Photo: Rabbi Alex Israel
From the Editor – Tu BiShvat Edition 5782
BY RABBI ELIE MISCHEL
I’m going to be honest. For the first 40 years of my life, I rarely thought about Shemitta. Living in America, the day-to-day practicalities of Shemitta – the rules of the kitchen and garden, the dizzying array of halachic views regarding fruits and vegetables – seemed foreign and irrelevant. As a pulpit rabbi in America, I thought about Shemitta. once each year as I prepared my speeches for Parashat Behar, the Torah portion most dedicated to the mitzvah of Shemitta. But even then, Shemitta was merely an interesting idea; it remained theoretical, like the many mitzvot we hope to fulfill one day when the Temple is rebuilt.
Looking back, I believe there is another reason why I avoided thinking and learning about Shemitta while we lived in America. Like other “Israel-only” mitzvot, Shemitta was yet another reminder that I was living a “second class” Jewish life in exile, another reason to feel guilty for not living in Israel. And so I studiously avoided learning about Shemitta; there were plenty of other mitzvot I could study together with my community!
When we arrived in Israel on Aliyah this past August, only weeks before the beginning of the new Shemitta year, my years of Shemitta-avoidance meant that our family faced a steep learning curve. Could we hire a gardener to remove the overgrown bushes taking over our yard? When will zucchinis have Shemitta status?
But as we’ve struggled to keep track of the ins and outs of Shemitta grocery shopping, I keep thinking of the words of the late American jazz singer, Peggy Lee: “Is that all there is?”
Even as we begin to grasp the laws of Shemitta, the deeper purpose of this extraordinary mitzvah remains a mystery.
What is Shemitta meant to accomplish in a society that is no longer agrarian, where only a small percentage of Jews work the land? Is it possible to fulfill the higher purpose of Shemitta when we continue to work at our white-collar jobs, like any other year? What meaning does Shemitta have for Jews living outside the Land of Israel? And most of all, how is the renewal of Shemitta in modern Israel bound up with redemption and miracles of our time?
In 1909, as Rav Kook experienced his first Shemitta year in the Holy Land, he sensed that the resurrection of our people’s observance of Shemitta was a sign of national rebirth:
הִנֵּה שְׁנַת הַקֹּדֶשׁ בָּאָה, וְרַחֲשֵׁי קְדֻשָּׁה לְעַם קָדוֹשׁ עַל אַדְמַת הַקֹּדֶשׁ הוֹלְכִים וּמִתְרַקְּמִים בַּחֲשַׁאי, גַּם בַּנְּשָׁמוֹת אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדְעוּ אֶת מַעֲמַקֵּי עַצְמָן.
The holy year [of Shemitta] has arrived, and stirrings of holiness are secretly forming among the holy nation in the holy land, even in the souls of those who do not yet understand the depth of their own holiness… (Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, Iggrot HaRa’ayah, #208)
For the first time in 2,000 years, the people of Israel had not only returned to live in the land, but also to work the land. As Rabbi Binyamin Zimmerman explains in his book, The Shemitta Sensation, Rav Kook perceived the people’s desire to resettle the land as an expression of the “exalted spirits of this long-suffering people that had generally forgotten the ways of physical existence.” The renewal of agriculture in Israel, the precondition for observing Shemitta, was a sign that the Jewish people were awakening from their long slumber, that the collective Jewish heart had begun, once again, to beat on its own.
In this edition of HaMizrachi, we are honored to feature Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon and Rabbi Binyamin Zimmerman, two leading thinkers working to elucidate the depth and meaning of Shemitta in our generation. May we soon see the day when all of Israel will celebrate this year of holiness, together in our land!
Rabbi Elie Mischel is Editor of HaMizrachi.