Here in Israel, once every seven years we observe the Sabbatical Year,
the Biblical commandment (Shemot 23:10; Vayikra 25:1-7)  to
refrain from agricultural work, to allow the land to rest and to grant everyone equal and unencumbered access to agricultural produce.
As in previous Shemita years,
there has been much discussion and debate about how this law should be observed
in modern times. (I’ve recently published a small booklet explaining the various issues and opinions from the perspective of the consumer. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can download a
copy here.) These debates are important, and I
hope to address them in a follow-up post in the next week or two. But for now, I would like to draw attention to the lofty and
inspiring vision embodied by this commandment.
described by the Torah as Shabbat HaAretz (rest for the land). Just as we observe Shabbat (rest) once every seven days, the Land itself
observes Shabbat once every seven years. 
But it is not only the land that rests. All of the people who
work the land rest as well. In a pre-modern agrarian economy, this meant that probably upwards of 80% of the people (who earned their livings either directly from farming or indirectly from
related fields like producing wine or oil, or selling agricultural products commercially) would have their employment drastically reduced for an entire year. Just as we are commanded to cease
our economic activity once every seven days in order to remember our Creator, to temporarily release ourselves from the “rat race” of pursuing a livelihood, to spend time with our families and to
focus on spiritual matters like prayer and Torah study – so too once every seven years the entire economy was to go into massive slow-down mode, so that the same goals can be met on a national
But Shemita isn’t
only about God. It is also about our relationship with each other. It is about temporarily eliminating the gaps between rich and poor, between strong and weak, between master and
servant. The Torah specifically describes this aspect when it says “And in the Seventh Year you shall release and abandon [your land] so that the poor among your people can eat, and that which
they leave over shall be eaten by the wild animals” (Shemot 23:10). And
to those people (a very small percentage in the pre-modern agrarian society) whose livelihood was completely unaffected by the cessation of agricultural activity, the Torah addressed the related
commandment of Shemitat
Kesafim – the requirement to release borrowers from the
obligation to pay their loans, and to nonetheless lend money to anyone who needs assistance (Devarim 15:1-8).
The few people who were able to go about their jobs without restriction were obligated to essentially subsidize everyone else. 
Reducing our economic activity to such an extent requires us to rely
directly on God for our sustenance, and putting our faith in Him to such an extent is very difficult. For this reason, the Torah itself (Vayikra 25:20-24
and Devarim 15:9-11)
uncharacteristically issues a special exhortation about keeping the mitzvah,
and promises us a Divine blessing for doing so.
Unfortunately, due to a combination of the human weakness of people who
didn’t live up to these challenges and various historical circumstances, much of Shemita observance
today amounts to legal devices that allow us halachic
(legal) legitimacy to sidestep these laws. In the case of the
agricultural laws we have the Heter
Mechira and other loopholes ,
and in the case ofShemitat
Kesafim we have the pruzbul,
an ancient device recorded in the Talmud that employs a legal loophole to enable lenders to collect loans in spite of the Torah’s commandment to release them. Let’s be honest:
these loopholes are legitimate but they are also, in a sense, cop-outs; we don’t violate the prohibitions, but we don’t live up to the Torah’s vision
The ideal of an entire society basically shutting down its economy for
an entire year so that everyone, rich and poor alike, can spend the year focusing on spiritual matters and on social equality is apparently still beyond our reach. It is for that reason
that halacha gives
us the loopholes, so that we can continue to function. But that doesn’t mean we should reduce Shemita to
a series of legal procedures. If we can’t yet observe this mitzvah (comandment) in its fullest, we can at least take a few steps in that direction.
For those of us here in Israel, that means making the effort to eat
vegetables and fruits that are endowed with Kedushat
Shvi’it (the special sanctity of the Shemita year)
available through the Otzar Bet
Din system. More on that, b’ezrat
Hashem, in the second post. For Jews everywhere, though, the
values of Shemita
– taking time off to focus on our relationship with God and
with each other, are still applicable. And the imperative to help others financially even more than we do in other years, including lending money and forgiving debts when
possible  also
applies to all Jews everywhere.
I recently saw a fascinating website (in Hebrew) called
organization behind this is pushing for the general public (with an emphasis on the non-observant sectors) to embrace the values of Shemita as
a national social and spiritual imperative.
As we enter and begin this holy Shemita year,
we should all be thinking about what each of us can do to help enhance the Jewish People’s observance of these commandments and to strengthen the fundamental values they embody.
Tova and Shabbat (Ha’Aretz)
to most authorities, contemporary observance of this law is based on a rabbinic ordinance and not Biblical law. However, the rabbinic enactment is based on a Biblical idea.
friend of mine who lives near Kibbutz Shaalvim told me seven years ago that they held a cute little ceremony in the late afternoon on Erev Rosh
HaShana. The entire Kibbutz walked down to the fields in
order to wish them “Shabbat Shalom!”
is an expansion of a theme inherent also in the weekly Shabbat. Compare the two versions of the Fourth Commandment, Shemot 20:7-10
and Devarim 5:11-14.
Note the differences in the reason given for observing the law!
insight has powerful implications in our contemporary post-industrial economy. Whereas in ancient times over 80% of people were affected by the agricultural restrictions, today only a miniscule
percentage of the public works in these fields. However, the mitzvah ofShemitat
Kesafim applies to all Jews, even outside of
 See The Kosher Consumer’s Guide to
Shemita for an explanation of Heter
Mechira and the various other loopholes. Although
devices like Otzar Bet
Din are much closer to actual observance of the laws then
Mechira is, in its contemporary manifestation it is still far
from the ideal described in the Torah.
 The pruzbul gives
us the ability to lend money without having the debt cancelled byShemita.
But there is no obligation to use it on every loan! When lending money to a person with genuine financial need, it is praiseworthy to observe the mitzvah of Shemitat
Kesafim in its most literal sense