Yom Sheini, 22 Tishri 5780
Shemini Azeret Monday, 21 October 2019
Sukkot 2014

by Rabbi Aaron Goldstein

10th October 2014

Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: When you come into the land that I give you, then the land shall keep a Sabbath to the Eternal. Six years you shall sow your field, six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in its produce. But in the seventh year, it shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the Eternal, you shall neither sow your field nor prune your vineyard (Lev 25:2-4).

This Rosh Hashanah marked the beginning of the one year in seven when, according to halakhah, the Land of Israel should lie fallow. ·It is known as shmitta.

The Biblical shmitta is so closely linked to Shabbat that there can be no doubting the connection between the two. As Nehama Leibowitz notes, Shabbat and shmitta are juxtaposed to each other in Exodus 23 and in Leviticus 25 that I just quoted from, verses 2-8 included seven derivatives of the root shin-vet-tav similar to the multiple ‘sevens’ that are found in Genesis 1. This link with ‘Creation’ is cited by some as the purpose of mentioning Shabbat and shmittatogether as wonderfully captured by Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, the fifteenth century, Spanish Talmudist and exegete:

“…its purpose is to bring home to us the Truth, and to open our ears and illumine our hearts through great and wonderful signs, and to open the eyes of those who are steeped in the illusions of this world and are addicted to earthly labour. Seeing that the Children of Israel agreed to serve God our of love, the Eternal One enlightened us and opened for us windows in order to open the unseeing eyes, to bring those that sit in darkness out of the prison house, and to bring out of prison those who are prisoners of their own greed, shackled by vain and futile things. God fixed periodical milestones in the course of our days, weeks, and years, which cannot go unnoticed, unless we foolishly ignore them…For the six days of work and the seventh day of rest bear testimony that the world was created by God’s will…and this is the genuine sign and symbol for truth of God’s existence…and this is the most fundamental article of faith of every believer…”

Whilst we may not believe in God as the literal Creator of the universe - acknowledging the Genesis creation story as myth – the belief in God that pervades the universe constantly motivates us to look beyond our selves. At set time in the days, weeks and years as Arama suggests, we refocus our attention from our daily round to our families, to our community and to God.

Maimonides draws out the two main principles of shmitta, ceasing agricultural work and declaring the wild produce of the land as public property. Going out the day before the shmitta and gathering in all the produce is not playing by the rules. Rather it is the opportunity to live in harmony, to have enough but not allowing desire for more to dominate. Gather in enough, then leave the rest to those who might come and help themselves.

Two problems for us: We do not live in the Land of Israel. No probs, we could be like a Charedi group from Bnei Brak that bought a small parcel of land in the Galilee and sold tiny parcels of it to Orthodox families so that they can own land that they will leave fallow thus observing the mitzvah. No, not for you!? Well not too much of a concern for us proud British Jews for we also love our land!

Another problem: We are not farmers. Perhaps not professionals but a growing number of us are at least amateurs, having or joining the waiting lists for an allotment or having created a veg bed to grow as much of our own as we can.

Finally, we live in a flat or have no interest whatsoever in agriculture and judging by the Rabbi’s hands and fingernails on a Tuesday morning after his Monday stint in his own, its so not Edgware Station.

So now we get down to the interesting question for us as Liberal Jews: We know about the halakhah, we know about the traditions but what is the essence of the mitzvah and is it still relevant to us?

I leave you to choose your commentator and decide whether you agree that the core reason for the shmitta is a reminder of Creation, that it is to remind us to take a break, to focus on God using our time to study and meditate, to consider God’s ownership of the planet we are stewards of or perhaps for agricultural reasons.

I can find relevance in all of them and certainly worthy of consideration but for me, the most compelling reason to observe the shmitta is concern with furthering our society by getting to know one another better. The shmittaprovides a meeting point in the community. This year I shall be using my front beds to grow produce that anyone can come and take. The conversations that we can have with those in our local community or just passers-by, the opportunity to explain why we are doing it and therefore a further chance to explain who we are and get to know them and a little of their circumstances.

Not green fingered, then join those looking for innovative ways to mark shmitta this year. Replace the trip to the supermarket to a few local stores. Turn off the work email out of hours. Car share with others on the way to Cheder each Saturday and then you might stay to be with others. Volunteer. Plant trees with the Woodland Trust to provide benefit to our land and environment over multiple shmitta years.

The Jewish notion of an idyllic society is not one in which everyone has the same - The rich farmer who has many fields in the case of the shmitta is much valued for providing food for many. The idyllic society is rather one where conversations are always being had, where people look out for each other and cross the road to help rather than to avoid contact.· It is a sense of unity amongst the community, just as there is unity in the One God.