Can a land require a Sabbath, too? The Jewish answer is yes.
This calendar year of 5775 is a special time in our tradition: it marks the sabbatical year, the shmittah. In Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy we are commanded to harvest crops only for the first six years of the cycle, while the seventh year is a Sabbath for God. Every seventh Jewish year was thus a time when the land was allowed to lie fallow and rest, and the people, too, rested from their agricultural work and ate only the food the land naturally produced. It was a reminder of our deep debt to God for the bounty of the natural world.
By taking a year to rest, and to allow the land to rest, the earth was replenished and the people emerged from the year refreshed and renewed. The shmittah was also a time when debt was forgiven and balance was reestablished in the egalitarian society of biblical Israel.
When our people were farmers in an agrarian society this rest was essential to the land and to its workers. It kept Israel fertile, and it kept the Jewish people vital and vibrant.
When we were sent into exile nearly 2000 years ago the observance of the shmittah, the sabbatical year, waned. It was eventually revived on college campuses by professors experiencing a full academic year of freedom from teaching to deepen scholarship and broaden accomplishment, and by clergy who receive sabbaticals of varying lengths every seven years to restore and renew their spiritual energy.
For many Jews, however, sabbatical was simply an ancient practice unmoored to real-world experience.
But there is a vibrant revival of this concept in the Reform Jewish world this year, and we are the beneficiaries of this new/old idea. The goal is to use the sabbatical year to unite the people of Israel, as our ancestors gathered together for the Hakheil, the full assembly of the kehillah, the congregation of the people of Israel, during the shmittah. It will also allow us to discover meaningful ways to reconnect with the natural world God created, to learn about the spiritual potential of our home planet, and to seek to bring healing and health to our environment.
The shmittah reminds us not only of our dependence on the productive capacity of the land, but that we humans were not always farmers. Our species, homo sapiens sapiens, lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers for 30 times as long as we have now lived as sedentary farmers. To depend on the earth as it is, without transforming it through our own effort, to rely on the naturally occurring growth of trees and grasses, recalls the abundance that our planet, unimproved, can still produce without human intervention. It enables us to see ourselves as an integral part of something larger.
The shmittah helps us recall, as a sabbatical does, why we are here in the first place, and what we truly value. And it reminds us of our deep need to feel gratitude for what God has given us. At Temple Emanu-El we are using this sabbatical year to focus on our connection to the natural world and our appreciation for God’s gifts through environmental social action projects, Adult Education Academy courses, and experiences of spiritual inspiration. It is a wonderful opportunity for human growth.
May this shmittah year give us each a sense of God’s presence in this world, and gratitude for the goodness with which our earth has been blessed — and may we learn to protect this globe, and repair it where it is damaged.
May you be blessed by being sealed in the Book of Life for a good sabbatical year, and may you celebrate this shmittah Sukkot, our own agricultural festival, with joy, gratitude, and awareness.
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon is senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El and host of the Too Jewish Radio Show with Rabbi Sam Cohon & Friends, KVOI 1030 AM Sundays at 9 a.m., www.toojewishradio.com.