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Erin: Welcome to Season 4 of Adventures in Jewish Studies, the podcast of the Association for Jewish Studies. In every episode, we take you on an entertaining and intellectual journey about Jewish life, history and culture, with the help of some of the world’s leading Jewish studies scholars. I’m one of your hosts this season, Erin Phillips and I’m going to introduce myself with my favorite pun for the year 5782 – it’s nice to Shmita.
Erin: If you didn’t get the joke, you’re not alone. Shmita is, quite frankly, a complex conundrum of halakha, or Jewish law. It comes from the Torah, which tells us that every six years, we must observe a seventh sabbatical year, the Shmita. Shmita roughly translates to “year of release” or “year of letting go.” During this time, among other commandments, we’re supposed to let our fields lie fallow, abstain from agricultural labor, and forgive all debts. Within the dry legal foundations of shmita, however, modern Jews are beginning to rediscover guidelines for creating a more just world. Today, we’re going to explore the origins of shmita practice, how it made an unexpected comeback, and what it means to Jews in Israel and the diaspora today.
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Erin: It’s really easy to come away from the book of Leviticus and say “wow, ancient Jews really did all that for 365 days?” So the first thing you have to understand about shmita is that it’s entirely possible no one has ever done it right.
Adrienne: There's no evidence to suggest that Shmita was ever observed in full.
Shmita has always been more of an ideal than a realistic, practical, embodied Jewish halakhic practice.
Erin: This is Adrienne Krone, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Director of Jewish Life at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. Adrienne says even when Jews first lived in and farmed the land of Israel, they likely would have prioritized other prescriptions, like the duty to preserve life, over shmita. Not only is there no evidence that Jews ever fully observed shmita, the Prophet Jeremiah claimed in writing that the first temple was destroyed because Jews of the time were so bad at keeping the sabbatical year. By the mishnaic period, around 70-200 CE, leaders like Rabbi Judah the Prince were trying to figure out how to annul shmita.
Adrienne: They're figuring out, you know, what do we need to talk about? What do we need to codify into law for the people in this kind of early rabbinic period? And they're thinking about Shmita, and he's like, “we don't do this now. Why are we pretending we can do this? Let's just get rid of it,” right? But it's really hard to get rid of it because it's biblical law.
Erin: The sages couldn’t get rid of shmita, so they did the next best thing.
Adrienne: And so instead, what they do is they say, “OK, well, it only applies in Israel, and it only applies if it's possible,” right? Which opens a lot of freedom for people to say, “well, I need to eat and I need to survive. So it's not possible.”
Erin: In limiting Shmita observance to the land of Israel and taking a more lenient approach, the rabbis basically let Jews off the hook for the agricultural aspects of shmita for the next 1600 years.
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Erin: One practice that remained central, however, even throughout centuries of life in the diaspora, was the remission of debts. But they had a workaround for that too! Here’s Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, Director of Jewish Studies and Professor of Modern Judaism and History at Arizona State University.
Hava: In the Second Temple period, legislation about debt and debt remission during the sabbatical year, that is going to be transformed. The transformation is the creation of a new legal institution called the Prozbul. And the Prozbul is basically a promissory note that was delivered to the court.
Erin: Here’s how the Prozbul works. You give me a loan in 5780 (cash register dings), with the agreement that I will pay it back by 5783. During 5782, a shmita year, instead of losing the ability to ever get your money back, (sounds of signing a document) you temporarily transfer all responsibilities for collecting the debt over to a public court (gavel bangs). The day shmita is over, you get what the court collected, and I go back to dodging your calls.
Hava: It's hard to observe sabbatical institution. If I'm not going to be able to get my money back after I lent money to you, why would I give you money in the first place? So in order to ensure that the needs of the creditors will be protected as well, you can create that legal fiction that moves it from private to public hands to the court. That ensures that people will continue to lend money.
Erin: If you’re already like “this is too many laws and loopholes,” I’m with you. All you need to know is that (ping) shmita was always aspirational, (ping) the rabbis made a bunch of loopholes for it, (ping) and then, for 1600 years, shmita observation was limited to a bit of financial paperwork. It takes over a thousand years, but when Jews return to the Land of Israel, shmita makes a comeback.
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Erin: Picture, you’re a Jew making Aaliyah, or moving to Israel, in the late 19th century. From your perspective, you’re part of a wave of intrepid agriculturalists returning to the literal roots of Judaism. (sounds of digging and hoeing keep time with the music) You farm the land six days a week for years to provide enough food for your growing settlement, and then… someone reminds you about a long-forgotten halakhic law that’s about to throw a wrench in your Rosh Hashanah. Oh shhhhhmita. Here’s Adrienne Krone again.
