Transforming Ancient Laws into Concrete Practices

By Mirele Goldsmith

This is the third article in a seven-part series, recapping a shmita study group, sponsored by Hazon and Kevah. You can find other posts in the series on the shmita blog.

In this session we focused on how the rabbis translate the lofty ideas of Shmita into concrete practices. Ari compared what the rabbis do with Shmita to what they do with Shabbat. They take the general idea expressed in the Torah that we are to rest on Shabbat, and develop specific rules based on associations with similar concepts and textual references. He told us that in the Talmud the rabbis acknowledge that the laws of Shabbat are like a “mountain hanging by a hair.” Similarly, the rabbis take the very general admonition that the people are not to work the land, and that the land itself is to rest on Shmita, and develop it into a long list of halachot (laws).

Download the source sheet here

One question we discussed is what exactly it means to desist from agricultural labor. Several types of agricultural labor are specified as prohibited. But farming is a year-round pursuit. There are tasks such as clearing a field that are not addressed in the list. Is it permissible to clear a field on Shmita? The texts indicate that people tried to find ways around the law. Obviously they were trying to insure that they had something to eat. But maybe there were other reasons they kept working despite Shmita. What does it mean when you are prohibited from doing what you do everyday? For farmers, this work is not only a much-needed livelihood, but work that constitutes an identity. What does it mean to have to alter your daily life completely for an entire year?

We also discussed the concept of Biur, which is getting rid of food that is you are not permitted to eat because of Shmita. The halacha says that you may only eat the produce of the Shmita year under certain conditions. One condition is that this food (which, because it grows wild, is shared with animals during Shmita) may only be eaten as long as it is still growing in the field. It cannot be processed and stored.

The idea that we cannot eat processed and stored food implies that Shmita makes us equal to animals. We cannot use our “fancy human tricks” (in Ari’s memorable phrase) to get our sustenance. Storage is also an indicator of wealth and power, as in the story of Joseph. So during Shmita all human beings are equal to each other, as well as to the animals, in their access to food.

On Shmita we are also forbidden to sell produce by measure, weight, or number. Instead we should estimate the amount. The money gained is treated like the produce itself. It should be used only for purchasing more food. This halacha suggests that on Shmita we should focus on food as sustenance, rather than a source of wealth. While we can use money, in practice we are returning to a system that is closer to barter. The usual factors that support the manipulation of prices and speculation based on the portability of currency are undermined.

The rules of Shmita, taken together, undermine the economic paradigm that we take for granted. Is the idea to send us backward and remind us of how our shepherd ancestors lived before the “curse” of agriculture and commerce? How does the economy of Shmita break the curse?