The last shmittah, or sabbatical year, fell in 5775, 2014-15. Traditionally, the land is left to lie fallow across Israel, restoring the earth’s strength and fertility just as we are restored by the peace and rest of Shabbat. The Torah understood we cannot continually demand of the earth and expect her to keep producing.
But the Torah also knew that this wasn’t a simple thing for the communities of Israel to do. It requires a huge amount of faith that God will provide. It also required, in practical terms, communities and families to support one another. Shmittah wasn’t survivable if you were only in it for yourself. What could be gleaned from the land needed to be shared. Most likely, communities prepared together, and shared together, to see everyone through.
Thus shmittah was there to protect the environment, but it was also a mechanism to ensure that consumer habits had their limits too. Profit and commerce aren’t bad per se, but every seven years there was a reset button that could be pressed, returning everyone to a more even playing field and reminding us that nothing is really ours in perpetuity. The continual purchasing many of us now practise easily becomes mindless and is hugely damaging to the earth.
We may be five years off the next shmittah, but perhaps it is already time to start planning and thinking about how the sabbatical might be transformational for us as modern Jews. As it says in the Talmud: “Those who prepare before Shabbat will eat on Shabbat; those who did not prepare before Shabbat, what will they have to eat on Shabbat?” (Avodah Zarah 3a). If we don’t prepare, we might not starve, as the Israelites in Leviticus, but we might not reap the benefits spiritually and materially that are being offered to us by this ancient idea.