Embracing the Shmita Cycle: A New Year Vision

by Yigal Deutscher

The article below is reposted from Tikkun Daily, where it was originally published on September 16, 2012.


The fabric of the entire Jewish cosmology, culture, and story is interwoven with the patterns of cycles. This cycle begins with each of us, in our own bodies, with the rhythm of breath, the rhythm of inhale, exhale, and the moments of stillness and calmness in between each breath. It is this cycle which creates our collective, evolving body. Not just the human body, but the body of Earth, of life itself. We mark time with these movements of transformation, with this cyclical breath of the moon. We count our months and years as her body waxes and wanes, exhales and inhales. It is this cycle which is the same as our own rhythmic breath, our own beating heartbeat and flowing pulse.

On this particular Rosh Hashana, while invoking the year 5773, as you complete one yearly lunar cycle and begin a new one, you are invited to recall another cycle, mostly forgotten, but one as old as the Jewish story itself, still unfolding in the undercurrents of our collective subconscious. We are now welcoming in year 5 of a 7 year cycle known as the Shmita Cycle. If our weekly Shabbat is a 24 hour period of stillness, then Shmita, the Shabbat of the Land, is a year-long period of stillness.

Shmita, literally translated as the ‘year of release,’ and more widely known as the Sabbatical Year, is the focal point of Jewish earth-based traditions. Honoring the sacredness of land and her role in building community, this tradition resurfaces our collective ancient memories from a distant past, celebrating holistic relationships with earth and the village culture. Shmita is our mystery wisdom tradition; a celebration of cycles, community, faith and resiliency. In 2 years from now, on Rosh Hashana 5775 (which will be 2014), the cycle will once again enter into it’s 7th year, and the Shmita period will begin anew. And this is when things will get quite interesting.

The request is bold. Many may recall the year of Shmita simply as the Biblical time when we were guided to ‘leave all agricultural land fallow.’ It is easy to say, but can you take a moment to dwell on what it might mean to actually leave a society’s agricultural land fallow? And might we all realize just how radical and audacious, and perhaps alarming, that sounds? As an equivalent, since most of us are not farmers in this age, imagine saying, ‘a year when we close every single shopping mall and bank’ (which happens to not be that far off from what the Shmita period does in fact imply). How does that sound to you?

If we were fully celebrating this tradition, here is how it would look: In a cycle of 7, on every seventh year, your community is asked to collectively participate in a cultural shift. There will be no seeding in the soil, there will be no tilling of the soil, private land holdings will be open to the commons, everyone will have equal access to food storage and perennial harvests, there will be no food sold at the marketplace, and all debts will be forgiven. Everyone will share in widespread abundance, as resources are redistributed and shared equally. The Shmita year has a depth that reaches into every aspect of society and culture, inviting forth a paradigm transition from global to local, from profit to wellness, from the realm of the private to the realm of the communal, from short term thinking to long term visioning.

How’s that for a cultural shift? Have you ever experienced the chaotic few hours before Shabbat arrives…wrapping up the work week, preparing food, cleaning clothing, body & house? Well, can you imagine society and its dominating factors of agribusiness, real estate, banking, and politics trying to calmly welcome in this year, a time that boldly and directly defies and challenges every notion of the economic marketplace definition of success, profit and value? How might we possibly herald in the arrival of the Shmita year without also avoiding total systematic collapse of our modern economic structures?

And here lies the riddle of the Shmita cycle…and every cycle, for that matter. The strength of any cycle is in that moment of stillness between breaths, or, let me say it in another way: It is that moment of stillness between breaths which defines the cycle. It is the moment of inactivity which defines all activity. How we rest shapes our work. How we sit with no breath marks our breathing. How we celebrate the new moon marks the entire moon cycle. That sacred moment of stillness is not there simply as a resting ground, or as a recharge for the activity ahead. No, it is a beacon, a North Star, a guiding light. It is an anchor and tap root. It is a wellspring, infusing and overflowing into all moments surrounding it.

