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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Shmita: Weaving Relational Threads

by Yigal Deutscher

The tribes of Israel have just gathered together, am echad b’lev echad, one nation with one synchronized heart, in alignment and in unity. They have just stood, in deep humility, in awe, in trepidation, witnessing and receiving a divine gift.
They have emerged from the brokenness of slavery; they have traveled through the wilderness for 50 days, only to stand together in this moment, before a mountain covered in fire, topped with thundering clouds, shimmering with lightning, rippling with the sounds of the Shofar. 1o utterances have emerged from the heart of creation; 10 utterances so clear and powerful that the tribes could actually see & feel each of them, as they echoed from the mountain, from the sky, from the ground and rock and sand below their feet, and from within their own beating hearts. (more…)

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Shmita in Action: Israel

This is one 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.

Certification for Use During Shmita Shmita (the sabbatical year), on the theoretical level, is a radical movement towards social equality, awareness of land ownership, understanding of good agricultural practices, and a major reconsideration of a monetary system.
Sounds like an interesting thought-experiment, right?
Well, Shmita is also a real-life system that is currently implemented in Israel, the only place where following the laws of Shmita are traditionally required.  The various systems in place in Israel right now are quite complex.  There are essentially four options to choose from when a farmer is deciding in what capacity he will follow the laws of Shmita:

  1. Continue life as normal
  2. Use the rabbinical tool of Heter Mechira
  3. Use the rabbinical tool of Otzar Beit Din
  4. Import food from outside of Biblical Israel

For someone just trying to buy food, this could get quite confusing.  Do I follow the laws of Shmita? Do I trust the Heter Mechira certification? Should I just be extremely safe and buy only imported food (despite the harm to the Israeli economy).  Why so many options? Why can’t we just follow Shmita the way the Torah explains it?

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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):

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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. (more…)

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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

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What If Farming Is Actually A Curse?

By Anna Hanau


The next shmitta (sabbatical) year is two years away. At Hazon we’re gearing up for it already by doing some weekly learning on the topic with Rabbi Ari Hart, and recently, a look at some of our foundation stories in the Torah – Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel in particular – led us to unexpected realizations. Download the source sheet from shmita session two.
Such as: What if Jewish tradition sees farming as a lower, compromised, even “exiled” state? And what is the point of a cycle – whether it is seven days of Shabbat and the week, or seven years of a Sabbatical year cycle – if they keep simply repeating themselves?
For a roomful of Jewish foodies who have in some way embraced the Jewish farmer fetishes that farming and growing food is a way to truly connect to the land, the seasons, to God, and gratitude, etc., these Bible stories were a little disconcerting. Farming = exile? How so? Where does that leave our vision of an ideal relationship between people, land, and God?

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Shmita Study Group Convenes in New York

On September 20, 2012, twelve people gathered at Makom Hadash for the first of a seven-part shmita study group, which was coordinated by Kevah with Rabbi Ari Hart as our educator. The first session focused on understanding biblical texts with a focus on how shmita has evolved over time and what we can learn from comparing and contrasting analysis of different Biblical references. Download the study sheet.
With the next shmita year starting Rosh Hashanah 2014, some might ask, why run a shmita study session now? But with less than two years until the next shmita year begins, now is the exact right time to think and plan for that year. As we can’t properly prepare for Shabbat 5 minutes before it begins, we cannot properly plan for the shmita year just as it arrives.
So, what is shmita all about?

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