The Revolution of Rest
BY RABBI BINYAMIN ZIMMERMAN
In this feature article, the head of World Mizrachi’s Musmachim Semicha program and author of The Shemitta Sensation explains how Shemitta holds the power to rejuvenate our lives, and alter the future of Jewish history.
Not too long ago, a five-day workweek was unheard of. The idea of refraining from work on Shabbat was novel. Struggling immigrant Jews in America faced heart-wrenching decisions weekly, as observing Shabbat often meant there would be no job to return to on Sunday. Even in contemporary society, many face similar dilemmas in the winter, when Shabbat begins earlier on Friday (although, at least on paper, laws are more protective of religious needs).
The seventh year of the agricultural cycle in Israel, often called Shemitta but more often referred to in the Torah as Shabbat haAretz, multiplies this resting from work considerably. Shabbat haAretz, literally “the Sabbath of the Land,” calls for far more than a year of letting the land rest, as it requires all agricultural workers to rest from planting and harvesting for an entire year. With little to tend to in the fields, they are given a “year off.” But what is this rest all about?
For a farmer, this means a year without production. Another meaning of the word shevitah in Modern Hebrew is a strike. It almost seems as if one is “striking” from performing agricultural work for an entire year! How is that possible? This question is multiplied when one recognizes that unlike in our times when only two percent of the Israeli population works in agriculture, in the past, this was the primary line of work. Imagine a year with no farm production. Could the Jewish nation possibly support itself financially? What were the implications of refraining from work for an entire year? What did they do with their time? How did they cope?
The power of rest
The seventh year of the agricultural cycle, known as shevi’it, is much more than a year of resting and holding back. The Torah promises Divine blessings for shevi’it observers, including a blessing during the sixth year, which assures at a minimum basic food sustenance during the years directly affected by shevi’it. When an entire nation takes that break at once, Hashem, the “hidden partner” in our economy, promises to pick up the slack.
Moreover, although a year of resting from normal production might seem like financial suicide in the short run, there is good reason to believe that it might actually herald economic benefits. In what might seem paradoxical, taking a break can help us take a fresh look at our activities and thus breeds success.
We live in an age where rest is often denigrated: “You snooze, you lose.” Studies show that a quarter of office workers never leave their desks except for lunch. After all, the more time people spend doing, the more they achieve. But is that true?
Can you think of life without weekends, summer breaks, and holidays? If we had that kind of life, would we be more successful at achieving our academic, financial, or personal goals?
Studies have shown that people are most effective when taking breaks in the middle of their work or study. Summer vacations and shorter workweeks increase productivity. There are business people who have gone even further, closing their businesses for a year to rethink and re-explore – not because they had no work to do, but because they had an overabundance of it. They felt they were losing themselves in their work and were growing out of touch with their creative and spiritual selves. By taking a year off, they gave themselves many years of success, finding themselves again in the process.
A recent study by the World Health Organization attributes hundreds of thousands of deaths a year to long working hours.1 Besides the danger involved, psychology professor Alejandro Lleras’ analysis indicates that prolonged attention to a single task actually hinders performance: “We propose that deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused… From a practical standpoint, our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task!”2
These studies indicate that Hashem created the human mind and body in such a manner that they are more healthy and productive when they rest. Rest allows us to replace stress and exhaustion with productivity and creativity while engaged in our goals.
Science writer Ferris Jabr summarizes the benefits of taking breaks in an article in Scientific American: “Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life… Moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one’s moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self.”3
In other words, physical and mental fatigue can mitigate our ability to make ethical decisions because we’re too exhausted to remember who we are and what we value.
Over the course of 2020–2021, the Covid-19 pandemic has given the world economy and the environment some rest. Satellite pictures of pollution levels before and after Covid-19 aren’t even comparable. In the words of Dr. Stuart Pimm of Duke University: “[This global pandemic] is giving us this quite extraordinary insight into just how much of a mess we humans are making of our beautiful planet. This is giving us an opportunity to magically see how much better it can be.”4
What all these studies are uncovering may be a small aspect of the beauty of our Shabbat and Shabbat haAretz – a little time off to recharge our batteries (in an eco-friendly manner) and return to greater productivity. The Torah promises that the shevitah of the shevi’it year will provide untold benefits to society and individuals. It is a year to deactivate to enable a much more powerful reactivation at the year’s end. Maybe our difficulty understanding its need is another proof of its necessity.
