Every seven years, many observant Jewish farmers in the land of Israel are out of a job. According to the laws of shmita, the Biblical sabbatical year that fell again on Sept. 7, 2021, they are not allowed to gain any economic benefits from their crops nor are they allowed to boast about their proceeds. The field becomes “hefker,” ownerless, serving as a reminder to the people that it is truly God’s land. Everyone, no matter their social or economic standing, is allowed to eat from it. The process is meant to be humbling, and a total abdication of humankind’s power over the environment.
These days, educators and students alike are trying to connect biblical ideas to modern conventions. Is Shmita still applicable to the modern age? Or is it best to keep its practices in the past?
Many organizations, such as Hazon and The Shmita Project, focus on the environmental angle of the seventh year and use the concepts discussed in Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, to promote sustainable practices. Science has shown letting the land rest to be ecologically smart; many communities and families, including my own, who have a garden have a custom that every six/seven years to not plant so that the nutrients will build up for future crops.
The modern state of Israel was founded on socialist principles, many of which can be drawn from laws and values in the Bible. The ideas of kibbutzim, communal settlements where everyone partakes in work and reaps the benefits, are drawn in large part from the philosophies of Marx, Engels — and Deuteronomy 15:7, which addresses the laws of the shmita year: “If there be in you a pauper of one of your brothers do not harden your heart and do not close your hand, But open your hand to him, and lend him what suffices for his needs that are lacking.”
There is more to the seventh year than just land regulations. If one is past due on a debt, it is canceled, known as shemitat k’tzafim, and all are provided for. According to the Sefer Hachinuch, the purpose of shmita is to anchor our hearts and create a vivid image in our minds that God created the world from nothing. This is similar to the Sabbath, with six days of work and one day of rest.
While most of us may associate shmita directly with agricultural practices, the Rambam, the medieval Jewish philosopher, and scientist also known as Maimonides, credits its purpose as providing the poor with an opportunity to gain status in society. It is a year when all their previous debts are canceled, letting them start anew. It is a second chance for those whose prior commitments would otherwise plague them down. This is where the second part of shmita, discussing land absolvement — allowing private landholdings to become open to the commons — comes into play. These laws have overlying themes which show us how we are simply pieces of a larger society that only benefits when everyone succeeds.
What I gather from the laws of shmita is more than the sum of its parts. Shmitaa illuminates the wide-reaching scope Jewish principles have on society at large. Shmita may have started as a seven-year cycle pertaining to Jews in a certain geological region, but its influence on the world has far greater implications than one would think. From the three-field system popular in Medieval Europe that helped spur the modern age to the concept of debt forgiveness, the rules found in Tanakh have gone beyond the bounds anyone living in the Temple period would have thought. And I think this says something beautiful about religion in general. God gives a commandment and the people listen, but over time communities change and those commandments shift into variations of themselves up to the point where the original meaning is lost or feels hidden.
Learning about shmita, although it is still practiced in the modern age, shows us how far innovative ideas can spread and how religion shapes the world. I wonder what Marx, born a Jew but a devout atheist would have thought about his beliefs being soaked in Jewish tradition. Was he aware? Probably, but the real question would be if it mattered. Life is ever-changing but the traditions we once carried directly impact who we are today. As a religion and a culture, Judaism values its past, and innovative ideas, no matter how big or small are still ever-present in our daily lives, although we may not know it.