August 23, 2019

A new look in Israel for Shmita, the year of rest

More than 2,000 years ago, when ancient Israel was an agrarian society, the shmita year was a huge national happening. Commencing with Rosh Hashanah, the people of Israel would gather in the fields to partake of the produce left “ownerless” by farmers who, heeding the biblical commandment, would allow their fields to lie fallow during the seventh year of the agriculture cycle. In addition, all debts were forgiven, enabling the people of Israel to start fresh.  

In today’s Israel, farmers make up only about 2 percent of the population. Computer mice and keyboards have replaced plows, while corporate offices and nonprofit workplaces have become today’s “fields.” 

So how can Israelis observe shmita in the Startup Nation?

Jewish educators and Israeli leaders from across the religious spectrum are coming up with answers, hoping to pave the way for a country whose spiritual strength can match its economic strength.

On Oct. 30, at the residence of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, Knesset Member Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid) will unveil the Shmita Fund, a private fund to help Israeli families get out of debt and achieve financial freedom. Making shmita a practice among all sectors of Israeli society has been a dream of hers since she led Israel’s secular Jewish renewal movement before turning to politics.

“It’s really a renaissance of the term ‘shmita.’ It brings the concept of forgiveness of debt in a way that the Jewish people haven’t thought of,” Calderon said in a telephone interview. “I feel in awe towards the biblical idea of ‘debt forgiveness.’ It’s such a radical, amazing social concept, and it’s a vision and dream that we’re actually able to fulfill, because there is a Jewish state.”

Working with other nonprofits, the Shmita Fund will take up to 5,000 debt-ridden families and work with banks and creditors to restructure loans and provide debt relief, so that those families can eventually live in the “green.” The fund will train families to manage their finances and achieve independence, with private philanthropies worldwide chipping in to pay off the difficult debt. 

“For people abroad, it is their chance to do a ‘mitzvah,’ even though they don’t have land in Israel, and shmita is usually connected to land,” Calderon said.

Some Israelis’ new outlook on shmita allows it to extend beyond finance and agriculture. Students at Kolot, a progressive beit midrash (house of learning) in Jerusalem that applies Jewish sources to contemporary Israeli society, are exploring how the underlying principles can apply to other disciplines, such as law and health care. 

“We’re fighting for a country that lives according to values like shmita,” said Mordechai Bar Or, founding director of Kolot.  “Which in my understanding of shmita, is that every person can be seen in this world. That’s a value. That’s a Jewish value.” Bar Or, like Calderon, is among the pioneers in the movement to revive Jewish identity among secular Israelis.

“Kolot asks the question of the relevancy of Judaism and the Jewish people in the 21st century,” he said.

To set an example for modern applications of shmita, Kolot itself is turning its campus into an experimental shmita “field” by, for example, granting its employees a paid sabbatical for the seventh year of employment and offering free classes in Jewish studies to the public.

Until studying at Kolot, Merav Israeli-Amarant, a lawyer and entrepreneur, didn’t really consider Judaism relevant to her life. She grew up with a kosher kitchen and studied the Hebrew Bible at a secular public school, but she took for granted that living in the Jewish state, serving as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), then sending her own children to serve in the IDF, were her contribution to the Jewish dream. 

Last year, as she studied the laws and values of shmita at Kolot, she felt she had discovered Israel’s next best spiritual “startup.”

“We all live in the rat race, and people tell you that you always have to run,” Israeli-Amarant said during an interview at the Kolot campus. She also likened the notion of Shabbat, a weekly day of spirituality and rest, to a Jewish “startup” that eventually penetrated the Western world, culminating with the ideal of the sanctity of the non-working weekend.

“Shmita tells you to stop running — not for a day, but for a year — so that you could flourish.”

As a personal shmita, she’s splitting her time between her work at a biotech firm and at Kolot, leading Kolot’s Israel Shmita project for Kolot graduates to translate the ideals of shmita to their professional fields.

For example, Zipi David-Dolberger, an Israeli judge and lawyer, is working to regulate legislation concerning the statute of limitations for disciplinary offenses in which civil servants or professionals who serve the public are penalized for improprieties, such as a police officer who oversteps authority or a lawyer who commits malpractice. The statute of limitations in this area is not as developed as in criminal cases, but she believes that non-criminal offenses must also have a clear road to amnesty. 

“Shmita allows people to start with a clean slate,” she said. 

Yonit Levi, a nurse and researcher at the Edmond and Lilly Safra Children’s Hospital at Sheba Medical Center, is developing a psychological counseling program to give nurses emotional “rest.” After treating children with fatal diseases for many years, she experienced “compassion fatigue,” or an emotional burnout that comes from assisting others with trauma. Nurses, she found, had no built-in organizational mechanism to get help for it.

“During this year you have to leave something for others,” she said of her decision to develop the program.

On a more grass-roots level, Einat Kramer, founding director of Teva Ivri (Jewish Nature), is working to make creative observance of shmita a national trend every seven years.

“We have an opportunity to put ourselves on the side and focus on environmental, social and economic values, which are the values of sustainability,” Kramer said.

She founded Teva Ivri to fuse environmental activism with Zionist and Jewish values, and shmita is the ultimate vehicle for that. Teva Ivri’s Israeli Shmita Initiative works to raise national awareness of shmita through round-table discussions and workshops geared to social activists and people of influence. This year, she’ll be setting up a huge “shmita tent” at festivals, events and on campuses, where people can discover and discuss how shmita relates to their individual lives and society as a whole.

But creative observance of shmita does not mean that traditional observance is or will be obsolete. Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon, founding director of the Halacha Education Center based in Alon Shvut and author of a primer on shmita in both Hebrew and English, believes traditional and creative observance can complement each other.   

“It’s a year when you have time to listen to your soul, to yourself, when you can be attached with your family — to be with them, to have time with them. A year to listen to nature, a year to understand the holiness of Eretz Yisrael,” said Rimon, who lectures widely on shmita and assists farmers with its observance.

The nature of halachic observance of shmita is a subject of debate within Orthodox circles, but there are two “kosher” workarounds. The more lenient solution is called “heter mechira,” which allows farmers to sell their land to a non-Jew for the year, and then continue to work it as usual. The more authentic, yet more challenging, solution is Otzar Beit Din, which gives a rabbinical court temporary stewardship over the farm and essentially turns it into a not-for-profit. 

Because halachic observance applies only to the farming minority, Rimon also believes in the power of shmita’s symbolic observance to unite and strengthen Israeli society. He is working on instituting a “shmita hour” of volunteer work each week in Israeli schools, as well as an “adopt-a-family” program to pair financially stable families with impoverished ones for peer-to-peer mentorship.

In a unique cooperation between a religious and secular institute, the Halacha Education Center will build a “shmita park” in conjunction with Hebrew University’s Botanical Gardens in Jerusalem to include exhibits about shmita, as well as a “shmita garden,” a makeshift agricultural field that demonstrates traditional observance.

Rimon teaches that while the Torah values prosperity, shmita reminds us that making money is not a value in and of itself. “To me it’s the idea that you understand the money is not yours. It belongs to God.”