Shmita (Sabbatical) is a sacred practice of rest and release that goes back to Biblical times. Just as we pause for Shabbat every seven days, Shmita takes place every seven years. Think of it as a Shabbat for the land. When many of us lived agrarian lives, Shmita was a year to let our lands lie fallow, and no new crops were planted. All lands are considered shared commons without ownership. By allowing not just the soil to rest, but also the workers and the animals who tend to it, we create the conditions for a more fruitful harvest in the year to come.
Just recently, the idea of taking an entire year off from producing might have seemed totally foreign. Yet as with so many areas of our lives, the pandemic has reoriented our sense of time and the need to mindfully pause.
This booklet offers seven rituals to help you meaningfully and intentionally connect with the themes of Shmita and engage in sacred rest. Download this booklet so you can revisit it and take moments to pause throughout the Shmita year.
The Shmita year is a powerful time for reflection on the past seven years, to consider how we can embrace rest and explore what we want to release. Use the following questions to guide you through a writing exercise. Take your time and dim distractions so that you can be fully present.
When your mind wanders, kindly bring yourself back to this physical practice of writing. Return to this exercise throughout the Shmita year to see if your thoughts shift.
Thinking about the past seven years, what have you cared for, nurtured or grown?
What have you harvested that you want to let remain fallow?
What is a project that can you take a step back from or release?
Is there something you feel you have owned that you now want to give to everyone?
What is a habit, practice, routine or belief that you have let go of in the past seven years?
How might resting enable your ideas to bloom and flourish in the future?
In a world where we are constantly encouraged to produce, taking time to rest can feel radical.
Founded in 2016, The Nap Ministry is an organization devoted to exploring how rest is a form of spirituality and resistance, especially for oppressed people. Learn more about how The Nap Ministry is making naps a sacred practice at: https://thenapministry.wordpress.com/
To help yourself connect with this aspect of Shmita, find a space in your home that is solely dedicated to rest. Bring blankets, pillows, yoga mats or anything you need to feel comfortable into the space. Shut out noise and unplug from technology. Consider having calming sounds and smells into your space as you nap, daydream, rest, meditate or sleep.
To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven
Our ancestors were closely tied to their lands and the Biblical laws of Shmita had a tangible impact on their lives. Throughout the Torah, we learn that if we care for the land, we can enjoy its bounty. If we push it beyond its limits, we will face consequences. Just as we need time to sleep and to rest, so too does the earth. As we more frequently experience the effects of climate change, the need to let our lands rest and recover feels more important than ever.
Consider ways you can reduce your impact on the environment so that in seven years, our earth will be healthier. Be intentional as you consider which practices you will adopt. Will you eat less meat? Contact your elected officials each month? Commit to using less plastic? Buy fewer new things? Invest in renewable energy? Together, we can slow climate change and celebrate shmita again in seven years.
The root of the word shmita means to drop or let go. Besides letting the land go fallow, our tradition has also connected the Shmita year with debt forgiveness, especially for itinerant farmers. Every seven years, all debts are forgiven and obligations released, giving everyone a second chance. As many people grapple with medical debt, student loans and rental or mortgage debt, we can learn a lot from this tradition.
Besides examining our financial debts and the money owed to us, we can also use Shmita as an opportunity to forgive emotional debts. If you didn’t get a chance to do teshuva (repentance) or mechilah (forgiveness) during the High Holidays, this year of Shmita provides a way to let go of feelings that no longer serve us.
We also love celebrating October 31st, Email Debt Forgiveness Day. This holiday, invented by the Reply All podcast, is a chance to eliminate the guilt we might feel about that unsent email. Whether it’s a heartfelt note to a long-lost friend or a postponed letter to a relative, make this the day you forgive those email debts and send your message.
Though we might not all be farmers or gardners, we are all connected to farmers who produce and grow our food. Bring more intentionality to what you eat in this Shmita year by buying more locally-grown foods and getting to know the farmers in your community.
Each new season of the Shmita year, take a moment to eat a special food. As you eat, give gratitude to the many hands involved in bringing that food to your table. You may also use these moments to consider how easy or challenging it might be to eat seasonally where you live. How do you learn which foods are in season? Are there other foods you associate with each season?
Here are some of our seasonal food favorites:
- Autumn foods may look like your Rosh Hashanah seder table, with squash, pumpkins, beets, leeks, pomegranates and apples.
- Winter is a perfect time to try the types of preserved, fermented or dried foods that carried our ancestors through cold weather.
- Springtime foods like parsley and lettuce make an appearance on our Passover seder plates, along with special foods like ramps, fresh peas and asparagus.
- Summer brings a bounty of tomatoes, cucumbers, corn and berries.
What will you eat to connect to the earth this Shmita year?
During Rosh Hashanah, many people eat special foods and make wishes for the new year.
One way to practice release during the Shmita year is to explore where we hold tension in our bodies. This calming embodied meditation can be done nearly anywhere and anytime you need to rest.
Close your eyes and breathe deeply.
As you inhale, make a tight fist in your right hand and flex all the muscles in your right arm. As you exhale, release your fist and let all those muscles relax.
On your next inhale, make a fist with your left hand and flex the muscles in your left arm. Release as you exhale.
Next, inhale and tighten all the muscles in your right leg, from the foot all the way up to your hip. Exhale and release.
Repeat with your left leg as you inhale and exhale deeply to release.
Take a deep breath as you tighten your belly and your chest, bringing all your energy into the center of your body. Exhale to release.
Take one more big inhale to fill yourself with a cleansing breath. Exhale through your mouth and feel yourself letting go of tension from your entire body.
The seven-year cycle of Shmita is a family-friendly opportunity to create a physical or virtual time capsule. There are lots of ways to create a time capsule, here are some ideas.
Find an object that represents something important to you from the past year. Or something you wish to release. Add in photos of your family or create a dedicated folder on your computer for a few images that capture this moment in time.
Have each family member write a letter to themselves or digitally record a message to revisit in seven years from now. What advice do you have for your future self? What are your intentions and goals between now and the next Shmita? Write a note of gratitude to a loved one that you will read with them in seven years.
Finally, add in a beloved object, heirloom or family recipe. You can also use a picture of the heirloom instead. When you open the time capsule in seven years, cook the recipe or use the object again.
Adapted from the Mindful Shmita Workbook by the Tasman Center for Jewish Creativity
Original Art by Jessica Tamar Deutsch