How to Shmita in California
Shmita, the Torah-mandated break that refreshes every seven years, and which is observed in the coming new year, 5775, is being reinterpreted in Los Angeles.
The key concepts of shmita, which means “release,” are found in the Torah portion Mishpatim in Exodus (“Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow)” and in the portion Re’eh in Deuteronomy (“Every seventh year you shall practice remission of debts”). Though the first commandment is believed to apply only in Israel, the second can have an impact on Jews anywhere.
In modern Israel, though some working in agriculture strictly observe, others use a sale permit called heter mechira, which allows Jewish landowners to temporarily sell their fields and orchards to a non-Jewish party so that the land can continue to be cultivated during the shmita year. A similar legal instrument for debt, called a pruzbol, makes it possible for lenders to continue collecting on loans.
In the United States, because the farming restrictions of shmita do not apply, other than in study, shmita has not received much attention. But this year, Hazon, an nonprofit whose goal is to create healthy and sustainable communities within a Jewish context, has initiated a Shmita Project, which asks: “What might this shmita year look like in a modern context? In Israel and beyond?”
In area synagogues, schools and Jewish summer camps, the seeds of an answer are beginning to push up from California’s drought-parched soil.
“We want to revitalize the ideas of shmita,” said Devorah Brous, founding executive director of Netiya, a Los Angeles Jewish nonprofit that promotes urban agriculture through a network of interfaith partners. Brous sees in shmita “the broad connections between land and people,” and she wants to apply that connection “to advance notions of sustainability” as well as to “promote resilience,” she said.
Brous, a gardener whose backyard garden in Sherman Oaks is filled with trees yielding pears, oranges, pomegranates and apples, vegetable beds green with kale, chard, tomatoes, herbs and even chickens, sees the system of food production in America as “having broken parts,” and the year of shmita as a time to begin fixing it.
To begin that process, a recent Netiya leadership retreat in San Diego featured Rabbi Yedida Sinclair, who translated and wrote an introduction for “Rav Kook’s Introduction to Shabbat Ha’Aretz” (Sabbath of the Land). First published in 1909 as a preface to “Shabbat Ha’Aretz,” the book presents new halachic approaches to shmita. “The old will be made new, and the new made holy,” Kook wrote.
“Shmita affords us an opportunity to take a break from what we are doing day-to-day,” said Brous, who sees shmita as a metaphor for slowing down and trying to see if “our reactions to problems are actually holistic and comprehensive,” she said.
The retreat gave her time to rethink the model of food justice, Brous said. “We need to step outside of the current model of doing canned food drives and move toward teaching people how to grow their own food,” said the community organizer, who lived in Israel for 15 years.
In rethinking how to help the city’s hungry, Brous has been asking congregations of all faiths to open up 10 percent of their land to grow food, she said.
“We need to help the folks who come to every one of our congregations,” she said, including those she has seen after Shabbat services putting food “into plastic containers and sticking it into their purses so they can have dinner that night.”
Though she has yet to find any takers for the 10 percent plan in the Jewish community — where she has been told even a parking spot is too valuable to give up — 11 congregations and Jewish groups have already devoted parts of their acreage to community gardens, including Temple Judea, Stephen S. Wise Temple, Temple Israel of Hollywood and IKAR, as well as camps Ramah and JCA Shalom.
A garden in Highland Park, Brous said, is a product of a combined effort of All Saints Episcopal Church, which supplied the land, and neighbor Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock, which contributed the funding via a grant from the Jewish Federation of the San Gabriel & Pomona Valleys, with members from both congregations supplying labor.
In a few weeks, Netiya also plans to help install a “shmita-ready” garden at the New Community Jewish High School in West Hills.
“During a shmita year, you cannot plant in the ground, but you can plant in raised beds,” Brous said. “In the garden, they are going to practice shmita. Three of the beds will be for planting and one fallow.”
Others in L.A.’s Jewish community want to get in on the planting, too.
All Saints Episcopal Church collaborated on a communal garden with neighbor Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock on a plot of land in Highland Park in 2014. Photo by Lisa Friedman
Among some in the Orthodox community, there’s a rush to plant — in Israel. On the website Israeltrees.org, which is run by Zo Artzeinu — complete with a shmita countdown clock — there’s a rush to plant thousands of fruit trees in Israel.
“Next Opportunity in 7 Years!” the site reminds.
In the field of kosher food supervision, the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), which also provides assistance with personal matters including marriage, divorce and conversion, the coming shmita presents an atmosphere of business as usual and nothing rushed.
For Rabbi Avrohom Union, rabbinic administrator of the RCC, the impact of products coming to Los Angeles from Israel will not hit until later this year, he said. In the coming months, the RCC will be watching to make sure that producers have adhered to the laws of shmita. “It’s highly technical and depends on the crop,” Union said, whose organization also “watches the wines.”
On the RCC site, there is also a pruzbol form. Pruzbol is a halachic innovation — today under rabbinic authority — from the time of Hillel the Elder that allows those holding loans to turn them over to a rabbinical court for a year.
Intended to help the poor, Hillel created the contract because he observed that in the time before the shmita year, potential lenders, fearing they would not be paid back, were reluctant to make loans.
According to Union, the forms can be completed any time before the end of the shmita year. Chabad interprets the deadline differently, he said, calling for the pruzbol to be completed before shmita begins.
Though acknowledging that shmita can make some Jews feel “more aware of ecology,” for Union, shmita is more about the “holiness of the land of Israel.”
Brous, however, feels that in her new interpretation she is not acting in “total disregard for shmita,” pointing out that after three years of drought in California, “The land is thirsty, but it’s also hungry for compost.
“This shmita year, we can restore,” she said.