Jude Williams, Chief Executive, Tzedek
Shmita is an ancient halachic framework that most of us consider outdated, unworkable and definitely not for 21st-century Diaspora life.
After attending the international Siach conference on the subject held by the Jewish Social Action Forum (JSAF) and JHub earlier this year, I’m beginning to get excited about the renaissance of this ancient idea and think it might be exactly the new way of thinking we need right now.
This Rosh Hashanah saw the beginning of the shmita year, the seventh year of an ongoing seven-year cycle.
The main prohibitions are against the working of the land of Israel during the shmita year (think crop rotation and fallow fields), the opening of common lands, as well as the cancellation of debts.
Shmita means ‘release’. It is easy to paint an idyllic picture from the Torah’s description of a just, equal society lived out in the land of Israel in the shmita year.
The land will lie fallow, though produce will grow naturally. These fruits of the land will be open for anyone and everyone to take.
There is a prohibition to fence or lock your fields.
All land will become ownerless and therefore everyone will have free access, including animals.
Debts will be cancelled and the burden they place on people removed.
We are reminded that the land and our possessions are not really ours; that everything is on loan and maybe the fact that we own anything is a blessing but not a right.
But thinking about the ramifications of a shmita year, it is actually rather bleak. Everyone will need to forage for wild food, stores made in the sixth year will deplete quickly.
Wild growing berries and nuts will be the staple. Rather than fewer people being hungry, wouldn’t more go hungry?
Debts would be cancelled. But who would give a loan in the sixth or fifth year of the shmitta cycle if they knew it would be cancelled within a year or two?
Working the shmita cycle requires an incredible amount of solidarity; collective and altruistic intent.
Shmita in modern-day Israel has revolved around debates about sourcing food from outside of Israel for the year, ensuring loans are passed to the local Beth Din and leaving the fields fallow, or selling them.
These are issues we don’t need to deal with because halachically our lives outside of Israel put us outside the framework.
So should we consider shmita as an idyllic idea; an ancient, technical nuisance for religious Israelis and irrelevant for us?
I think shmita offers us a genuinely different perspective on important daily experiences.
One of those is that shmita gives us a chance to reflect on how we consume and to think about those who struggle to meet their basic needs.
So JSAF, an umberella for all the Jewish social justice charities, has taken the lead in defining what shmita might look like for the Jewish community in the 21st century.
JSAF has chosen to actively support food banks this shmita year.
We are asking the Jewish community to learn about the growing gap between rich and poor in the UK.
While we are not farmers ourselves and have no fields to ‘open’, many of us do have an ‘abundance’.
We should look at our kitchens as our fields and ask how we can take from our abundance and create greater equality and justice.
Here are four practical ways to bring ‘release’, and connect you and your community to the ancient idea of shmita:
• Be part of Mitzvah Day’s Shmita Foodbank Project, and collect food for a local food bank.
• Connect with GIFT and the Trussell Trust to make regular food bank donations, visit and hear more about their work. GIFT runs under-18 student activities in London and Manchester too.
• Join us at the Succah in the City for an interfaith celebration of Succot and Harvest (connect via Facebook to ‘A Sukkah for All’).
• Make use of the JSAF 5775: Give It A Rest Educators’ resource and explore key shmita Jewish texts. These are small acts – a start. Shmita has been hidden away for two centuries. We need to study the texts, awaken deeper understanding of the principles and laws, and re-establish their application. Maybe then over three cycles (that’s 21 years). We could see a revival of shmita.