So taken on its own, Shmita is a riddle with no answer. In order to begin to understand the intricate puzzle that is Shmita, we must first connect the 6 years to the 7th, the individual parts of the cycle to its flowering conclusion. Shmita is more than an isolated calendar year; it is primarily a way of being, a blueprint for a sacred, whole-systems culture, one grounded in vibrant, healthy and diverse relations between community, ecology, economy & spirit.

The 6 years of the Shmita cycle are those of cultural design. The Shmita year itself simply becomes the indicator year; the ultimate ‘check-in’ to see how we are collectively doing as a culture. It is the moment of stillness and calm in the rhythm of its own cycle; a celebratory space of observation and reflection, the headwaters of vision and clarity, a wellspring infusing and overflowing into all moments surrounding it.

This might be much to swallow. And that is understandable. It has been many generations, many cycles of sevens, since we can collectively say we have celebrated this tradition. Shmita is by no means at the forefront of our collective consciousness or cultural priority list. It does not define us in any way as a ritual like the weekly Shabbat may. When Shmita is recalled, it is usually referred to as an archaic notion or simply brought up as romantic idealism.  To be fair, traditionally this custom was meant for the land of Israel alone. And after thousands of years of a Jewish faith developing while separate from the land of its origins, Shmita has been somewhat lost to us.

However, it has now been almost 65 years since we, as a people, have returned to the land of our indigenous past. Our renewed presence in this particular place has opened up completely new ways of connecting with ancient pathways. So now is the time to ask some challenging questions: What if the Shmita Cycle holds some of the deepest wisdom and secrets of our people, and we have just fallen comfortable in the practice of ignoring this tradition? What if the root of our identity, our gift to the world, is directly interwoven within this forgotten earth-based cultural practice? And how can we embrace this tradition as a universal value system, beyond the land of Israel?

Let’s be honest. In this beautiful world we live in, we are now finding ourselves surrounded by severe economic collapse, environmental degradation, radical inequality, and the dissolving of community culture. These are partly the products of our own collective doings, and perhaps, it is time to admit, the consequences of a misguided societal model. The veil has parted, and many of us have peeked through to the other side. So now we have a simple choice ahead of us. We can carry on, trying to solve these problems with the same patterns that created them (Albert Einstein might have said this is a sign of collective insanity, if he were still around). Or we can shift our perspective and try something different,   guided by the wellspring of ancestral wisdom. As we begin to reimagine the Shmita cycle, these are the questions to ask: What would a culture look like if it actually did prepare itself to fully celebrate this year? What would their food systems look like? How would their economic systems function? How would their communities be organized?
It will take many years until we may rebuild and heal our culture so that the values of the Shmita Cycle can be celebrated in joy & abundance. This will be a very slow, vulnerable process. But the process is what we are working towards, as well as the destination. In the sacred space where ancient traditions and emerging visions meet, in loving embrace, we are reclaiming what we have forgotten but have not lost. Shmita has been dormant for thousands of years. In its rebirth it will look different, it will feel different. It will be whatever we will make of it.  

In order to hold this seed, to plant this seed and nourish her to full potential, to full beautiful expression, we are being called to reawaken our sense of holistic design, our role as cultural architect, our intuition and awareness of interaction and offer it freely, with vulnerability and compassion, for the nourishment of our community, for the nourishment of ourselves and all beings. We are being asked to redefine our notions of success, profit and value to support cultural vibrancy, not just marketplace sustainability. It is time to take responsibility of choice and realize how much power we actually have. And beyond that, there is only trust. And that is fine. We never control the outcome anyways, so we may as well wean ourselves from that illusion. The only thing we can genuinely offer is to feed the process with beautiful, glorious effort.

Ultimately, Shmita is a transition from perceived scarcity to revealed abundance, from the isolated self to activated community networks, from a paradigm of fear towards a paradigm of trust. This is an invitation to begin reconnecting the threads that have been broken, reweaving the relational webs, the pathways between us; creating a cultural tapestry of shared stories, visions, and care. Because as much as this journey begins with you, your dream, and your choices, it is a journey that depends entirely on community, on walking together, as a living social ecology, in mutual support, in beautiful humility, with courageous faith, to enter again into the rhythm of this cycle, welcoming and honoring the total mystery that awaits.  