Adrienne: Really where this gets tricky is when Jews started moving back to the Land of Israel to initially, right, like Ottoman Palestine in the late 19th century. We have Jews say, “OK, well, now we've got this biblical law that to some extent has been ignored by a lot of rabbinic tradition, because if you weren't in the Land of Israel, you didn't really have to worry about it.” And they're moving back into the Land of Israel as like agriculturalists. And so they need to figure out what they're going to do. There's no possible way we can start a new farm commune, a new kibbutz, and then in the seventh year, grow nothing. Right, we will die. That's what's going to happen.
Erin: Enter Abraham Isaac Kook, first chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of the British Mandate of Palestine, father of religious Zionism, and inventor of our next shmita workaround, the Heter Mechira. The Heter Mechira allowed Jewish farmers to loan their land to a non-Jew for the duration of the Shmita year. The non-Jew, who did not have to observe shmita, could continue to grow and sell food to the community.
Hava: So the issue was kind of resolved by Rav Kook, Abraham Isaac Kook. Why was he, who was generally quite stringent, why was he more lenient here? So Rav Kook understood that observing the law of the sabbatical year, if we do it stringently, it would harm the nascent settlements. And that would mean that Zionism as a whole will fail. Because he saw Zionists as promoting a much larger process toward the redemption of the Jewish people. So, I'm going to make their Zionist enterprise possible. And it's going to be kind of on the basis of a lenient interpretation of the sabbatical year, which allows for Heter Mechira.
Erin: Rav Kook’s ruling made Heter Machira a permanently acceptable halakhic workaround for shmita. But, he didn’t want it to be used forever. He actually wrote an essay in 1909 called Shabbat Ha’aretz, or sabbath for the land. In it, he envisions a future where shmita is not only fully observed, but acts as a societal reset. He encourages readers to study the laws of shmita and strive to bring about this ideal sabbatical year.
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Erin: As time went on, shmita became a source of bitter debate in Israel. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews believe Rav Kook’s solution was and is an unfair cheat code. Others believe Heter Mechira violates rules forbidding the sale of land in Israel to non-Jews and potentially even idol worshippers. The growing number of Israeli Jews who identify as secular, currently about 43%, just don’t care about shmita. In 2013, Rabbi Michael Melchior and Einat Kramer, director of Israeli environmental nonprofit Teva Ivri, teamed up to launch the Israeli Shmita Initiative.
Hava: In Israel there is a whole push toward what is called Shmita Israelite. That means Israeli shmita. So there's a movement led by Teva Ivri. The director is Einat Kramer, and she's really creating a lot of interest in the Shmita as a way of critiquing where Israel is culturally. So there the focus is primarily on issues of time management, for example, or the use of technology, capitalism, and neoliberalism. But the shmita Israelite a lot of people say, "well, let's rethink the way we live. Are we living in the right way? Are we living sanely, and sustainably, and justly?"
Erin: According to their Israeli Shmita Declaration: “The initiative seeks to restore the meaning of the Shmita year as a time of personal reflection, learning, social involvement, and environmental responsibility in Israel.” Rav Kook would be proud. And of course, Adrienne notes, there are also individual farmers in Israel employing more regenerative solutions.
Adrienne: Israel has been a kind of leading innovator of hydroponics and aquaponics (water bubbles in the background) where they're growing food in water because that also gets you out of a prohibition against growing in the land during the seventh year. And usually because these things are biblical practices that were not necessarily ecologically focused, it's actually not great to leave your land fallow, completely bare. And so what a lot of people do is use cover crops, something that is going to help the soil revitalize itself, still not seeding anything or harvesting anything, but taking care of the land in that year. And especially with conversations about the climate crisis, even an awareness that the Hebrew Bible offered an ideal for a relationship with land that required that humans take the land’s needs into account is really beneficial if you want to get Jews thinking and advocating for climate mitigation efforts. And so a lot of times, especially this shmita year, you'll see it connected to the climate crisis.
Erin: In Israel, the movement to rethink shmita is happening against a noisy backdrop of religious infighting. But what if those educating on shmita’s potential could start with a blank slate? In a way, that’s what’s happening in the United States and other diaspora countries. To understand how shmita entered the American Jewish conversation, we have to go back to the 1960s. Here’s Hava again.
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Hava: Jewish environmentalism emerged in the late 60s, we can say, very early 1970s, and it has emerged since then as a distinctive voice within American Jewry. There are many environmental organizations, but in the diaspora, all of those organizations share what I call environmental spirituality. They all share a certain attempt to integrate commitment to Judaism with concern about environmental issues. So, to be Jewish and to be environmentalist are not contradictory concerns. On the contrary, they're complimentary.
Erin: In the 80s and 90s, leaders in the movement began to build on the groundbreaking ideas of environmental spirituality.
