Life Lessons Learned from the Shmita Year

by Akiva Gersh

It’s fair to say that Shmita inspired me to become religious.  After learning about it and other environmentally-related laws and values of the Torah towards the end of my college years, my perception of Judaism was radically and forever changed.  The lifeless and irrelevant form of the Jewish tradition I inherited in my youth was being replaced by one that was proving to be vibrant, meaningful, and very, very relevant.  As a spiritual seeker and social activist, Judaism had what to say about many of the things I was passionate about and cared for.  Especially when it came to the Earth.

Fast-forward twenty years and my home has transported across the world to the land of Israel where ancient Jewish environmental and agricultural laws have once again become part of the national consciousness of the Jewish people back in their land.  Laws that technically only apply to this very small patch of our planet’s surface are being practiced by millions, affecting the way they grow, purchase and eat food.  And now for the second time in the ten years since I’ve moved to this land, I am taking part in the unique opportunity and challenge that is the Shmita year.

While we still fall short of the Torah’s utopian vision of giving all of the land of Israel a complete rest for an entire year every seven years, what we are witnessing here is still phenomenal.  Am Yisrael back in Eretz Yisrael striving to revive its ancient agricultural laws.   And while the time, money and effort invested by Israel in making Shmita work in a modern-day economy and society is impressive, there is something inside of me that has been feeling unsatisfied in these opening weeks of the Shmita year.  I already find myself in a state of mind that I told myself that, this time, I would avoid.  Last Shmita year felt like just another set of laws to follow,  liked the rules of kashrut just got longer.  More things to think about and, let’s be honest, worry about when I shop for and sit down to eat food.  That was my Shmita experience seven years ago and I didn’t want to repeat it this time.

This has inspired me to take the time to think about what the Shmita year is really coming to teach us.  Beyond the signs in stores throughout Israel informing shoppers of the halachic status of the produce being sold, what is Shmita all about on a deeper level?  We learn from our sages that each mitzvah of the Torah, like us, has a body and a soul.  The body of the mitzvah is the specific action of the mitzvah itself, its physical expression, so to speak, in this world.  But the soul of the mitzvah is how engaging in the mitzvah affects us, how it changes us and even transforms us.  What wisdom is it trying to convey to us that can be infused into our lives, even at times when we are not actually involved with fulfilling that specific mitzvah?

When it comes to Shmita, much can be said about this.  I’ll share here two ideas that have come to me.  One I’ll label as spiritual and the other as ecological, though there is much shared in common between the two.

The first relates to the fact that certain kinds of food become “holy” during the Shmita year.  This is a concept that we as Jews don’t deal with at all during non-Shmita years.  While the mitzva of terumah and ma’aser does still exist halachically in Israel today, no one is actually eating that food.  During the Shmita year, a lot of people are eating a lot of food that is considered to be imbued with holiness.  And, as a result, our relationship with that food changes.  We don’t throw it out like other trash.  We’re careful not to waste it.  Some, like the Ramban and Rav Kook, say that eating this food is on the level of mitzvah (Rav Kook would wash his hands before eating kedushat shvi’it food).

This idea, if applied to the rest of our non-Shmita lives, could radically transform the way we view and relate to our food.  It can help us to remember that food could be holy.  Sometimes because of a mitzvah linked to it, like Shmita, but other times coming from us and our own desire to perceive our food as something elevated that can in turn elevate us.  The wisdom teachings of the Jewish tradition encourage us to view our food not as merely something to satisfy our cravings or sustain our existence, but rather as a tool for personal growth.  Meal times could turn into powerful spiritual moments that help us become more aware of and feel more connected to G-d, to the land and to ourselves.  As Jews we invest a lot of energy in making sure what we eat is kosher.  But what about how we eat?  Is that also “kosher”?  What do we do while we are eating?  Are we engaged in the food before us or are we distracted by newspapers or conversations?  What do we do with the energy the food gives us? In so many ways, the Shmita idea of the holiness of food can have a tremendous impact on how we view the seemingly simple act of eating and its effect on our lives.

Another example of what Shmita can teach us stems from the way that Shmita demands that we consider the story behind the food staring back at us from the shelves of our supermarkets.  Knowing the answers to questions such as where the food was grown and how the food was grown and by whom the food was grown is essential to doing Shmita “right”.  This information helps concerned consumers to know how to relate with the food (specifically regarding kedushat shvi’it) and decide if they want to buy the food at all.

Imagine Jews asking these same kinds of questions during non-Shmita years to make sure they’re doing other things “right” according to the laws and values of our Jewish tradition.

While there are Jews already doing so, the Shmita year should encourage and train more and more of us to inquire about our food all the time.  The questions we ask during Shmita should continue to be asked even when the Shmita year is done:  Where was this food grown that I am considering buying and eating, meaning how far away was the farm it was picked from and how much fuel was needed to transport it to where I live?  How was this food grown, meaning was it grown using a system that cares for and is sensitive to the needs of the Earth or was only short-term human profit the guiding value?  Who grew the food, meaning how were the workers in the field treated and under what conditions did they labor?

So, yes, the agricultural laws of Shmita only apply to the land of Israel.  And only once every seven years.  But if we are to believe the words of our own prophets, that the Jewish people are meant to be a light unto the nations and leaders of global change, then we should believe that the wisdom embedded in each of the Torah’s mitzvot, including Shmita, has the ability to transform our lives beyond the limitations of time and space.  When we open ourselves to this possibility we open up the Torah to its true intended purpose: to benefit and transform the entire world, for the Jewish people and all of human- and earthly-kind alike.

Akiva Gersh is the co-founder of Tiyul B’Aretz and is currently writing a monthly blog about Shmita.