So on this Rosh Hashana, at the birth of a new year, here are some seeds to sow, looking towards a renewal of the Shmita tradition:

Design for perennial, local food systems. Return food production to your own backyard and community commons. Share in the efforts of planting and harvesting. Support community farms. Save seeds. Plant fruit trees. Come together for home drying, canning and fermentation. Support respectful, healthy animal husbandry. Cultivate awareness of wild edibles and medicinals. Gather to cook and feast together, share recipes and the stories of the foods you are eating. Offer gratitude. Enter into relationship with the wildlands closest to you. Know your watershed.

Design for local, homegrown economies based on mutual exchange and the priceless interactions of friends and family. Create community co-ops and economic commons. Create a timebank. Exchange and share resources.  Reduce consumption. Redefine value. Create patterns of creative re-use and retrofitting. Experiment with gift giving. Invest in community businesses and local visions. Purchase items communally. Share information with open source technologies. Keep money with local community banks. Create a communal financial fund.

Design for empowered community networks based on shared visions and shared stories. Educate one another. Create community mentoring circles. Support one another in work projects. Celebrate the skills of the hands as much as the intellect. Entertain one another with community art and music. Learn to make decisions together, to process together. Honor children and elders as integral wisdom-carriers. Come together for healing, nourishment and care. Gather together for celebration, grieving, ceremony, ritual, blessings. Celebrate the seasons, cycles of time and rites of passage.

Shmita is inviting us to return home, to envision a home not just for ourselves, but for all peoples and for the many generations ahead; a home whose foundation is humility, generosity, hope, beauty, compassion and love; a home whose root is deep within the rhythm of the dynamic cycles we exist within, and the calmness and stillness flowing from their center.

It is comforting to know that the designs called for, and the tools to support them, are mostly common-sense, or native-sense. The solutions are not loaded with science or technology, impossible mathematical formulas or unreachable budgets. They come from within us, and they take root in local, grassroots community efforts, on our streets, in our homes, in our synagogues, in our schools, in our community commons. This will be a groundswell, from the bottom up, a spring bursting forth from the earth and flowing freely. This flow will continue with baby steps that are easily digested and felt by all, a momentum carried by a positive, bottom-up, solution-based momentum. This shift and reclamation begins with the courage to ask challenging questions and locally act upon them by creating the change you want to live. We have not danced with this cycle before, at least not in our lifetime, or in the lifetime of any of our recent ancestors. Yet, as we reclaim our native senses, we will remember. We have done this before. And that memory is still flowing within our DNA.  

In two years from this Rosh Hashana, we will again have an opportunity to dip into the waters of Shmita, to meet our own reflection in her stillness, in her timelessness. How will you meet this moment? In scarcity or abundance? Alone or with community? However you choose your journey, know this: we are nearing a ripe moment. For the first time in thousands of years, there is a possibility of a collective Jewish consciousness, in Israel, North America and beyond, fully entering into the rhythm of this Shmita cycle, and journeying with her, from year 1 to year 7, fully envisioning and sowing the seeds for a Sabbatical culture. Shmita is inviting us home, to return, to embrace this cycle in all her abundant possibilities. To tell again, and live again, a story so old and ancient we have forgotten how much we need it today, for our own survival, for our own growth. This is the Jewish wisdom tradition, the Jewish mystery tradition, and it is our gift to offer the world.  The age of Shmita is upon us, waiting to be invited in.  You are welcome to join the journey.

Yigal Deutscher is the founder of 7Seeds, an educational project envisioning a renewal of the Shmita Cycle, grounded in Hebrew mythology and Permaculture Design strategies. For more info, visit 7seedsproject.org  
He is also the Educational Coordinator for the Shmita Project, a new platform to support this movement, created in partnership by Hazon, 7Seeds, and the Jewish Farm School . For more info, visit hazon.org/resource/shmita-project/


First photo from Food Bank Farm in Amherst, Massachusetts

Second photo from City Repair, Portland, Oregon