The Shmita This Time: Suggestions for Learning & Action

Dear All,

Ahead of this shabbat’s Torah portion of Behar Sinai (which begins with one of the explications of shmita in the Torah) I want to give you a flavor of some of what is happening in relation to shmita around the Jewish world – some of the ideas that people are coming up with. (Last week’s email gave the background on why I believe that shmita is such a remarkable topic. Click here if you didn’t have a chance to see it.)

Here are a few aspects of shmita to think about. This list is intended to whet your appetite. We hope that you’ll treat this week’s parsha as a reminder to start planning in relation to shmita for the coming year.

Shmita & Israel

Shmita is many things, and it is unspooling into many more, but it begins with a sense of the sanctity of the land of Israel, and of the people who are fed by its bounty. So:

  • Check out a sweet – and challenging – 2-minute video by Teva Ivri, led by Einat Kramer and Rav Michael Melchior. This leads on to the Israeli Shmita Declaration,” catalyzed by Einat, and signed on to by a growing number of Israeli organizations. There’s also a great short video that she and Rav Melchior produced.
  • There are fascinating things happening in Israel in relation to shmita. Ruth Calderon did a gathering in the Knesset in January, and is pushing for practical debt-relief measures during the shmita year. Following lobbying by Teva Ivri and others, 15 parks will be open free to the public during the year – specifically because of the shmita year. An incredible guy called Yossi Tsriri, who was at our Shmita Summit in London in March, is planning during the shmita year to have a group of R&D people meet once a month with different faculty leaders at Hebrew University, to review key discoveries of the last six years – and to think about R&D work developing from those discoveries in the next 7.
  • The shmita year is thus an especially great year to visit Israel. (Registration for our Israel Ride is now closed – you can be in touch if you’d like to join us in 2015. But feel free to join us for our Israel Sustainable Food Tour, Oct 29 – Nov 3. For those who are funders, JFN Conference will be in Israel in March. Many synagogues and federations are planning trips. If you’re planning a trip, try to figure out how the shmita year could/should be part of it.)

Shmita & Ritual: A Shmita Seder Plate this Rosh Hashanah?

Start to plan a very special Rosh Hashanah meal this year – with a Rosh Hashanah Shmita seder plate, and your own haggadah? This idea is Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin’s and I love it. A whole group of us sat with Nina in London, totally inspired by her, just brainstorming. The rhythms of our calendar are enriched by rituals of all sorts, and shmita to some extent both needs and lends itself to the development of its own rituals. What can we learn, eat, do, take away, repeat….? Amichai Lau-Lavie suggested that we have seven things on our seder plate – starting with the bread, wine, apple & honey, perhaps pomegranates – that we already have. But what is or should be our kavanah, our intention? Nati Passow added: just as we count the days of the week from Shabbat, what if we counted each siman – each symbol – as a symbol of a year? Rabbi Natan Levy asked: how does shmita – letting go – connect to the tashlich ceremony of Rosh Hashanah, when we also let go…? And Dr Jeremy Benstein’s suggestion: we need a shmita board game we can play after lunch – a sort of anti-Monopoly… What rituals might you create for the Rosh Hashanah of the shmita year, and/or the year itself? If you have ideas or questions, please post them on the Shmita Project Facebook Group.

Shmita & the Cycles of Time

For yourself and your family – or your Hillel, or your shul, or your dayschool, etc – how would you like your shmita year to be different from the years that precede and succeed it? You might indeed decide to mark the shmita year by visiting Israel. Or (because shmita is/was a prohibition on planting and harvesting on an industrial scale) by eating more perennial foods (fruits, nuts, some vegetables) and fewer annuals (wheat, soy, corn). Or getting on fewer airplanes. Or putting extra money in a pushke, each week, to support people in need – perhaps to help students in debt. Or learning the halachot of shmita. In the UK, the Jewish Social Action Forum is planning to use the shmita year to raise awareness about the issue of fair wages for workers. Just as Shabbat is different from a Tuesday, or Chanukah from seder night, so next year should be different than the other six years of the cycle. How will it be different for you?

Learn about Timebanks– an interesting idea to think about applying in the Jewish world, and beyond, during the shmita year.

Think about the full seven-year cycle. If you keep Shabbat, the day doesn’t arise in a vacuum; it inflects the other days of the week, as you come down from, build up to, and plan for, Shabbat. So too with shmita. It is not simply that next year is the shmita year; it is that we have from now until the end of the shmita year until the next seven-year cycle in Jewish life begins. Where will you be in September 2022? How will your shul be different? Your school? Your home? You could decide to plant fruit and nut trees that will come to fruition by then. You could spend the next 16 months discussing as a community how to establish an integrated food policy in your institution – covering not only kashrut, but what food you serve, where it comes from, whether you grow any yourself, learning about food justice, etc. (Here’s a free, downloadable, updated guide for your institution.)

Shmita & Funders

What would it be to give at least some grants for the first six years of the shmita cycle, with the seventh as a planning year? Or to provide extra funding for debt education, sustainable food systems, or sabbaticals? Check out this superb piece that Charlene Seidle, of the Leichtag Foundation wrote.

Shmita & Rest

What would it be to slow things down? How? In what ways? This coming year is a year to take a sabbatical – or to try to build sabbaticals into the fabric (and financial models) of your organization. To do fewer new things, or start fewer new projects. To think about rest and overwork. To look back over the last six years, and in some existential sense “harvest” that which already is. And watch this space: Amichai Lau-Lavie is planning to expand his Digital Detox frame and expand it as a 12-month series, during the shmita year, to challenge our relationship to the electronica of our lives.

Shmita & Learning

Finally – before all of these things, and leading from and to them: If you’re involved in leading a Jewish institution – or, for that matter, a non-Jewish institution: a book club, a law firm, a tech start-up – plan on spending some time learning about shmita. The texts of shmita are fascinating. I promise you that they’re more accessible and relevant than you may imagine. They unspool into conversations about our relationship to land, food, money and rest, to name but four.

There’s a ton of info on our website. We have a sourcebookwith more than 130 pages of texts, questions, and ideas. You can buy hardcopies for $25, with discounts for multiple copies; or download it for free. (A second, revised edition is due to close at the end of this month – if you have great texts or suggestions, please email me and cc Yigal Deutscher and Nati Passow.

Check out also the SOVA blog and the beautiful work of Yigal Deutscher at 7 Seeds Project.

Finally: I’m personally hoping/planning to get on fewer planes during the shmita year. But if you’d like to schedule a 60- to 90-minute video scholar-in-residence gig with your board or leadership team, please be in touch.

Shabbat shalom,



PS – For those in the NYC area, please join us for a gathering of Jewish leaders to explore Shmita in our own work and communities next Thursday, May 15th from 12 – 4pm at Makom Hadash in Manhattan. Click here for more info and to sign up.

And a reminder that communities across the country are gathering together between this Shabbat Behar and Shavuot, to explore Shmita as a community.