By Nina Beth Cardin
Since the time of Adam and Eve, biblical culture has pondered the challenge of how humans can live plentifully within nature’s bounds. After all, if two people in a world of low population, fertile soil, easy sociability, an expansive commons, and abundant goods and services couldn’t avoid transgressing nature’s limits, how then can we? Yet if we can’t live within the constraints of nature, how can we survive?
To address this conundrum, biblical culture developed cyclical, time-bound responses that could help keep us on track.
The first was Shabbat, the Sabbath, an ever-recurring seventh day. According to Genesis 1, the Sabbath, like the sun and moon and stars, is a built-in feature of the universe. It is a natural cycle of time, as constant as the seasons and the rhythms of the days. The work of the world is conducted in six sunrises and sunsets, and on the seventh day is the celebration of creation itself.
During the Sabbath, work—and all of its trappings—ceases for 24 hours. “Property” becomes “earth” again, neither sub-divided nor owned nor sold nor otherwise transacted. Goods and services are shared—distributed so that everyone has enough for their Sabbath needs. Commerce is banished. Consumption recedes to a bare minimum. Life, full of gratitude, in the presence of others, is the nature of the day. Although this utopia dissolves at sunset, its vision doesn’t. Rather, the remembrance of the Sabbath helps us reset our attitudes toward what we do the rest of the week and challenges us to remember and justify why we do what we do.
The Sabbath, in the Jewish imagination, is therefore not just a day of rest, refuge, and relaxation (as welcome as that is). Rather, it is even more an arrival, a translocation, a “taste”—as the ancient rabbis put it—of “the world to come.” Shabbat is a touch of the Eden that we once possessed but lost. It is a glancing vision of a world in which radical equity, goodness, and delight reign.
But the cycle of six days on and the seventh day off takes us only so far. Its very routine and short duration can blunt its impact. So every seven years, the Bible ups the ante. It calls for Shemittah, a year of sabbath instead of a day of sabbath. It is a year during which private lands revert to the commons, accumulated debt is forgiven, and social inequality is erased temporarily. As Leviticus 25 (New International Version) describes it:
The Lord said to Moses at Mount Sinai,“Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the Lord.For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops.But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards.Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest.Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you—for yourself, your male and female servants, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you,as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. Whatever the land produces may be eaten.’”
Shemittah is a year of economic, environmental, and social equity. It is a time when physical and social boundaries are dissolved, reminding us that we live and thrive not within the barricades of self but in the shelter of each other and the gifts of the wilds. We all abide in one and the same world that we consume and renew in an endless cycle of co-generation. To keep the world humming, we must do this mindfully and properly.
Shemittah is a year of radical simplicity, of a reduction in production and consumption, when our energies that would otherwise go into pursuing those ends are spent doing other things. What other things? The Bible is silent on that. That is where we get to fill in the blanks.
Shemittah was not a year you could just slip into. The people had to prepare. They had to create structures and systems in the other six years that would enable the celebration and observance of the seventh year. The shemittah message of replacing the never-ending quest for more with the blessing of enoughness affected and informed the other six years. The blessings of this seventh sabbatical year had to be planned for. This did not mean accelerating and producing excess to build up warehouses and pantries in the six “on” years, further depleting our energies and resources so that we could manage to live in the seventh “off” year as expansively as we live in the other six. Rather, it means that we should produce and consume wisely, so that the earth remains healthy and robust and able to tend to our needs on its own in the seventh year.
Biblical society is long gone. Today, more than half of the world’s people live in urban environments far from the agricultural lands that were the norm in ancient times. We cannot live according to the shemittah laws as they are given to us in the Bible. But the values and challenges of shemittah still call to us. How can we all live well on this earth? How can we build equitable economic systems? How can we treat the land well, working it in health, so that it will provide sustenance and equity to all?
This is not an idle speculation. According to the Jewish calendar, the next shemittah year begins on Wednesday, September 24, 2014. There is a growing movement to imagine what this means for us in modernity. How shall we apply the lessons of shemittah to our lives? Should banks waive interest fees on all loans for the year? Shall we empty our 2.2 billion square feet of self-storage space and give away, recycle, reclaim, or otherwise reuse all that wealth we have shut away?
Shall we grant workers sabbaticals of days or weeks or months over the year to be used for personal refreshment and pursuits? Should university extension services give free lessons in permaculture so that urban dwellers can turn vacant lots and wasted open spaces into neighborhood food forests that could be gleaned even in the shemittah year? Should we celebrate and reclaim old public parks that have been abandoned? Should we demolish vacant buildings and retrofit tired suburban shopping centers, converting them into valuable public spaces?
The call to observe shemittah is longstanding, but the modern conversation about what the year should look like is just beginning. The Shmita Project and The Sova Project are two initiatives working to explore contemporary applications of shemittah—and hopefully, over the next 10 months, they will inspire a bounty of inventive responses that will help make shemittah a year of sharing, justice and environmental healing in 2014–15.