Let Me Count the Ways: Shmittah — It’s a mitzvah

by Carol Oseran Starin

This year, 5768, is a shmittah year, a year of sabbatical for the land. The Torah tells us that every seventh year the land is to lie fallow and debts are to be remitted. The word shmittah means ‘release.’ Shmittah is a fascinating and ingenious concept. In current-day practice it also brings with it a lot of controversy. Since the shmittah year only comes around once every seven years, plan some time for a bit of self-study and then bring shmittah to your school and classrooms. Tu b’Shevat and other times you talk about caring for the environment and resource conservation are good times to include shmittah.

Shmittah provides opportunities for all sorts of lessons:

1. Studying Text

Shmittah is a mitzvah that comes from three passages in the Torah:

Exodus 23: 10-11 calls on the Israelites to let the land lie fallow and the vineyards and olive groves untouched that the poor people may eat of them, as well as the wild beasts.

Leviticus 25: 1-7 refers to the fallow year as a “Sabbath of the Lord” and a year of complete rest for the land

Deuteronomy 15:1-11 commands the Israelites to observe every seventh year as a “year of release,” when Jewish debts are to be released

What nuance does each verse add?

2. Finding Meaning

Sharon Halper created a wonderful graphic organizer designed to help students find meaning in the purpose of shmittah:


To download a printable version (PDF) that you can use, click here.

3. Researching what the Commentators Say

Ibn Ezra wrote that the seven-year agricultural cycle parallels the Divine plan of Creation – that God created the world in 6 days and rested on the 7th. People rest on Shabbat and it is our responsibility to insure that the seventh year is equivalent to the seventh day of creation. Therefore the Jew in Israel must not work the fields during the seventh year. Other commentators disagree. Research what Nahmanides, Abarbanel and other commentators have to say.

4. Weaving science and Torah

Peter Stark, another member of our 5 Things Advisory Group, writes about the ways in which we can weave Torah and science. You might consider inviting a teacher or parent who has some science expertise to help students get inside ideas about climate, climate change and the ways we must care for the proper ecology of the Land of Israelis as part of our landLord’s lease with us. Here is some background, mixed with Torah

• Study the gradual climate change that made Israel and the Sahara green and fertile at the time of the Ice Ages. But with the retreat of glacial zones – that gradually dried those areas out -those areas were left a much tougher place to live in than they would have been three or four thousand years ago (all the way back at least into the last Ice Age).

• Study the effect of climate change on crops, and ways of preserving resources through crop rotation and planned fallow periods for regeneration of resources.

It used to be thought, for example, that “Greenland” was chosen by the Vikings as a way of promoting what was really an icy and barren land, but new studies have shown that the initial settlement by Vikings took place before the “Little Ice Age” of the 1300-1600s. Greenland really did have a warmer climate back then, but the settlers had no way of knowing that the world was entering a 300-500 year period of colder temperatures. The Europeans who settled in Greenland eventually either starved, or left.

• The Land of Israel is designated as a “land flowing with milk and honey (date honey)” “Milk and Honey” indicates agricultural bounty both for animal herders and for farmers. From records of human settlement, what is now the Sahara as well as nature studies in the Land of Israel, we know that these areas have been growing drier and more barren the further we get from the last major Ice Age. The early inhabitants of the Sahara left drawings showing a landscape teeming with life, but the animals pictured now live in the savanna, much south in the African continent.

• Invite students to take a look at this satellite image. At http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sahara, you’ll see where Africa is green. Northern Africa was green at the end of the last Ice Age, but as the climate warmed up after that, the areas that support widespread plant and animal life retreated, and the region became desert. Look at the map; the Land of Israel is right within that desert zone. In Biblical times, beginning about 3,300 years ago, the Land of Israel and the Sahara were less further along in the cycle of warming and desertification (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desertification) that marks the periods between Ice Ages. The Land of Israel was probably significantly greener when we first got there. Over the course of our more than 3,000 year love affair with the Land of Israel, we have had increasingly to shepherd the Land’s resources carefully. The Torah places great emphasis on the need for care of the Land, making it our responsibility.

This means that our modern resettlement of our Land, and the heroic act of making the desert bloom again, are acts of tremendous consequence to humanity, especially with the acceleration of global warming. The Land of Israel, much of it barren desert just a century ago, really does bloom—for all that Israel is a center of computer and technology industries, its agriculture is also extraordinarily successful, pioneering ways of using desert land to sustain human development. A country that a century ago could support only a few hundred thousand people, with frequent famines, now supports a population of over seven million. Israeli agricultural methods are shared with and studied by countries around the world. We must understand that, in a broad sense, our nurturing of our Land helps to fulfill a variety of mitzvot, by helping to feed people the world over.

(Take a look at the Union for Reform Judasism’s Hunger Fighting Project: http://urj.org/njwhvc/MANNA.)

The land is a mirror of the moral behavior of the tenants (us)… God says that he will show his approval or disapproval through the medium of the Land of Israel, making it more fertile to show approval and withholding rain to indicate disapproval. That’s what the 2nd paragraph of the Shma is about. In this regard, it’s important to note that the translation “Thou shalt love” is inaccurate; ahav in the Shma is being used as a technical brit term because the Shma is a classic capsulization of the brit, i.e., the treaty between God and Israel. In treaty-language, ahav does not mean “love” but rather means “to be loyal, to adhere to the terms of the brit,” which is why the rabbis called the Shma “kabbalat ol malkhut shamayim,” “the acknowledgment of the yoke of the kingship of heaven.”

Israel itself has shown that despite climate change and centuries of neglect, the land can be nurtured into fertility, but there is no room for wasting resources.

An indivisible component of Zionism is the caring for the Land of Israel as a way of rebuilding our national character after centuries of exile… By caring for our land, we will regenerate or regreen not only the Land, but also ourselves as a people.

In Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, there is a chapter about the fox and the recognition of the importance of rhythm, time, rites, and rituals in the building of a relationship – such as that between the Little Prince and the rose he once cared for. By caring for the rose, he has become a caring person. If we care for the Land of Israel, what is the effect on us as a people?

5. Generating questions

As a class, create a list of questions students may have about shmittah and the consequences of not farming, growing crops, or buying food that was grown during the shmittah year. Take a look at recent articles to learn about some of the modern day issues: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/08/world/middleeast/08shmita.html?_r=1&oref=slogin and http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=990CE2DB123FF936A15753C1A9619C8B63

With special thanks to Peter Stark and to Sharon Halper.