The shemitah year calls us to repair a broken food system

The shemitah year calls us to repair a broken food system, originally published in The Times of Israel

Our modern food system puts little value on rest. 

Our system operates with an assumption of infinite capacity, and in ignorance of all creation’s basic need for relief. The sheer numbers associated with feeding us — the number of birds a poultry worker processes per minute in the US (140), the number of acres of forest lost to animal agriculture each year globally (32 billion), the number of sea animals harvested from our oceans each year (at least in the trillions) — testify to the weakly regulated, uninterrupted rate of our consumption. Each year, it only accelerates.

This kind of runaway productivity should be anathema to Jewish sensibilities. 

Many of us try to maintain some form of rest-and-reset practice on Shabbat, the day for which Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “We especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul.” After six straight days of manual toil, driving to and from errands and activities, and, these days, excessive screen time, it is not difficult to see the value in spending one day in reflective appreciation not just of our work, but our relationships and our world. 

If the Sabbath is our time to nurture the everlasting life within us, then shemitah, the seventh year in Judaism’s agricultural cycle, is our time to nurture the everlasting life around us. Shemitah tells us to let our food system, including the many lives involved with and impacted by its operation, rest for a full year. Our next shemitah cycle is about to begin this Rosh Hashanah. 

The laws are radical in their holistic commitment, not only to land, which must lie fallow and rewild for an entire year (Lev. 25:4), but to people, who must release loan recipients from all their debts (Deut. 15:2) and free and (in ancient times) free and compensate their slaves (Deut. 15:12-13), and to animals both domesticated and wild, to whom we grant free access to fields and food (Lev. 25:7). In contrast to factory farming, the faith we place in this system boils down to a mindset that we rarely adopt in an era of economic insatiability: we believe that rest and reciprocity create true abundance. 

Even though the laws of shemitah were conceived long before the advent of industrial life and human-caused environmental crises, it is easy to see why Jewish environmental leaders have revived its significance, and urge us to extend the practice of shemitah beyond the geographic borders of Israel to other hubs of Jewish life. Of course, this is easier said than done. In “A Shmita Manifesto”: A Radical Sabbatical Approach to Jewish Food Reform in the United States, Dr. Adrienne Krone tracks the evolution of shemitah over the centuries. She notes that throughout its history, implementing shemitah as a true release of land, people, and animals alike has remained largely “an ideal instead of a reality.” 

But, as many Jewish educators today affirm, we can imbibe the spirit of shemitah and promote its message even if we don’t steward land or grow our own food. One way we can begin to apply its subversive, profound land ethic is to pay attention to the food system. Through the lens of shemitah-colored glasses, we recognize the harm in supporting farming practices that push vulnerable workers to their physical and mental brink and keep farmers under crushing mountains of debt. We see the grotesque ways that raising animals for food has come to mean removing them from suitable habitats and social structures, accelerating their growth, and disconnecting them from their biological cycles. We recognize that maintaining this system within the next few years seals our fate for a drastically warmer and uncertain future in which those with fewer resources, less infrastructure, and less wealth — the very people that shemitah strives to protect — suffer the most. We understand that we continue to support this system at our and our children’s peril, and that leads us to act. 

Reviving shemitah in our communal consciousness this coming year is an opportunity to raise awareness about the role that our food choices play in mitigating further climate and environmental breakdown. For example, just as we urge government officials to rein in unbridled corporate emissions from fossil fuel companies, we also need to target the meat and dairy companies that are on track to rival or exceed the emissions of fossil fuel companies by passing sweeping legislation that would phase out factory farms

Shemitah teaches us that restoring justice and natural resilience requires a multi-faceted approach. We can all do more to learn about the impacts of the food we buy and the land we occupy, and about the people preserving sustainable foodways. We can not only support large-scale policy change, but also directly influence and create communal policy

Jewish leaders are already reigniting the relevance of Jewish food ethics, whether through growing food in synagogue gardens, prioritizing food practices as part of their greening efforts, or by urging institutions to respond to the faulty conception of kosher certification as an assurance of better farming practices. As communities, we can be agents of shemitah by eschewing factory-farmed products, by buying from farmers that employ regenerative practices, and by sourcing food that destroys the least wild habitat. 

Food choices are often dismissed as individual habits with comparatively little influence on our planet, but as a collective, our food purchasing has significant and far-reaching impact. If you haven’t already, this is the year to build out and formalize the sustainability and ethical dimensions of your kashrut policy. 

The shofar blasts that ring us into 5782 and signify the start of shemitah awaken our minds and bodies not only to atonement, but attunement to the rhythms of life. Everyone — everything — needs a chance to catch their breath, including every sacred component of the Earth-based system that feeds us. As we embark on another year, let us uphold the value of rest and release, which nourish the seeds of eternity planted for all.

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