From Sabbath to Sabbatical to Sabbath of the Land
But it is not only the break from our routine that can be so important and effective; it is also the question of what we opt to do with our time.
The weekly Shabbat marks the day that Hashem rested when creating the world, and it is the day when we rest from our physically creative pursuits. It is a time when we disconnect from the world around us in order to connect to bigger things – to Hashem, our family, and our community. Essentially, it is a time to do the things that our weekly routine makes difficult. Besides the leisure time, one who observes Shabbat gets to disconnect from the routine that prevents connecting to broader goals. Imagine if one could do that for an entire year!
The concept of a sabbatical, standardized in academia and some other fields, is built on the understanding that providing individuals with a year off to think and pursue their intellectual and other interests and dreams, will actually enhance productivity. The term is a direct derivative of the rest of Shabbat haAretz once every seven years, which allows for an inspiring, purposeful, and creative rest time. But does it work beyond the field of academia?
Designer Stefan Sagmeister (known for creating album covers for famous musicians) suggests that it does. Every seven years, he closes his business down while he and his staff take a year’s sabbatical. In his TED Talk, he explains that his decision to take a year off to focus on personal projects was initially done to shake off staleness, but he says it actually was better financially: “Financially, seen over the long term, it was actually successful. Because of the improved quality, we could ask for higher prices.”5
While the sabbatical has not been adopted universally, the concept of a weekend “Shabbat” has been embraced by most countries. The seven-day workweek has been replaced by a five or six-day one, as people realize that life is not simply a race to the finish line. We can live life rather than race through it. The realization has begun to set in that time is a currency worth more than money. Many would opt for a job with lower pay but more leisure time.
Not everyone could immediately think of a project to devote oneself to for a sabbatical year. But shevi’it calls for a sabbatical that impacts all of agricultural society simultaneously. Since no one is working the land, the entire agrarian society moves from focusing on the crops and land to concentrating on individuals and relationships. The sabbatical is a once-in-seven-year opportunity to give our minds and bodies a much-needed restart, to reconnect with long-term goals, reinforce our sense of self and ensure that ethical concerns will guide our decision-making.
Maximizing society’s sabbatical
Besides the mindfulness that comes with a year that is not driven by strict deadlines or dependent on the weather or society-imposed norms, the year of rest gives the inner soul the chance to come back to life. On the simplest level, shevi’it guides us to take a break from the physical and enjoy the spiritual. The Talmud Yerushalmi explains that Shabbat provides ideal time for Torah study:
לֹא נָתְנוּ שַׁבָּתוֹת וְיָמִים טוֹבִים אֶלָּא לִלְמֹד בָּהֶם תּוֹרָה.
“Shabbatot and holidays were only given in order to learn Torah.” (Yerushalmi, Shabbat 15:3)
The Torah’s longest description of the sabbatical year is described as being taught at Har Sinai, the mountain where the Torah was received by the Jewish nation. Much of this seventh year connects us to the glorious mountain and the acceptance of the Torah. Like Shabbat, the sabbatical break from farming provides a year-long opportunity to re-engage with Har Sinai and learn Torah. In modern-day Israel, there are a number of yearlong learning programs for farmers who let their land rest for the entire year of shevi’it. They describe it as a wonderful opportunity and recommend it to others.
For those who do not work in agriculture, it is necessary to rethink our approach to rest and the sabbatical year. Dr. Jeremy Benstein describes how shevi’it should be viewed as a solution for contemporary society, rather than a problem:
What if we looked at Shemitta not as a problem, but as a solution, and then considered what problems it’s meant to solve? In that light, Shemitta becomes a political statement of social and environmental import, raising deep questions about the nature of a healthy and sustainable life, for individuals, society and the land.
For instance, currently only academics have a sabbatical year. Why? Our “affluent” society actually decreases leisure and family time, as more people not only choose to work to fulfill what they want to be, but feel compelled to work in order to afford what society says they should have. Consumerism necessitates “producerism” to keep both supply and demand high. Yet as Shemitta hints, people are indeed like the land, in ways that are more obvious in the modern world: For both, when overwork leads to exhaustion, we engineer continued “vitality” not with true renewal, but with chemicals.
