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Shmitah

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No, this is not a misprint. A Shmutteh is a rag in Yiddish. Whereas Shmitah is a genuine Hebrew word. Our New Year starts on September 7th (5782 in the Jewish calendar) and ushers in the new Sabbatical year. In Hebrew the word for the Sabbatical is Shmitah. The release. What is it? Is it in any way 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 protect, and limit slavery and includes compensation or freedom for injuries and payments to set up in business afterward. It distinguishes between Canaanite slaves and Hebrew servants. Even so, it does not make pleasant reading and one must remember that this was three thousand years ago. As ever, I am interested in its moral message.

In Exodus Chapter 23.10 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” (Exodus 23:10–11).

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.  

“When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land must be given a rest period, a Sabbath to God. For six years you may plant your fields, prune your vineyards, and harvest your cropsbut 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” (Leviticus 25:1–7). 

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 Torah also required a break with agriculture in the fiftieth year the Jubilee, Yovel, when everyone would gather to hear and study the Torah. 

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” (Jeremiah 34:13–14). 

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, commerce became more important and the issue of debt remission more urgent.

The great Rabbi Hillel (110 BCE to 10 CE) 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 eighteenth and nineteenth 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 (1817-1896),  who issued a ruling referred to as Heter Mechirah (dispensation to sell) permitting the “sale” of farmland to local Arabs for the duration so that the produce did not count as Jewish. Not unlike 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. 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 extremes. Over the years as the extremes have grown in strength and influence 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. Most food now comes from outside Israel. And Government subsidies, as well as charities, enable farmers who want, to survive without the sale.  

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 free 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? In 1960 I went with my late father to a Student Conference where he was invited to defend the issue of selling the land during Shmitah. He referred to all the cases in Jewish law where ways were found to make things less harsh and more adaptable. He gave the example of a taxi driver during the London Blitz who was taking a woman to the hospital when a bomb exploded and blocked his path. He had two options. He could stop and turn back, or wait for the road to be cleared. But that meant not moving forward. Or he could turn round and try another route to get through.

The Talmudic masters always tried to find other routes. 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 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 yet preserves the spirit. 

Whether the original reason for Shmitah was agricultural good practice, providing the equivalent of food stamps to the poor or giving animal husbandry, or taking time off to study which is where the idea of a Sabbatical comes from, they are all just as important ideas and principles today as they were then. 

Rabbinic legislation found a way to permit hot food and light on Shabbat even though the Torah forbade it. They kept the prohibition in place but instructed everyone to prepare the food and light beforehand.  Similarly, they permitted selling one’s stores of grain and Chametz to non-Jews before Pesach to prevent serious financial loss. They all preserved the letter of law for everyone to understand that in our world there are ideals we should aim at but also practical limitations. One can either throw one’s hands up and abandon the law altogether or by finding ways of remembering and keeping its ideals. Shmitah, whichever reason you find more compelling, remains an ideal. Although some people take advantage of a Sabbatical to waste their time, that does not mean we should scrap it. Time for study whether professionally or religiously is crucial. 

Sadly, in our times the attitude of many rabbis has been to pile on restrictions and refinements which are all 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 lead to a dead-end for all but a small minority. A good driver finds a way to get through. 

The important message of Rosh Hashana is to remember and celebrate our survival. It 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.

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