Shmita: The Sabbatical Debt Release

By Yigal Deutscher


In the third and final mention of Shmita in the Torah, the concept of Shmita expands to directly influence economic and monetary systems. Until now (sources in Shemot & Vayikra), Shmita texts have been specifically in reference to land, agricultural practices, and annual harvests. Here, with the text of Devarim, the picture and implications of the Shmita Year is complete: Along with the practices of leaving land fallow, opening private lands as commons, collectively sharing the harvest, we are also to synonymously forgive debts. Once the Seventh Year arrives, all loans which are outstanding are released and all debts are cancelled. Here are some thoughts to consider regarding this practice (see the full text here):

  1. We are reminded that Shmita is neither just an agricultural year nor just an economic year. It is both, and it bears witness to just how directly these two systems are interconnected. Economy developed alongside agriculture. The practice of farming, through land ownership and stored harvests, expanded the possibilities of wealth and inequality on the scales which had not been experienced before. Early economic loans were in the forms of seeds or animals, the idea being that you could return, at the next year’s harvest/birthing, the amount you took out the loan for. However, if a bad harvest came in, you were in a downward spiral in order to repay your debts, which began with the sale of your harvests, your animals, then your land, and eventually, yourself (into slavery). In this sense, the rich became richer as they accumulated further resources (seeds, animals, land, labor) and the poor became poorer (as they lost all their valuables and autonomy). See the story of Joseph, as a biblical example.
  2. In this particular text we are exploring, it seems to convey a sense that the culturally accepted responsibility is upon the individual to give loans, and that the compassion is upon the one in debt. This brings up a sensitive discussion point, as economic structures completely rely on the systems of lending & borrowing. To cancel such a flow would stagnate any sense of economy. So is this Shmita paradigm anti-capitalism? Is it pro welfare state? That is a much deeper conversation to have, but the model the Shmita paradigm creates, alongside other economic halachot (Jewish laws), is one in which there is both ‘positive’ forms of lending/borrowing and ‘negative’ forms of borrowing/lending. In fact, to give a loan is the highest celebrated form of charity according to the Rambam. Yet to give a loan with the intention of gaining profit (charging interest, unethical investment, bribery, financial corruption, taking advantage of the borrower, etc) is seen as the criminal, ‘shadow-side’ of lending. Same with borrowing. When borrowing, and entering yourself/family into debt, the borrower must not rely on the Shmita year as a ‘way out’. To borrow is to consciously enter into commitment and responsibility.  In a sense, what Shmita does make clear is that economy relies on an ‘energy/resource’ flow of giving/receiving. These must be in balance all six years of the Shmita Cycle.
  3. The text we are exploring repeats, over and over again, in reference to lending/borrowing, the language of ‘brother, tribesman, kinsman’. This is no mistake: Shmita originally emerged out of a village culture, a society much smaller and inter-personally connected than the one we live in today. In this early economic reality, when you are lending, you are giving to your brother. When you are borrowing, you are borrowing from your brother. This is far different from strangers doing business with one another in a bank, in an office building. This is a tribal environment, a village context, rooted in mutuality and shared investment. In this sense, there is a prevailing sense of WE over I, the collective over the individual. So, when you are giving loans, while you are indeed giving a loan to one individual, this can be seen as an investment in the collective community. You have made a gift to the community you are a part of, and this is a web that will mutuality care for you, as well, if you fall into need. Such an economy is one structured around mutual gain rather than individual profit; an economy who’s most valuable asset is community relationships, not dollar bills or coins.


Shmita paints quite an ideal version of economy, one which we have not been able to live up to as a collective society. During Talmudic times, Hillel the elder (of ‘Love your neighbor like yourself’ fame), saw firsthand the backlash against Shmita: Those with money were not giving loans, out of fear that the borrowers would never repay them. To ‘save’ the economy, he instituted a legal decree transferring the loans to the public court for the Shmita year, as a way to bypass, and essentially put an end to, the peer-to-peer debt release.

The economic release as called forth by the Shmita paradigm reaches to the core of our human story and ego, within our own internal psyche, and our cultural structures (such as banking, politics, business). Shmita brings up potent questions, in a real sensitive area, inviting us to examine our relationship with money, with wealth, with ownership, truly in the context of community (mutuality, faith, trust, generosity). Today, with a national debt of over $16 trillion dollars, an average of $52,000 debt per person, and the rise of the Occupy Movement (and their campaign), the moment is as ripe as ever to explore how we can translate Shmita values and ideals into actual economic practice.


Yigal Deutscher is Manager of the Shmita Project at Hazon. He is also 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