Sabbatical Year 2007: How to Celebrate
“The earth shall have a Divine sabbath. Six years shall you sow your field and six year shall you prune your vineyard and gather her produce. The seventh year is a Sabbath of Sabbaths to the land, a Sabbath to the Divine. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard…and the land shall have a Sabbath of Sabbaths, a complete rest.”
This Rosh haShanah (Sept. 12, 13, 14) begins a sabbatical year, a year of letting the land lie fallow in Israel. Biblically speaking, not only people have Shabbat. The earth too has Shabbat. While people celebrate Shabbat every seven days, the land of Israel celebrates Shabbat every seven years. Farmers do not sow, nor do they reap crops (picking stray produce by hand is permitted, but it cannot be sold for profit). In this way, the Bible expresses the idea that land does not belong to us. The earth herself needs rest, and humans need to let the earth rest. The ancient Israelites understood this. They treated their land as a Being, with a Sabbath of her own. This in fact reflects the origin of the Sabbath: some believe Shabbat was once shapatu, a dark-of-the-moon ritual when the Goddess retreated into solitude and the people refrained from creative work, in solidarity with Her.
In modern-day Israel, this religious doctrine has complications. Farmers who observe this biblical law run the risk of going out of business, as they lose a year of profit. Some choose to raise crops in boxes of soil raised above the earth: a loophole to get around the law. The Sephardic chief rabbi has ruled that Jews may symbolically sell their land to Arabs as a way of avoiding the law (the Arabs have no obligation regarding the sabbatical year and therefore the land can be harvested). However, many ultra-Orthodox Jews do not accept this sabbatical sale. Many Israeli farmers don’t or can’t comply with the sabbatical year, so some Jews choose not to buy any produce from the land of Israel during a sabbatical year, in compliance with the law not to eat harvested produce.
These practices may seem somewhat distant from the original purpose of letting the land rest. What if we transformed the sabbatical year into a time when we found ways to let the earth rest from human depredation? Some ways to fulfill our sabbatical obligation:
Raising money to buy wilderness or jungle land and let it grow wild
Donating to nature preserves
Volunteering to help clean parks and other public lands
Leaving a symbolic part of a home, synagogue or community center ‘s land and gardens wild, for animals to graze and trees to grow
Funding or developing new technologies to aid in conservation
Eating less meat and consuming less paper, so fewer wild lands become unsustainable grasslands for cattle, or fields of cut-down trees
Using less energy so less natural resources are consumed
Planting swales of grass, or wax myrtle, cypress and bay trees, near driveways or parking lots in order to process run-off and purify pollutants
Choosing not to harvest from particular plants or trees in order to provide rest for the plants, food for animals and mulch for the earth
Planting a bee or bird garden
Buying only from sustainable, organic farmers locally and abroad
Helping to preserve indigenous societies
Planning a trip to wilderness lands (if the lands can be traveled without environmental damage) or to Israel, to learn about the earth
Committing to recycle one item you currently don’t recycle
Helping kids to learn about the importance of wilderness land
It’s traditional on Passover to recite a declaration claiming that all our chametz has been removed. Perhaps we might make a similar declaration on Rosh haShanah of a sabbatical year:
(For an individual)
At the turning of the year, as the sabbatical year begins, I declare that I have set aside part of my land, resources, or time to preserve the wild nature of the earth. I have done this in recognition that the earth is not mine that I may take all that grows for myself, but rather I belong to the Earth, and all things I receive are gifts of the Source of Life. May the Wellspring of Life renew the world and its abundance in the coming year, and may the earth’s rest yield a blessing for us and all life.
(For a community)
At the turning of the year, as the sabbatical year begins, we declare that we have set aside part of our community land, resources, and time to preserve the wild nature of the earth. We have done this in recognition that the earth is not ours that we may take all that grows for ourselves, but rather we belong to the Earth, and all things we receive are gifts of the Source of Life. May the Wellspring of Life renew the world and its abundance in the coming year, and may the earth’s rest yield a blessing for us and all life.
May this sabbatical year bring us closer to a sustainable human presence on the earth.
Rabbi Jill Hammer is Director of Tel Shemesh, Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion, and author of The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons.
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