Parshat Behar: How do we observe Shmita and Yovel in our own times?

Attar Gable, Pedagogic Coordinator at OTS’s Derech Avot High School

WhatsApp Image 2024 05 05 at 00.04.14 e1716269410260“‘And you shall return every man to his possession, and you shall return every man to his family” (Vayikra 25:10). These words are written in prayer for the speedy return home of the captives held in Gaza, including Emily bat Mindi Damari.

Time can be perceived in various ways. One can live under its shadow, within it, or beside it. Meir Shalev aptly describes this in his book As a Few Days:

“I remember how my mother first taught me to read the hands of the clock. I was six years old and asked her to buy me a watch. ‘I don’t have money for a watch…’ she said, then softened. She took me by the hand, led me outside, then said: ‘You don’t need a watch, Zayde, look how many clocks there are in the world.’ She showed me the shadow of the eucalyptus.  Its size, direction, and coolness said nine in the morning.  The red leaves of the pomegranate said mid-March. The loose tooth in my mouth said six years, and the wrinkles that flickered in the corners of her eyes said forty. ‘You see, Zayde, now you are within time. If we buy you a watch, you will only be beside it”‘ (p. 97).

“To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven” (Kohelet 3)

What is the Torah’s approach to life in relation to Time?

What we call “living Torah” – Torah being the “Tree of Life” – also incorporates a daily and ever-present attention to the concept of Time. Many commandments have a ‘time-bound’ element, rendering Time a crucial component of many mitzvot.  Recently, in the month of Nissan, with the aim of giving thanks for the seasonal changes which take place in Nature, we went out to recite the blessing over the trees in blossom.  Similarly, we recite the blessing of Shehecheyanu, denoting renewal, over new seasonal fruits that have ripened. Our prayers are adapted to calculated times throughout the day, from dawn until after the stars appear. The festivals and holidays have a distinct agricultural aspect of harvest and gathering, rain, wind, dew, and so forth.

Such an approach to life, intricately interwoven with the dimension of time, can be likened to a river: a river that runs its uninterrupted course, not in a straight line from top to bottom, but in spirals and cycles. This flow of life encompasses the cycles of days and nights, the four seasons, and the passage of years. It offers an inward perspective on the cycle of life, connecting the natural world to the human experience.

Nevertheless, the Torah adds another significant dimension to life, one deeply connected with the concept of Time. In a binding sense, man is distinct from the beast, being referred to as “the crown of creation.” Given that man’s years are finite – a fact known to all – high standards have been set for us, incorporating the constraint of time. God, who is also “the sanctifier of time,” directs us to rise above the natural flow of life. While Time itself cannot be stopped, it is possible and appropriate for us to pause within it, to channel our energies and desires, and to make stops along our life’s journey at the appropriate times. These pauses can take various forms: introspection, fasting, communal gatherings, festivals, dedicated times for mourning and remembrance, family moments, and times devoted to helping others.

All these moments provide us with opportunities to pause within the River of Life and reassess our actions. This notion aligns with the Sefat Emet’s commentary on the first verse of Parashat HaChodesh (1871) – “This month shall be for you the beginning of all months,” highlighting our obligation to find renewal in every action. We must seek the inner light hidden within Nature, and it depends on us, the Children of Israel, to illuminate the month with its inherent qualities. We must plan, foresee, and prepare for the future, make the most of our time, act within it, give it meaning, and fill it with substance.

I once heard from someone who had chosen to stop leading a life of Torah, with all the obligations such a life entailed, that what he missed most was Rosh Chodesh. It suddenly turned into an ordinary day, like any other.  He no longer wore the white shirt he was used to wearing on such days, and the day was now void of the joyous recitation of the Hallel prayer, the preceding Yom Kippur Katan and the sense of monthly renewal. Time passed unnoticed, leaving him with a sense of loss. “Living Torah” denotes intertwining eternal life with daily life, skillfully merging the mundane with the meaningful, bringing sanctity to the sands of time.

We count the days of the Omer, which is essentially an agricultural count, and strive to imbue it with a spiritual dimension: by working on our souls and achieving higher spiritual states, reflected by the Kabbalistic Sefirot associated with each day and each week of the Omer count. Thus, the period between Pesach and Shavuot becomes a personal progression of internal qualities.

The portion of Behar deals with two deliberate stations in time: the Sabbatical year (Shmita) and the Jubilee year (Yovel).

In the books of our Prophets, both of these events in the Jewish calendar are described as having great significance.  In fact, our Prophets state that it is our neglect to observe Shmita and Yovel that led to our exile from the Land of Israel. Both the mitzvah of Shmita and that of Yovel mark a period in time extending over a full year, in which life takes its usual course; however, during this time, we are supposed to change our way of life significantly by letting go of ownership of land and material possessions, and conducting ourselves in a mode the Torah calls “Shabbat Shabbaton”, a Sabbath year of solemn rest.  Our parsha goes on to detail further restrictions and obligations imposed on the public during these years, but not only.  Shmita and Yovel also involve rights, such as the right of all to rest, man and beast alike.  The Torah also highlights the fact that the land belongs to God, and that we are mere sojourners and temporary residents.  Furthermore, it talks of the faith required in the observance of these commandments, and the blessings that await those who fulfill them. 