But just as silence is an integral part of speech, punctuated periods of fallowness are crucial for guaranteeing continued fertility. There’s no reason why only an intellectual elite should benefit from a year of learning, reflection, and regeneration. The original sabbatical was for farmers, not physicists…
The sabbatical principle, dictating periods of enforced restraint, rededication and redistribution, presents a compelling alternative to business as usual. Limiting the share that production and consumption have in our lives will create the space for higher pursuits. The economy must not be an engine that runs by itself, disengaged from social and environmental concerns, but a conscious expression of our spiritual and moral values. Wealth, both money and land, are not personal property to be accumulated, but Divine abundance channeled through us to be shared for the benefit of all.6
A year of rest, besides the unique goals of shevi’it, could enable a world-wide societal reassessment of what is truly important in our lives.
Rav Kook’s perspective
In his introduction to Shabbat haAretz, Rav Kook explores the role of Shemitta in fundamentally transforming Jewish life in Israel. Rav Kook does not deny the practical role that shevi’it can play in helping refocus one’s energies, but he notes that as thinking Jews, we must try to look more deeply:
What makes the Jewish nation special is that it looks at all of life through the illuminating lens of holiness. With all its life force, it recognizes that life is worthwhile only if it is infused with the Divine, and life lacking the Divine is worthless…
The potential of the nation, the Divine good which is embedded in it… cannot be actualized within mundane life. Such life, with its constant chaos, hides the spiritual glory of the Divine soul… The urgency of developing and enhancing life needs to be actualized by taking a break and getting a rest from the chaos of normal life.
After this introduction, Rav Kook identifies how both Shabbat and shevi’it allow for an escape from the mundane:
Shemitta accomplishes for the nation what Shabbat accomplishes for the individual. This nation has a special need… Periodically, it needs to have the Divine light within it revealed in all its splendor. This light must not be suppressed by daily mundane life – with all its toil and worries, anger and competition – so that the purity of its collective soul can be revealed within it…
Rav Kook describes the natural good of the world and the Jewish nation that often finds difficulty expressing itself, and even finding itself, amidst the secular realities of existence:
This national treasure (segulah) that is imprinted deep within us, the image of a world that is good, upright, and G-dly – aligned with peace, justice, grace, and courage, all filled with a pervasive Divine perspective that rests in the spirit of the people – cannot be actualized within a way of life that is purely businesslike. Such a life, full of frenetic action, veils the glory of the Divine soul, and the soul’s clear light is blocked from shining through the overpowering mundane reality. The impulsive push toward growth and self-realization needs space to come to fruition, by stopping the routine and awakening, while shaking off the wildness of daily life.
Shabbat serves the role of creating the medium for every individual to take one day a week off his weekly routine and to invest it with spirituality:
The individual is able to shake off the secular mundane routine of life frequently once a week, for “when Shabbat comes, repose comes” (Rashi, Bereishit 2:2). The soul begins to be freed from its harsh chains, as “G-d has given you rest from your sorrow and trouble, and from the hard service that you were made to serve” (Yeshayahu 14:3), and [the soul] seeks more elevated pathways of spiritual desires, consonant with its natural spiritual core… [Shabbat is] a holy day, on which the innate inclination of the people for a G-dly life emerges in each individual, as a sign for the nation that it possesses a treasure (segulah) in its soul, and has a need and an ability to rejoice in G-d, in the pleasure of the Divine.
Rav Kook writes that this concept is reflected in the idea of the neshamah yeterah, the extra soul granted on Shabbat. The “segulah” is in the soul of the nation and its ability to rejoice through the spiritual. This is concentrated and gathered into the spiritual point of the neshamah yeterah, which dwells within each and every individual. With this in mind, Rav Kook explains his initial comment: That which Shabbat does for the individual, Shemitta does for the collective nation:
The same effect which Shabbat brings about upon the individual, Shemitta brings about upon the nation as a whole. There is a special need for this nation, in which the G-dly creative force is deeply implanted in its essence, in a distinct manner, to periodically reveal its G-dly light with its full illuminating intensity, in a manner in which the secular and mundane climate of society, with all its toil, anxiety, anger and competition, won’t entirely suffocate the creative force of the nation; but it will be able to reveal [through Shemitta] the pure collective soul [of the nation] as it truly is.
