a weekly day of rest, shmita, which occurs every seven years, is the Shabbat of the land, requiring farmers to “release it and let it lie fallow.”

Last year’s Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, marked the beginning of year 5782 of the Jewish calendar. It also marked the beginning of a new shmita year, and in Israel it is estimated that some 51% of farmers will observe the tradition.

Now about 80 American Jewish congregations and other organizations are using the shmita year to bring the practice and its values to the U.S.

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Shmita is more than good farming, according to the Torah: It is a key part of a just society. In barring the landowner from tilling the land, shmita also stipulates that anything the land produces on its own be available to the community for free.

Shani Mink, executive director and co-founder of the Jewish Farmer Network, calls shmita a “Jewish piece of wisdom” that is central to Judaism’s agricultural ethics, which address the use of food and the land, as well as economic justice. 

Strictly, shmita is only a rabbinical requirement in the land of Israel, meaning that anywhere else the concept is open to adaptation to local needs and ideas.

“There’s no right or wrong answer” about how to observe shmita, said Mink.

Shani Mink. Photo courtesy Jewish Farmer Network

Shani Mink. Photo courtesy of Jewish Farmer Network

“We get to envision what shmita can look like for us,” she said, “especially as people who are Jewish, who are farming on Indigenous land that was stolen from the Indigenous peoples of North America.”

Mink stresses that shmita doesn’t have to be an all or nothing commitment. “You can take even one piece of your land, and you designate it to rest for the shmita year, and that is a huge healing for that piece of land,” Mink said. “Or you can use a seven-year cycle and you let a different part of your land rest each year.”

Mink said that a large part of the process to apply shmita is the preparation. Every week, observant Jews count down the days until Shabbat, she pointed out. The same should be true of how Jews count years, she said. “Shmita,” she said, “it’s not something that you can enter into without having prepared for it sufficiently” — most importantly, by making sure to have stored enough food.

Hazon, one of the largest faith-based environmental nonprofits in North America, has published a new version of its sourcebook for those applying shmita to make the tradition more “accessible” in this shmita year.

But Bruce Spierer, public education manager at Hazon, said shmita is also “a very, very radical concept” with profound implications for contemporary people, farmers and nonfarmers alike.

The shmita year is sometimes interpreted to be a time for forgiving or being released from debts. Deirdre Gabbay, founder and director of the Shmita Project Northwest, said that the tradition of “taking down the fences around the fields” suggests that everyone should have access to what grows naturally from the soil, and that any form of ownership and control of the land should be erased.

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“We see the effect of repeated generations and cycles of inequality,” Gabbay said. “We see it across the entire world. There has to be a reset of some sort.”

But shmita’s constant cycle can also be interpreted to mean a constant reset: Though it comes every seven years, the work of shmita doesn’t stop during the other six. Spierer said that though Shmita Project’s aim is to make shmita a reality across the U.S., their work doesn’t have a “final goal.”

Shmita’s seven-year cycle happens over and over, with every seventh cycle bringing the Yovel or the Jubilee Year — in Spierer’s words, “an extra-special shmita.”

“So the idea of the work being done,” he said, “is very counter to the idea of shmita itself.”

This article was produced as part of the RNS/IFYC Religious Journalism Fellowship Program

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