Unless you’ve been living overseas, or under a rock, you’ve probably heard about the rare coincidence this autumn of Thanksgiving and Chanukah, and of creative ideas to celebrate it — sweet potato latkes; donuts filled with cranberry jelly or pumpkin cream; and, of course, “Menurkeys,” ceramic turkeys whose feathers hold Chanukah candles (the brainchild of our friend’s 9-year-old son, Asher Weintraub).
But with all due respect to this fall’s rare confluence of holidays, some of us have begun looking forward to next autumn’s Jewish milestone. It’s called shmita. To date, it has received little notice outside of certain environmental circles. Yet its teachings have the potential to create a better world.
Next year, 5775, marks the culmination of this seven-year cycle known as shmita, which literally means “release” and is often translated as sabbatical. Those familiar with shmita may remember that during the sabbatical year, farmers in Israel are supposed to let their land lie fallow, and that this stricture has produced friction between rabbis and the agricultural industry in the Jewish state. Others may recall the edict to “release all debts” during the sabbatical year.
But since 2007, the last Shmita Year, a growing group of Jewish environmentalists has been studying the values embedded in this biblical system, and it is finding that shmita’s emphasis on social, environmental and financial justice may provide tips and tools for improving our imperfect world.
“We’re rediscovering this important paradigm in Jewish culture that’s been ignored,” says Yigal Deutscher, who is the manager of the Shmita Project for Hazon, and the founder of 7 Seeds. “It will impact our relationship to the land and commerce. It has radical implications for the way we work within a community.”
The conversations have just begun, but Hazon, the largest Jewish nonprofit focused on environmental issues, is considering equal salaries for all its employees for the year, among other less extreme ideas. The Jewish farm run by Adamah is discussing whether it might refrain from cultivating annual crops, allowing its land to rest and rejuvenate. Several Jewish organizations are thinking about whether to give employees a few days off beyond traditional vacation days, so staff members can focus on personal development, volunteer work, their families, or even painting.
There’s also talk of planting more fruit trees; and of building more community pantries, which were in place during the sabbatical year in ancient times; of spreading the Orthodox idea of gemachs, which allow individuals to borrow used items such as wedding gowns and baby equipment. Hoping to help “release” Americans from their debt burden, Uri L’Tzedek and Hebrew Institute of Riverdale will pilot a program in financial literacy on Oct. 20 at HIR.
The eco-friendly lessons of sharing food, and of reducing waste, can be as simple as inviting a friend to help harvest the date crop in your Brooklyn backyard. Mirele Goldsmith, who is the director of the Jewish Greening Fellowship and will be moderating a panel on the sabbatical year on Oct. 29 at UJA-Federation, tells me that she recently overheard two Brooklyn women making such plans.
Many initiatives under discussion are more far-reaching. For example, “How could day school tuition look different?” asks Anna Hanau, co-founder of “Grow and Behold,” which sells kosher, humanely raised meat, and is also associate director of programs at Hazon. “What if we paid one-seventh more each year so that the seventh year would be free?”
Some believe that shmita can adjust the rhythm of our lives, much in the way that Shabbat shifts our experience of the week. “It’s best if the fundamental lessons of shmita colored and framed and infused the other years as well, just as Shabbat bookends the rest of the week,” says Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, director of the Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network.
A century ago, Rav Abraham Isaac Kook wrote eloquently of these utopian ideals. “What the Sabbath achieves regarding the individual, the Shmita achieves with regard to the nation as a whole,” he wrote (as quoted in Hazon’s shmita sourcebook). “It is a year of equality and rest, in which the soul reaches out towards divine justice, towards God who sustains the living creatures with loving kindness.”
So, as we gather around our holiday tables next month, light our Menurkeys, and crack the requisite bad jokes (“Nun, Gobble, Hey Shin?”), let’s also start planning how we can best observe the upcoming sabbatical year.
Elicia Brown’s column appears the second week of the month. E-mail her at email@example.com.