Rav Kook continues by describing the tension of remaining conscious of our inner spiritual core while we are busy with the day-to-day pressures of the marketplace. The challenges we face when involved in the mundane aspects of existence can also rob us of our morality and our connection to our spiritual core, if we are not given a system of checks and balances.
The once-a-week individual Shabbat and the once-every-seven-years national shevi’it are built into the fabric of time, to allow the nation the reprieve that will enable it to appreciate its core and learn how to exhibit the moral teachings of the Torah in a mundane reality that militates against it. The land and its spiritual character must express itself in the merging of the physical and spiritual, not with the corruption of either or both.
For this reason, shevi’it is referred to as Shabbat haAretz, and much like the weekly Shabbat, it is a Shabbat Lashem, a Shabbat for Hashem.
The Covid-19 pandemic that caught the world off guard has had massive repercussions for society, and as of this writing, continues to impact the world. Who could have imagined that lockdowns, masking, and social distancing would become part of our daily lives and that what we once considered necessities would become off-limits? Society has been turned upside down through anxiety, illness, death, unemployment, and loneliness, and the world economy has taken a massive beating. In some ways, there has been a Shemitta of sorts, as society as we know it has ground to a halt.
But while it is true that one can identify some positive effects of Covid-19, including a temporary lapse in pollution and numerous social initiatives that brought out the best in people, how many of them will remain in the long term? As masks (hopefully) come off and the locks are opened, society still lacks a mechanism to ensure these values aren’t short-lived.
Shemitta, in contrast, allows the world to take a time out. In an agricultural society, Shemitta not only calls for more limited agricultural production but a year off for everyone, a rest period for the rich and poor alike. Preparation in the preceding years is an integral part of ensuring successful accommodation during shevi’it, but it also allows for a buildup. Coupled with the Divine berachah of increased yield in the sixth year, there is an understanding that there will be a break, a year when the wheels of progress push towards another form of advancement – when the economy can be set aside for the sake of growth in realms other than business.
The centrality of shevi’it has led some to search for ways in which even the non-agricultural sectors of society can experience the mitzvot of Shemitta, and how can Jews throughout the world connect to some of Shemitta’s themes? Some advocate buying agricultural land in order to fulfill the mitzvah of letting it lie fallow. This does not, however, provide a full experience of the mitzvah. After all, those who buy tiny plots of land and fail to cultivate them can hardly be described as giborei ko’ach, “mighty in strength,” the appellation of Shemitta-observant farmers, as doing so does not require much faith.
Many recent initiatives have focused on inculcating Shemitta values into other sectors as well. Debt-relief and debt-forgiveness ventures are an expansion of the values of shemittat kesafim, the financial Shemitta requiring loan remittance at the end of the agricultural sabbatical year. Some rabbis have called for an expansion of shevi’it to other sectors of the economy. There are business people who have adopted moderate forms of Shemitta for their businesses.
Indeed, a year to stop, dedicate our time to learning, and focus on family, other people, and our spiritual lives seems like a dream. Even if we are unable to dedicate an entire year to the endeavor, whatever time we can commit to our loftier goals can be our “Shemitta time” over the year. The more meaningful we make it, the more likely we will be to find more “Shemitta time,” and its impact will become more and more pronounced.
It seems to me that there is also another way to strengthen Shemitta and its values. We have seen that Shemitta observance is a significant factor in our exile and subsequent return to the land. The land is impacted by every Jew who steps foot on it, and even those who long to do so. Every Jew counts; indeed, the reinstatement of Yovel (and the Biblical obligation of Shemitta) depends on the nation as a whole living in the land according to their ancestral plots. If Shemitta is to succeed in connecting us to our land and strengthening our connection with Har Sinai and Torah study, its seems that one of the most tangible ways of connecting to shevi’it values is by strengthening Torah communities in Eretz Yisrael – especially those conducive to olim – by ensuring affordable housing and shared resources, as well as continuing to build up Eretz Yisrael physically and spiritually.
