Shmita as A Force for Social Change

New from the SOVA blog by Rabbi Yedidya Sinclair
Original post can be found at

In October 2007, at the outset of the last Shmita year, I was interviewed on NPR, New York, about the Shmita controversy then raging in Israel. It was the latest twist on the century-long heter mechira (permissible sale) story. Rabbis were denouncing other rabbis for their excessive leniency and communities were boycotting other communities’ kosher certifications.  Word of the whole sorry saga reached the US and NPR wanted to know what was up.
Somehow they came to me. I tried to explain to the polite, bemused interviewer the complex background (you can listen to my efforts here) – the commandment from Leviticus 25 to let the land lie fallow one year out of every seven, Rav Kook’s compassionate heter mechiraleniency in 1909 allowing the pioneering Jewish farmers to sell the land to non-Jews for the duration of the Shmita year so that they could avoid impoverishment, and the most recent installment in the argument.

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Welcoming the Sixth Year of the Shmita Cycle

by Yigal Deutscher

There is a saying by the Rabbis, ‘Those who prepare before Shabbat will eat on Shabbat; those who did not prepare before Shabbat, what will they have to eat on Shabbat? (Avoda Zara 3a).’ Well, in terms of comparing the Shabbat and Shmita cycle as parallels of one another, we are about to enter, collectively, into the Friday of the Shmita Cycle, as we near Rosh Hashana and the 6th year of this current cycle. Or, if we want to be specific, as days begin in the Jewish calendar at the evening time, we are just about late in the day on Thursday, sunset time.
Either way, we are getting quite close to Shabbat. And that comes with it a specific transition point, a moment in time for one process to end, and another to begin. The patterns of the 6 days, the culture of the 6 years, falls away to welcome a whole new way to engage with time and space. Bo’ei Kallah. Welcome, Beloved Bride. And here we are, getting ready to stand under the Chupah. Are we ready for this? What will we have ‘to eat’ on this Shabbat, to feel satiated and sustained for this transition? Even if the Shabbat analogy does not work for you…that is fine…but then lets apply the Rabbis saying to something else, perhaps going on a long travel vacation, preparing for a wedding, something like this. To walk into such moments without forethought is to welcome a culture shock, and perhaps, chaos.   (more…)

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Shmita: The Rythms of Life

New from the SOVA blog by Rabbi Natan Margalit of Organic Torah
Original post can be found at
What can we, in our present moment of great environmental, social and economic peril and also enormous and exciting potential, learn from the ancient biblical idea of shmita? With its requirement to let all land lie fallow and all debts be forgiven every seventh year, shmita offers us not just an example of progressive social and ecological legislation, but also an insight into an alternative world-view. Shmita tells us to put limits on our activities because we are not the center of the universe, because we are in relationship to something larger than ourselves. One way to look at this is to say that shmita reminds us that whereas the ethos of our times is to move forward unceasingly, in a more sane and inter-connected world there are rhythms.
No musician, storyteller or athlete could work without rhythm. Notes and rests, words and silence, sprinting and pacing yourself — these create the beauty, drama and endurance of their craft. The natural world confirms that- all life is filled with rhythm: from our heartbeats to the tides to the seasons, the world pulses and dances in a beautiful, complex symphony. Nothing in nature drones on constantly; nothing grows without stopping. In all of creation bigger is not better. Rather, balance, symmetry and inter-relationship are the touchstones of vitality.
But humans are unique. We can choose to ignore rhythm. We can, and do, keep our factories running day and night. We try to fool hens into laying more eggs by keeping their lights on 24 hours at a time. With every new pad, pod and phone we push ourselves into 24/7 connectedness. We have created a culture which is built on the metaphor of a machine impervious to any rhythm other than the drone of production. In the name of progress, convenience, even freedom, but most of all, profits, we have lost the music of life.

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Rosh Chodesh Elul: Jewish New Year for Animals

This post was written by Aharon Varady, of, in honor of the ancient tradition of a Jewish New Year for Animals, which was counted on the new moon of Elul. As we are nearing Rosh Hashana 2013 (5774)- one year away from the next Shmita- this is an opportunity to begin thinking of an aspect of Shmita that is somewhat overlooked: the way Shmita informs and directs our human relationships with animals, both domesticated and wild. Read on for more about the Rosh Hashana La’Beheimot (New Year for Animals): 
Judaism has a New Years festival for animals. I’ll repeat: Judaism has a NEW YEARS FESTIVAL FOR ANIMALS!
When I first learned this, in 5th grade, studying the Mishna, I was floored. Really? I had just learned that Judaism had a New Years festival for Trees. A universal day of healing for the Tree of Life, Tu Bishvat, a former tithing day for dedicating first fruit offerings to the Temple, had been recovered by Jewish mystics 1500 years after the destruction of our Temple. Jews, especially the historic rabbis I admired, were creative thinkers, lovers and poets, like Rabbi Moshe Cordovero who in 1588 wrote in his work the Palm Tree of Devorah (Tomer Devorah), “This is the essence: to have compassion on all living creatures.”
My religion was awesome. A year before my family adopted our first stray cat from a no-kill shelter in Cincinnati. We accepted him into our Jewish family completely. I hadn’t learned about it in school, but in a book my mother brought back from our JCC’s Jewish Book Fair, I read that Judaism had an important mitzvah: to be mindful of the suffering of all living creatures. In Hebrew the mitzvah was called tsar baalei ḥayyim. From this commandment, I was obligated to feed my cat before myself at breakfast. I really appreciated that Judaism was mindful enough to speak for creatures that had no voice of their own. This all helped to convince me that Judaism, regardless of whatever boring or annoying social experiences I had in day school, was essentially a good religion, thoughtful and caring. It was up to me to live up to its peaceful and compassionate vision.
Later, when I was 18, in the first month of my first year in Israel, I got a strong flavor from my Lithuanian-style yeshiva of what the period preceding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Elul Zman, could really feel like… the increasing sense of urgency to repair and correct all of my relationships was intense and heartbreaking. (Isolated in a fairly monastic institution in a disputed corner of Israel, I was despairing what few personal relationships I had to repair.) Elul Zman was a month for a practice called ḥeshbon nefesh – making an accounting for one’s soul and it began with Rosh Ḥodesh Elul, the new moon festival coincident with the New Years festival for Animals. What was the connection between the two days?

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