Practical Applications of Shmita Year Laws

Here at Hazon, we’ve had the privilege of studying Shmita together over the last few months. As a group, we have begun to understand the Shmita cycle through two different frames:

  1. A sabbatical for the land and a response to agricultural practices that may have been unsustainable.
  2. A sabbatical for people and a way to create a more just and equitable society.

It is through these lenses that we began to look at some of the applications of Shmita in halacha (Jewish law).

One interesting tidbit that we learned was how you are able to use produce that happens to grow during the Shmita year. Maimonidies’ Mishne Torah (a compendium of Halacha) outlines that food which grows during the Shmita year should be treated the same way that we treat teruma (produce that has been tithed as an offering for use in the Temple). “He should not change the natural function of the produce as he does not with regard to teruma… something that is normally eaten raw should not be eaten cooked. Something that is normally eaten cooked should not be eaten raw” (Mishneh Torah, Chapter 6). In other words, you should use Shmita year produce as you normally would, and not for extraneous purposes.

The question then is, how can we apply this ancient law to our modern practice of Shmita? It helps to think about what the word “normal” means. Do we understand it with a limited meaning, of how I personally would use that produce on a regular basis? Or do we understand it with a more expansive meaning? What is the essence of what things are used for?

In our thought-experiment, we talked about how we use corn here in the US. We decided that a normal use of corn could be eating corn on the cob on a hot July evening, freshly boiled or grilled, and drizzled with butter and salt. An abnormal use of corn could be turning it into high fructose corn syrup and similar products. One way to apply this lesson of the Shmita year would be to abstain from eating food that contains HFCS.

While the laws of the Shmita year can be obscure, or seem like ancient outdated practices, they really do have practical implications  today. Jewish tradition has quite a lot to teach us, we just have to open our eyes and ears to what it has to say.

Learn with us–get the full text here.

Daniel Infeld is a Senior Program Associate at Hazon, and hopes to be able to continue these kinds of conversations with you at a Hazon program in 2013!