Adrienne: Ellen Bernstein, Rabbi Ellen Bernstein starts talking about the importance of environmentalism and Jewish practice a little bit later in the 80s and 90s at the same time that a lot of like young people on college campuses were doing the same thing, right, starting to think about like Tu Bishvat, which today is like a pretty well known holiday, but wasn't super well known back then, right? And that becomes the kind of like epitome of Jewish environmentalism is “we have a holiday that celebrates trees.” And so that becomes a kind of impetus for bringing Jewish environmentalism into, you know, synagogues and JCCs and day schools and all of the kind of traditional Jewish spaces start holding Tu Bishvat Seders.
Erin: As environmental consciousness spread among Jewish youth, Jewish farming, which has a rich tradition of its own in the United States, took hold of some of these new ideas. The next logical step was Shmita.
Adrienne: The part of the movement that I spend the most time studying starts in the early 2000s at Adamah, which is at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut, where they actually say, “We're going to start running a farm and thinking about some of these Jewish agricultural laws that we don't pay any attention to outside the Land of Israel.” (upbeat guitar music plays in the background) But what if we did? What if they tell us something about what it means to be a Jew that is really important in – I think in the 2000s, it would have been global warming, right – in this era of global warming, and today you’ll hear that as, like, the climate crisis. And shmita again comes in as a way to kind of recenter the conversation on environmentalism.
Erin: In 2007, a coalition of Jewish organizations spanning environmental advocacy, social justice, animal rights, and education came together to form the Shmita Project. Led by Hazon, the Jewish lab for sustainability, the project develops resources like the Shmita Manifesto, a book detailing ways diaspora Jews can cultivate a shmita practice based in justice and sustainability.
Erin: It’s hard to understand just how big a leap this was, and still kind of is, without revisiting the mishnaic Rabbi’s limitation of shmita observance to the Land of Israel.
Hava: I think that there's a recognition here that the Judaism in the Diaspora is different from the way Judaism is practiced in the Land of Israel. In other words, it's recognizing that we cannot just say "Oh, well, shmita is over there, so it's important over there. It's not important to us." No. The focus of the shmita project and the focus on land-based commandments as they apply to the Diaspora suggests a certain rethinking of the relationship between Diaspora Jews and Zionism. At least for American Jews, definitely after World War Two, Zionism became the major way of defining yourself as an American Jew, not a secondary, not a marginal, but central. And if you wanted to be a Jewish environmentalist in the 80s or the 90s, actually, you made Aliyah and you settled in Israel. But that's not what's going on here. What's going on here is: "No, we can do it in the diaspora. We don't need to do it just in the land of Israel. We don't need to make Aliyah. We can live here. We can create environmentally sustainable ways of thinking that is going to be Jewishly, socially, spiritually rich, and we can do it here without going to the Land of Israel."
Erin: From bold beginnings, the Shmita project has continued to grow. More organizations have joined the fold offering new types of shmita programs, and those resources are reaching an ever-growing number of diaspora Jews.
Adrienne: And so today the shmita project is active again this year. Hazon is doing weekly posts where somebody writes about the Torah portion in connection to the Shmita year. They're doing Shmita prizes where people are submitting artwork and other things to kind of celebrate the Shmita year. And I think a combination of, like, hopefully coming out of the pandemic, continuing an ongoing pandemic, and amidst the very visible now climate crisis, more and more people are interested in what Jewish tradition has to offer for wisdom on how to deal with these things. And people are willing to, like, think about what it would mean to have a different kind of year, right? Because we've had a couple different kinds of years.
Erin: Hava circles back to the origin point of our story: that shmita was, and maybe always will be, purely aspirational. But, she posits, that may be the foundation for new kinds of shmita observance in both the US and Israel.
Hava: The shmita illustrates the gap between the utopian ideal and reality. But when I say that there is a gap, the gap also means that the ideal can lead us, can invite us to act in a certain way. It doesn't mean that only when you realize the ideal, then you're successful. No, the ideal creates a certain trajectory, a certain direction that would be good to follow. So people who want to live by that ideal, for example, such as the Jewish environmentalists, they can look at the ideal, try to say, “OK, now how do I apply it to my life today?”
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Erin: Adventures in Jewish Studies is made possible with generous support from The Salo W. and Jeannette M. Baron Foundation. The executive producer of the podcast is Warren Hoffman. I’m the lead producer for this episode. Most of the music you heard in today’s episode was from Artlist, with the exception of our theme music, and the song "Shir Hapalmach" or "Song of the Palmach" by Leon Lishner and Friends, which was from the Free Music Archive.
Erin: If you enjoy the podcast, we hope you'll help support it by going to associationforjewishstudies.org/donate. The Association for Jewish Studies is the world’s largest Jewish studies membership organization. It features an annual conference, publications, fellowships and much more for our members, as well as public programming. Visit associationforjewishstudies.org for more information on what we do, to learn about joining if you’re a Jewish studies scholar, or to find out how to bring a Jewish studies scholar to your community. See you next time on Adventures in Jewish Studies!
Adrienne Krone, PhD
Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, PhD
Executive Producer: Warren Hoffman, PhD