Shmita and Rosh Hashana: A Time of Renewal
Rabbanit Dr. Hannah Hashkes is the Director of OTS’s International Halakha Scholars Program
It is not always easy to get into a festive mind frame in the hustle and bustle of modern life. Our places of work and study follow the Gregorian calendar rather than the Jewish one. It follows that we often do not have the headspace to prepare for the upcoming Jewish holiday or give it its due attention. This year, for example, the Hebrew month of Elul began in the second week of August. In terms of work and studies, August is vacation time, so many of us don’t have a set routine or a fixed daily schedule. Furthermore, another wave of COVID-19 hit us, undermining our sense of security and making it even more difficult to undertake any sort of spiritual work. This year, once again, we were unable to convene for prayers, learning or any other form of spiritual arousal as we had done in the past. The spiritual work in which we engage during the month of Elul is supposed to prepare us for Rosh Hashana, the day on which “all living creatures pass before him as a flock of sheep”, followed by Yom Kippur. The fact that our Sages set the first day of the month of Tishrei as “the first day of each year; the first day of shmita year; the first day of the Jubilee (yovel) and also as the reference point for laws pertaining to fruits and vegetables” adds a dimension of both closure and renewal to this special day. Even new beginnings require preparation, and we have the month of Elul for this exact purpose. This coming Rosh Hashana will also mark the beginning of shnat shmita (the Sabbatical Year – the seventh year in the agricultural cycle) in the Land of Israel. Thus, a unique opportunity presents itself – experiencing the birth of a New Year as something almost tangible, a renewal that directly impacts our daily lives. This might better help us channel our attention to achieving the awareness needed for true renewal.
The Talmud, in the tractate of Rosh Hashana (8b), asks how we know that the New Year, which begins on the first of Tishrei, is indeed the date that marks the beginning of the shmita year. Why should the start of the Sabbatical Year not be on the first of the month of Nisan, which is called “the first of all months”? The answer the Talmud gives is based on what is called a gezera shavah, which means a halakhic (Jewish legal) verdict that is reached by comparing two cases which contain similar words. When the Torah talks of the mitzvah of shmita in Leviticus 25, it says the following: “But the seventh year shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land.” How do we know when the seventh year begins? In most cases the Torah refers to the month of Nisan as the first of all months. In Deuteronomy 11, where the Torah speaks of Israel’s behavior directly impacting the extent to which they prosper and flourish in the Land of Israel, special reference is made to the beginning of the year. “A land which the Lord thy God cares for; the eyes of the Lord thy God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year even unto the end of the year.” From this verse, the beginning of the year is understood to be the first of Tishrei, and not Nisan. The reason the Talmud gives is that this particular verse refers to the rainy season, which begins in Tishrei and not in Nisan. Consequently, the Talmud infers that the year mentioned with reference to the mitzvah of shmita – the seventh year – is analogous with the year mentioned in Deuteronomy, which is not the year beginning in Nisan. The reason is that Nisan is mentioned as the first of all months, while the mitzvah of shmita in the book of Leviticus makes mention of the word year, a complete unit, irrespective of months. The Talmud explains as follows: “We may draw an analogy between one source that makes mention of the word year and no mention of months and another source that makes mention of the word year with no mention of months; we may not draw an analogy between a source that makes mention of the word year as well as months and a source that refers to the word year alone and makes no mention of months (ibid.). This analogy is mentioned again in the Mishnah when it explains that the first of Tishrei marks the beginning of the year when it comes to planting, as well as in matters of how to calculate fruits that are orla (picked within the first three years of a tree’s life) (ibid. 9:2).
Evidently, our Sages made a distinction between the first of Nisan, which is the first of all months, and the first of Tishrei, which marks the beginning of the New Year and is also the beginning of the rainy season. This distinction is also conceptual one, and might better help us understand Rosh Hashana as a time of renewal. The importance of the month count is connected to how the Jewish festivals are set in the Jewish calendar, as well as to the fulfillment of other commandments. The significance of the new moon is not at all similar to the birth of a new year, which marks the beginning of a new era for most human beings. The verse in Deuteronomy 11, which talks of the unique Divine Providence over the Land of Israel and the People of Israel from the start of the year until the year’s end, teaches us that the concept of “year”, as a significant and complete unit, should be taken very seriously. The yearly cycle contains elements of beginnings and closures, both of which are related to our behavior as humans. In keeping with this idea, God observes people’s behavior, assesses human trends and passes judgement in yearly units of time. In much the same way that a period of one year suffices to assess the rain situation, one human year is long enough to give a fair idea of the human situation, be it negative or positive. That said, one year does not give an accurate reflection of a person’ entire lifetime. This means that the transition from one year to the next presents an opportunity for change and renewal, such that a new year also marks a fresh start in our human consciousness, allowing us to engage in introspection using “good” and “bad” as reference points.
The second Mishnah in the tractate of Rosh Hashana states that “all living creatures pass before him as a flock of sheep”. Thus, the Mishnah sets Rosh Hashana not only as the beginning of the shmita year and the Jubilee, but also as the New Year of moral-spiritual human time. This then becomes the time when we bring one era to a close and begin a new one. Consequently, this is the time when we are able to create a new spiritual identity which is contingent upon our behavior throughout the year. As stated above, the difficulty stems from the fact that it is not always easy to focus our attention on the process of transitioning into the New Year, which marks a new era in our lives; nor is it easy to engage in soul-searching or the process of teshuva, which is imperative during these very days.
However, this coming year, which will also be a shmita year, the transformation between pre-Rosh Hashana and post-Rosh Hashana will be a very tangible one because the New Year will also open the gates to a Sabbatical Year. The Mishnah in the tractate dealing with the shmita year elaborates upon the types of agricultural labor that are permitted before Rosh Hashana of the shmita year in order to prepare it for the Sabbatical. There are a few particular activities which should be avoided a few months prior to the shmita year, e.g. plowing and tree planting. However, these laws are only a type of prelude to the shmita year itself, and are related to growth-time calculations of the various crops.
The transition from the sixth year to the seventh is not significant for farmers only; it has bearings on anyone who has a garden and anyone buying vegetables and fruits or any products containing any form of crop. Even those living abroad and consuming products made in Israel, especially wine, must have greater awareness of the New Year and its implications. This new beginning or renewal offers a unique opportunity to fulfill a mitzvah that is otherwise not a part of our daily routine. It can also serve as an internal compass of sorts, directing us towards the change we wish to make in the coming year. So, yes, this Elul caught us in the middle of August, making it much more difficult to be in the mind frame for spiritual preparation; nevertheless, the transition and transformation will be far more tangible this year. If we add the memories evoked by the sound of the shofar to the memories aroused by the Sabbatical year, we might succeed in creating the right mood which will help us prepare for these Days of Judgement. The New Year bears upon its wings a new spiritual and halakhic reality, which will hopefully lead to a novel spiritual awareness.
May the New Year be one of positive renewal and revival, and may our prayers be answered. May the pandemic end, and may God shower great abundance on all those observing the shmita year so that we are all able to properly focus on our avodat Hashem and spiritual growth.
This article was written as part of the “Journeys” series for Tishrei 5782