Earth Etude for Elul 1 – The Shmita Year

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

In the Torah, we find three cycles of seven that mark the Jewish way of being in the world: Shabbat, a day of rest for humans and animals after six days of work, shmita, a year of rest for the Earth and the community after six years of agriculture and economic interactions, and the Jubilee Year, the end of seven cycles of shmita, the year of freedom.

Does a day of rest each week have meaning to you? For many of us, such a frequent and regular segment of time to set aside for rest can be a challenge. Then what about a year of rest? That is even harder to wrap our brains around! What would it mean in today's world to have a year that is set aside to be experienced differently than the previous six years and the upcoming six years? For the land around us and for the way we interact within our communities?

To give us a start in thinking about this complex idea, here are the Biblical texts* that form the core teachings of Shmita, in some cases set in the context of the verses around it. I invite you to read, to consider, and to process these verses.

1  You are not to take up an empty rumor. Do not put your hand in with a guilty person, to become a witness for wrongdoing.   

2  You are not to go after many people to do evil. And you are not to testify in a quarrel so as to turn aside toward many-and thus turn away. 

3  Even a poor-man you are not to respect as regards his quarrel.


4  Now when you encounter your enemy’s ox or his donkey straying, return it, return it to him.


5  And when you see the donkey of one who hates you crouching under its burden, restrain from abandoning it to him- unbind, yes, unbind it together with him.


6  You are not to turn aside the rights of your needy as regards his quarrel.


7  From a false matter, you are to keep far! And one clear and innocent, do not kill, for I do not acquit a guilty-person.


8  A bribe you are not to take, for a bribe blinds the open-eyed, and twists the words of the righteous.


9  A sojourner, you are not to oppress: you yourselves know well the feelings of the sojourner, for sojourners were you in the land of Egypt.


10  For six years you are to sow your land and to gather in its produce, 


11  but in the seventh, you are to let it go [tishm'tenah] and to let it be [u'nitashta], that the needy of your people may eat, and what remains,  the wildlife of the field shall eat. Do thus with your vineyard, with your olive-grove.  – Exodus 23.1-11




1  The Lord spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai, saying: 2  Speak to the Children of Israel, and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land is to cease, a Sabbath-ceasing to the Lord.


3  For six years you are to sow your field, for six years you are to prune your vineyard, then you are to gather in its produce,  4  but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of Sabbath-ceasing for the land, a Sabbath to the Lord: your field you are not to sow, your vineyard you are not to prune,


5  the aftergrowth of your harvest you are not to harvest, the grapes of your consecrated-vines you are not to amass; a Sabbath of Sabbath-ceasing shall there be for the land!


6  Now the Sabbath-yield of the land is for you, for eating: for you, for your servant and for your handmaid, for your hired-hand and for your resident-settler who sojourn with you;  7 and for your domestic-animal and the wild-beast that are in your land shall be all its produce, to eat.  – Leviticus 25.1-7




1 At the end of seven years, you are to make a Release [shmita]. 2  Now this is the matter of the Release: he shall release, every possessor of a loan of his hand, what he has lent to his neighbor. He is not to oppress his neighbor or his brother, for the Release of the Lord has been proclaimed!…


7  When there is among you a needy-person from any-one of your brothers, within one of your gates in the land that the Lord your G!d is giving you, you are not to toughen your heart, you are not to shut your hand to your brother, the needy-one.


8  Rather, you are to open, yes, open your hand to him, and are to give-pledge, yes, pledge to him, sufficient for his lack that is lacking to him.


9  Take-you-care, lest there be a word in your heart, a base-one, saying: the seventh year, the Year of Release, is nearing- and your eye be set-on-ill toward your brother, the needy-one, and you not give to him, so that he calls out because of you to the Lord, and sin be incurred by you.


10  You are to give, yes, give freely to him, your heart is not to be ill-disposed in your giving to him, for on account of this matter the Lord your G!d will bless you in all your doings and in all the enterprises of your hand!


11  For the needy will never be-gone from amid the land; therefore I command you, saying: You are to open, yes, open your hand to your brother, to your afflicted-one, and to your needy-one in your land!  – Deuteronomy 15.1-2, 7-11




18  You are to observe my laws, my regulations you are to keep, and observe them, that you may be settled on the land in security,  19  that the land may give forth its fruit and that you may eat to being-satisfied, and be settled in security upon it. 20  Now if you should say to yourselves: What are we to eat in the seventh year, for we may not sow, we may not gather our produce?


21  Then I will dispatch my blessing for you during the sixth year so that it yields produce for three years;  22  as you sow the eighth year’s seeds, you shall eat of the old produce until the ninth year; until its produce comes in, you shall be able to eat what-is-old.  – Leviticus 25.18-22




10  And Moses commanded them, “At the end of every seven years, at the set time in the year of Shmita, at the Festival of Sukkot,  11  when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your G!d at the place that he will choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. 

12  Assemble [hakhel] the people, men, women, and children, and the travelers within your towns, that they may hear and that they may learn; and they will have awe before the Lord your G!d, and guard all the words of this Torah, and to act upon it,  13  and that their children, who have not yet known it, may hear and learn and have awe before the Lord your G!d, as long as you live in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.   – Deuteronomy 31.10-13


What do these verses inspire in us? What thoughts come to mind? How would YOU want to observe the shmitah year? What kinds of changes would this require?

May we each find the strength, the courage, and the will to make the changes needed in ourselves that will help the world to be a better place, from our hearts to the farthest point on the planet, from our homes to the deepest wilderness.

May it be so.

*Translations are from The Hazon Shmitah Handbook, by Yigal Deutscher, Anna Hanau, and Nigel Savage.

Rabbi Katy Z. Allen is the founder and leader of Ma'yan Tikvah – A Wellspring of Hope in Wayland, MA, and a staff chaplain at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. She is also the co-convener of the Jewish Climate Action Network and the co-creator of Gathering in Grief: The Israel / Gaza Conflict.