The shofar blast on Rosh Chodesh heralds the month of Elul, the period of soul-searching and introspection leading up to the Yamim Nora’im. It serves as a thunderous wake-up call that Rosh HaShanah is quickly approaching. Do teshuvah! Get your affairs in order! But at the same time, there has been another low hum reverberating in the air here, which has increased over the last few weeks and has now reached a resounding crescendo: Shmitah is coming!
The Torah instructs us to work the land of Israel for six years and let it rest the seventh year, the Shmitah year. This is similar to Shabbos, when we work for six days and rest on the seventh. During Shmitah, the land is left to lie fallow and various agricultural activities, including plowing, planting, and pruning are forbidden. As a result, the sounds of lawn mowers, weed whackers, and leaf blowers can now be heard all over Bet Shemesh. Municipal workers are methodically making their way around the city, trimming the trees and bushes in public areas. It is almost impossible to walk around outside without crossing over piles of shrubbery. Construction workers are rushing to designate areas for tree planting so that the trees can be planted before Shmitah. Gardeners are sprinkling slow-release fertilizer, made only for Shmitah, which lasts for the entire year. They are working overtime to plant, prune, trim, and put their final touches on their gardens in preparation for the year when only minimal maintenance and intervention will be permissible. Ready or not, Shmitah is coming. And some of us really are not ready.
At least for myself, I feel like I’m getting a bit of a late start in this process. There is no shortage of distractions these days. For one thing, due to the fact that school year still hasn’t started for most of the country, there is still an incongruous tension of vacation and Elul in the air. Rosh HaShanah is next week and parents are still running around, providing entertainment for their children. Shofar blasts in the morning, concerts in the evening. Selichos in the morning, trips in the afternoon. As of the time of this writing, due to the high COVID case numbers, it is not yet clear if the public school system will open this week, and it seems that the final decision will only be made the day before school is meant to start. The lack of resolution on certain issues by the powers that be also distract from what we are meant to be doing at this time. Will there be a lockdown over chag? Will shuls be able to operate in a somewhat normal fashion? The answers to these questions depend on the time of day and who in particular is answering the question. Quite unsettling indeed. It’s a bit hard to focus on Shmitah, which is undeniably upon us.
Seven years in between each Shmitah cycle gives plenty of time to forget the relevant halachos. Shul rabbis have been giving multiple shiurim and cramming sessions on the topic, as people try to quickly absorb the knowledge they need in order to fulfill the mitzvah properly.
Fruits and vegetables that grow in Israel during this year have a special holiness, which greatly affects how food is handled in the kitchen. Foods with this holiness cannot be thrown out in the normal way. This prohibition translates into many details even beyond food preparation. Someone who uses wine that has holiness cannot let his cup of wine for havdalah overflow. Similarly, when using wine that has holiness, one cannot take wine out of his cup when reciting the ten makos at the seder.
Shmitah is meant to be an exercise in emunah. We are to rely on Hashem for our sustenance while we sit back and remain passive in the process. We demonstrate our belief that Hashem is the One who provides for all of our needs at all times, even when we are doing our part.
When farming was what most people did for their sustenance and livelihood, it was very challenging for many to put their trust in Hashem. But in the Torah (Vayikra 25:21-22), Hashem promises us that if we do rely on Him, we will be rewarded. Whatever we plant in the sixth year will be enough to sustain us during the seventh year, when we don’t work the land, and during the eighth year when we once again begin to plant, and all the way until the ninth year, when we eat the fruits of what we plant in the eighth year. In other words, what we plant in the sixth year will be enough for three years. This is Hashem’s promise to us.
I feel like I can see the fulfillment of this promise just by looking right outside my front door. We have a beautiful rimon (pomegranate) tree in our yard. Every year before Rosh HaShanah, we pick the rimonim from our tree and distribute them to our friends and neighbors. This particular year our rimon tree is overflowing with the most beautiful and luscious fruit I’ve ever seen. People who walk by our tree comment about its magnificence and abundance of fruit. Tzedakah collectors who come to our door express more interest in our fruit than in the money they request. Our neighbors are asking when they can expect their deliveries to take place. If the rimonim would only stay fresh, I am certain that this year’s crop would indeed last for three years.
I wish for all of us a happy and healthy year during which all of our physical and spiritual goals are easily realized, be’ezrat Hashem.
Suzie (nee Schapiro) Steinberg grew up in Kew Gardens Hills. She works as a social worker and lives with her husband and children in Ramat Beit Shemesh.