In practice, these precepts are not exercised in this day and age, certainly not in the life-changing manner described in our portion. The laws regarding land ownership and financial transactions during the Shmita year, seem to have slipped through our fingers. The enactments of Prozbul [a writ given to protect lenders, ensuring that their loan will not be cancelled due to the Shmita] and Heter Mechira [a Halachic compromise by which Jewish owned land is temporarily sold to a non-Jew for the duration of the Shmita year in order to avoid the prohibition of working the fields] serve as ” Shmita bypass” solutions. These can be seen as redeeming ordinances, in keeping with the Halachic notion of vechay bahem [“and live by them”, i.e. the mitzvot are meant to promote life, rather than ruin], and, indeed, these served as solutions for the Shmita debate of early Zionism and the significant economic challenges faced by the pioneer farmers. However, the practical outcome of the above is that for most of us, little remains of the original Shmita -related commandments. The garbage bin designated for Shmita fruit and vegetable peels, some of us may have in our homes, or the fact that we proclaim our private garden fruits to be ownerless for anyone to pick – are merely symbolic acts. In reality, apart from a few farmers who fully observe all the laws of Shmita, the mitzvah is scarcely observed.

Regarding the remission of debts, Hillel the Elder’s enactment was aimed at ensuring the provision and extension of loans to those in need, yet even in this regard, the original mitzvah is not practically expressed. The same goes for the Jubilee year. Every person was required to return to their original inheritance. This was achieved by giving lands acquired over the years back to their original owners and by liberating all slaves. This mitzvah, too, is not observed in our times, nor can it be, as long as the majority of the nation is not settled in the Land of Israel. In fact, it appears that even in the distant past, the duration in which this mitzva could have been observed was brief.

What then is the place of these commandments in our lives? What remains of them, and what is their value when they are not observed? What is the significance of an idea that is not practically implemented, or when the feeling is that it transcends time, place and nature? Does a utopian idea have a weakening or distancing effect because the grand ideology embedded therein cannot be implemented and is not actionable? Or, on the other hand, can a mitzvah that cannot materialize in our current reality, still serve as a vision and provide direction for what it means to live a worthy life?

In a similar sense, Shabbat, too, is a special day on which we cease what we are doing and rest from all work. Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel called it a ‘palace in time.’ However, unlike the seemingly utopian concept of Shmita, Shabbat is firmly anchored in the reality of our lives. Even if there are disagreements with regards to the observance of Shabbat in the public domain, there is no dispute about its value and significance in our daily lives. Moreover, the Sabbath is not only deemed important by the Jewish people, but is considered to be one of Judaism’s greatest contributions to the Western world, since this day of rest embodies spiritual, social, familial, and moral aspects.

In a time when we are all consumers of agricultural produce, and yet most of us do not directly interact with the fields that give forth this produce, how can we learn to take the “periods of rest” of the Shmita and Jubilee years and give them a tangible, practical, meaningful, and valuable expression? Is the current non-implementation of Shmita still a matter of life-threatening necessity, crucial for settling and working the land?  Or is it nothing more than a convenient solution for maintaining the status quo, and the inherent human preference for a life of abundance and the avoidance of economic loss, which these mitzvot force us to endure?

How will a return from foreign fields to our original inheritances look when, after exiles and wanderings, our tribal identity has transformed? In a land where slavery is legally prohibited, who will be the modern slaves we will agree to release when the shofar is sounded on Yom Kippur marking the beginning of the Jubilee year?  And what will the implications of such release be?

What do we need today to let go of ownership? Is it faith? Trust in God? Courage? Commitment? The willingness to sacrifice? Unity? A profound understanding that we are all part of a single human tapestry?

How can the concept of Shmita manifest itself in the central domains of our lives – spirituality, education, society, economy, technology, family?

In recent Shmita cycles, special initiatives have emerged, such as ‘Israeli Shmita’ led by Einat Kramer, and numerous enterprises by Rabbi Rimon, and others. These include proposals to donate a weekly hour of professional work for the benefit of others; foster connection to nature and ecology; practice mindful and environmentally friendly consumption; establish Shmita tents for joint learning that enhances community resilience, inter alia. The ‘Attention Revolution’ movement also ties into this aspect. All these initiatives aim to bring the ideas behind the Shmita year into our lives, elevating them from the physical land to a higher level of social and spiritual existence. Another intriguing proposal for a conceptual Shmita, which could have a profound impact, comes from Shachar Tzabari, who suggests proclaiming freedom through the concept of forgiveness.  In other words, releasing the historical debts and emotional burdens we have carried for generations, and which divide us as a people, and eliminating the grudges that have accrued interest, as it were, causing us to entrench in our positions and threatening our societal cohesion.

Will we leave the above as no more than “lovely thoughts” and “abstract notions”, or will we adopt them as rights and binding commandments? Will the modern expression of the ‘Sabbatical Year’ be limited to a year of rest for educators every seven years, or will it extend into broader dimensions?

As a direct follow-up to these initiatives, this is a call to dedicate personal, communal, and national time to clarify our aspirations for a just and worthy society; to incorporate the spirit of these commandments into our times and adjust these to suit our modern-day capabilities; to move towards their implementation; to revive and make present the essence of Shmita and Yovel in contemporary times, as a connecting thread between Mount Sinai and our own generation – bayamim hahem baZeman hazeh, in our own times, as in days of yore. 

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