The fruits of shmittah do not only grow on trees

A community-wide campaign will promote the broader social values of the coming sabbatical year


By Rabbi Jeremy Gordon, March 23, 2014
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A twig once delivered an epiphany. One warm Jerusalem evening I was part of an outdoor Friday evening prayer service. I felt a branch, from the tree next to me, brushing against my shoulder. I went to snap it off and stopped. It was Shabbat. On Shabbat I move and the twig lives to bud another day. In that moment I understood something about how Shabbat can remind that this world does not exist purely to provide for my needs.

Shabbat is an opportunity to seek balance in our relationship with nature. It’s an opportunity and a critique made even more clear when considering a related biblical mandate, shmittah (literally “release”). Shmittah is at the heart of an important, cross-communal, attempt to encourage British Jews to think more carefully about the resources we use and, too often, abuse.

Once every seven years, Leviticus demands, the land gets a year of release. We are called neither to sow or prune but to acknowledge our reliance on powers beyond the control of agricultural efforts. Deuteronomy adds a financial element to the shmittah year; debtors are to be released from their debts. Jeremiah refers to an obligation to release indentured servants at this time also. It’s a time to realise we are not the true masters of the factors of production in our temporary possession. “For the land is mine,” says God, “and you are but residents temporary dwellers by me.” As for the poor person forced to sell themselves into indentured servitude, “They are my slaves,” insists God, “whom I brought out of the Land of Egypt.” The power exerted by one human over another is to be limited.

Rosh Hashanah marks the start of the next shmittah cycle; it’s a cycle dating back to the time the Israelites first entered the promised land. Farmers in Israel will be making complex arrangements to abide by technical legal requirements. In this country shmittah, if it is to be marked at all, will have to be marked more generally; as an opportunity to re-address our relationship with the world in which we live and as a critique of an unbridled assault on the resources of our planet. This, certainly, is the attitude of the broad coalition of denominations and other organisations coming together to mark the year of shmittah. Led by J-Hub, a centre for inspiring social change driven by Jewish values, we are looking to celebrate the contemporary impact these ancient biblical commands could have, if we allow their underlying message to impact on our lives today.

The Bible is aware that a year away from farming sounds alarming at a time when society is only a little further developed than basic subsistence. We are explicitly commanded to have faith that there will be enough food. It also (we learnt this from Joseph) made sense to stockpile. Meanwhile, 21st-century newspapers tell stories of foodbanks and a new term has entered our vocabulary; food poverty. How are we using the food we can produce? Are we consuming with an eye towards the broader needs of society, is our consumption sustainable for our planet?

Indentured servitude is no longer part of modern employment discourse, but wage-poverty is all too common. There is a legal minimum wage, but 40 hours a week on the minimum wage adds up to a pre-tax annual income of £13,000, hardly enough to allow a person the dignity of enjoying the fruits of a hard day’s work, especially if minimum wages have to support a family.

So what can these workers do; seek more and more hours to the point where they are working like slaves, throw themselves on the minimal mercy of a welfare state that is designed to help those who can’t work, not those who can’t afford to live on the fruits of a full-time job? I believe we need to support the work of the Living Wage Foundation; urging companies, state employers and others to guarantee even thatcontracted labour are paid a wage which ensure no-one feels enslaved by poverty-inducing wages.

These issues, and others, are at the heart of an international gathering of Jewish social activists hosted by J-Hub, and a number of launch events to celebrate the year of shmittah including a discussion between the Rev Dr Giles Priest, formerly Canon Chancellor of St Pauls Cathedral — who resigned as a result of his religion’s response to the Occupy protests in 2011 — and a senior Israeli diplomat at JW3 on Thursday. Shmittah is an invitation to review our relationship to the resources of our planet. The organisations working together to campaign and educate in this upcoming year deserve our attention and support. The future of our planet is at risk.

Jeremy Gordon is rabbi of New London Synagogue

Last updated: 4:45pm, March 23 2014