In a powerful letter (dated 24 Sivan 5675/1915), Rav Kook writes that we must anxiously await that moment when Shemitta will be transformed, while at the same time recognizing the inner spiritual calling that Shemitta exhibits even in our day:
Let my master believe me that all these great and lofty things that were stated regarding the holiness of the seventh [year] in the present era were not stated specifically regarding fulfillment of particular deeds, for this holiness pertained even at such time as [the people of] Israel were not in the Land of Israel and the mitzvah of the seventh [year] was not fulfilled at all. Principally, it is a function of the gradual spread of holiness through the ages, with the light of the Messiah drawn from potential into reality as they come and go, so that the name of G-d, may His name be blessed, will be sanctified from one end of the earth to the other and all will form a single group to fulfill His will wholeheartedly. As for [the people of] Israel’s preparing themselves with faith and anticipation of the salvation of the light of the Messiah and the full return of the holiness of the Land of Israel, at which point Shemitta and Yovel will return in full force, all of the spiritual reparations that are performed in the higher realms, at all levels, draw sustenance from this light. Thus whoever performs an action to broaden the borders of Israel so as to expedite the ingathering of Israel to the Land of Israel, which hastens the redemption – for the ingathering of exiles… precedes the coming of the Messiah, and the light of Israel becomes brighter little by little, as they of blessed memory said of the comparison to “the break of dawn” – he indeed rehabilitates the holiness of the supreme oneness of the principle of the seventh [year], and there is no end to the holy, supreme delights that are thus multiplied, and they are influenced by the root of his soul and the soul of all Israel…
One who fears G-d ought to pursue both avenues, by endeavoring practically to bring to life all the aspects of the holiness of the seventh [year] – even in the present era, as much as is possible – and by endeavoring as well to expedite, with his deeds and influences, the rise of the horn of salvation and the revelation of the light of our righteous Messiah, so that these occur sooner, as the lights are operative in their plentiful holiness even if, G-d forbid, one’s deeds are not effective in practice, because the spiritual power of a good intention regarding these holy and lofty things has no limit and no measure…
We are privileged to partake of some of the Shemitta realities that impact the lives of those who dwell in Israel, yet we also long for the day when all Shemitta observance will be complete with the arrival of the Mashiach. Until that day, may it speedily come, we hope that these lessons of Shemitta, alongside the opportunities to fulfill the laws of Shemitta in practice, continue to grow, illuminating our perspective on Shemitta and beyond.
• This article is adapted from Rabbi Zimmerman’s book The Shemitta Sensation: A Deeper Look into the Jewish Sabbatical Year (Mizrachi Press, 2021).
1 Global, regional, and national burdens of ischemic heart disease and stroke attributable to exposure to long working hours for 194 countries, 2000–2016, Environment International, Volume 154, September 2021.
2 Brief diversions vastly improve focus, researchers find, Illinois News Bureau, February 8, 2011, https://news.illinois.edu/view/6367/205427.
3 Ferris Jabr, “Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime”, Scientific American, October 15, 2013, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/mental-downtime.
4 World Earth Day: How coronavirus lockdowns changed the world’s most polluted cities, Independent, April 22, 2020, https://www.independent.co.uk/climate-change/news/coronavirus-lockdown-pollution-earth-day-climate-change-india-italy-us-a9477801.html.
5 Stefan Sagmeister, “The Power of Time Off”, TEDGlobal 2009, https://www.ted.com/talks/stefan_sagmeister_the_power_of_time_off. Winston Chen, a computer executive, followed this advice. During that year, he took up a hobby that became the multi-million dollar company VoiceDream. In Chen’s words, “the secret to success is a sabbatical in the Arctic Islands.”
6 Dr. Jeremy Benstein, “Stop the Machine! The Sabbatical Year Principle,” The Jerusalem Report, May 21, 2001, 35.
Rabbi Binyamin Zimmerman is the head of World Mizrachi’s Musmachim Semicha (rabbinic ordination) program. He also serves as a senior educator at the Zomet Institute and director of H.E.S.B.E.R. (Hebrew English Source Based Educational Resources) and is the author of The Shemitta Sensation, From the Source and the With Spirit series of educational books for middle and high schools.