Rabbi Andrue J. Kahn, editor of The Sacred Earth: Jewish Perspectives on Our Planet, reflects on the traditional practice of the sh’mitah year, its applications to climate justice, and how we can build a sustainable future for all.
In New York City’s Union Square, if you look up right above Nordstrom Rack and Best Buy, you’ll see a series of red numbers counting down. Right now, it reads something like six years, some amount of days, and some amount of hours, minutes, and seconds. This is a climate clock, and others just like it exist in Seoul, Rome, Berlin, and Glasgow. These clocks are counting down to the presumed date at which our planet’s temperature will have increased by 1.5 degrees Celsius due to humanity’s carbon emissions. Climate scientists suggest that this temperature shift “could trigger a cascade of tipping points, which would irreversibly alter the global climate system and further exacerbate warming.”
This viewpoint is steeped in the modern mindset. Modernity, the outcome of the European Enlightenment, focuses on a view of history as a continually straight line of progress charted on human timelines, centering ourselves, our lifetimes, and our goals. This is often viewed in the positive sense—that we, as a special species and a planet, are always progressing inevitably forward. But it is not quite how the biblical, or rabbinic, world understood the nature of history.
Our Torah teaches a practice of connecting to the land called the sh’mitah system, which in many ways runs precisely contrary to our modern sense of straight-line progress. It creates seven-year cycles of stopping work, stopping growth, and, after many cycles, returning all back to an original state, undoing anything that could be viewed as financial or wealth accumulation.
God tells Moses:
Speak to the Israelite people and say to them:… Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Eternal: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. (Leviticus 25:2–4)
This cycle continues seven times itself, every forty-nine years. The seventh cycle of the sh’mitah year is the yoveil year, in which all things are returned to their original status. If land has changed hands between families, it goes back to the original families. If someone has become enslaved or indebted, that slavery and that debt are canceled. Every forty-nine years, the society returns to its starting point. The year 5782, or 2021–22 in the Gregorian calendar, was the last sh’mitah year. This major cycle of the Jewish calendar is aligning directly with the environmental countdown clock. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, the countdown clock at Union Square is also counting down to the next sh’mitah year, 5789.
One of the most brilliant Torah scholars of history, Moses ben Nachman (Ramban), sees within the sh’mitah practice of the Torah a symbolic system of cycles in time that point us towards not just human social structures, or human-centric histories and futures, but the underlying pattern of the cosmos.
The six days of creation represent the duration of the world, and “the seventh day is a sabbath of Adonai your God” (Exodus 20:10). Just as the seven days of the week allude to what God created in the beginning, so the seven years of the sabbatical cycle allude to what will happen during all the rest of creation. That is why the text is so strict about it, invoking a penalty of exile for violating it. (Ramban on Leviticus 25:2)
Ramban is suggesting that our entire universe works in these cycles of seven, starting with six “days” of work, and then a seventh “day” of rest. This continues out fractally in time, forever. We have six “years” of work, and then a seventh “year” of rest, which then multiplies out to a seventh degree as well, with a complete societal reset every seven cycles.
This system of seven continues ad-infinitum, and the end of time will come at the end of one-thousand cycles of seven, in which the “World to Come”—the Jewish phraseology for the messianic era—will be established. There will then be one-thousand years of peace and prosperity, a Shabbat to end all Shabbats, which will then end with a total return to nothing, perhaps to start all over again.
In her recent book Hospicing Modernity, Vanessa Machado de Oliveira writes about looking at stories so radically different from our normative modern viewpoint of straight-line progress through history, not for their literal truth, but as a process to think with.
She refers to this as worlding, using stories as a guide to how to be in the world. She writes:
Worlding stories invite us to experiment with a different relationship between language and reality. These stories do not require anyone to believe in anything; rather they invite you to believe with them. However, these stories cannot work on you without your consent. Taking worlding stories seriously makes possible a significant change in your ways of seeing, sensing, and relating to the world.
So I invite you, now, to try worlding with this very different cosmology that the Torah and Ramban are putting forward. We have a little over six years until the climate countdown clock hits zero, and our next sh’mitah year begins. What this cycle of sevens brought to us by our tradition teaches us is that time moves in predictable patterns that we cannot change—but we, ourselves, can change our own behavior within the patterns. By reflecting on our own behavior within them, we are able to change the outcomes of the cycle.
The Sacred Earth: Jewish Perspectives on our Planet provides a multitude of ways to world with this idea—to find our Jewish footing in this system of cycles in order to change our behavior, and perhaps change the outcome of this cycle towards the tipping point of global warming. Each chapter of this book reflects on Jewish modes of understanding our relationship to God, the planet, and each other through different aspects of our tradition’s wisdom systems—from theology, to halachah (Jewish law), to prayer, to personal practice in nature. This volume seeks to be a key to a vision for a future perfect with nature and with the Divine rather than the straight lines of human-centered history.
As we look forward to our next sh’mitah year, and perhaps this tipping point of climate change, may each of us find within our tradition ways of worlding with our ancestors, our tradition, and our Torah, to build a future for all of us.
Rabbi Andrue J. Kahn is Associate Director of Yachad and Adult Education at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, NY. He is the editor of The Sacred Earth: Jewish Perspectives on Our Planet (CCAR Press, 2023).
 Machado de Oliveira, Vanessa. Hospicing Modernity: Facing Humanity’s Wrongs and the Implications for Social Activism, 46–47. North Atlantic Books, 2021.