Asha Wilkus-Stone: Mourning & The Shmita Year

On Rosh Hashanah, we began the new year in the Jewish calendar, 5782. This year is a Shmita year. The Shmita year is often translated as ‘The Sabbatical Year,’ and is likened to Shabbat. Parshat Behar (Levititicus 25:1-26:2) begins with the mitzvah: “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 Hashem. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land.”

The main commandments for observing the Shmita year include:

  • The land shall rest, it cannot be worked; the land may be cared for but nothing may be cultivated.
  • What fruits the land does yield are hefker, free to all, and without owners.
  • What is consumed during the year is sanctified, it is respected by consuming it fully, and cannot be the product of business.
  • Outstanding debts between people are nullified, and forgiven.

Shmita literally means “release.” It is the final 7th year of a calendar cycle. Just as the Sabbath is the 7th  day, set apart for rest, rejuvenation, study, prayer, family and fellowship; so too the Shmita year is set apart. Conceptually, Shmita, like Shabbat, supports the idea that rest is healthy for a system, for the individual, for the family, for the community, and for the planet. In the Shmita year, the commandments help us to shed our relationships of commerce with the land and with one another. We shift from treating the land as our object – for cultivation, for agriculture, for ownership – to a subject. In the same way, nullifying debts with one another shifts our view of the other as our object, to an equal subject. The commandments for this year reset environmental, economic, and inter and intrapersonal imbalances by acknowledging equity in all our relationships, or as equal subjects in creation.

In my study of some of the contemporary applications for the commandments in the Shmita year, particularly in the diaspora, the focus is on actions to take that restore our stewardship for the planet, our participation in agricultural systems, and our responsibility to enact economic justice. To pivot from this place of action, and with an eye inward, I will examine how the mitzvah for observing the Shmita year might be enriched when appreciated through a lens of loss and mourning.


Fallow Land

There is something fundamental and evocative to imagining fallow land as the land of the bereaved. Our tradition has practices for the first year of mourning, and in that time an entire year of seasons, stories, and gatherings pass.  A year of mourning shadows each season: The uneasy quieting in autumn, the brittle dormancy of winter, the mocking newness of spring, the jarring vibrancy of summer. The first year of mourning includes the holidays, hollow gatherings, and the cycle of Torah, heard with new ears. We go about routines, habits, and trace our familiar circles, but they all look different in the pale light of grief. When we are in mourning, we feel set apart from the flow of life around us. Movement is slowed, words are inadequate. Might the Shmita year hold something for the mourners? Might the mourners teach us something about Shmita?

What does it mean for mourners to be like the fields and lay fallow, to be the impoverished and eat freely, to find holiness in simple sustenance, to forgive personal emotional debts, and to seek forgiveness?

The first consideration is that following Shmita is a mitzvah, it is meant to be for healing and for peace. It is for blessing our lives, and all of life, that we let our industry subside, and slow to a pace where we are just subsisting. This is in contrast to all the emphasis on doing and action that Jewish, and secular value sets endorse. But like the Sabbath, this slowing during the Shmita year is meant to offset all the work we do in the world, and that we do as we grieve, to maintain, get by, fit in, and carry on. The juxtaposition of work and rest is one of the elemental pieces of wisdom and practice that Judaism offers, and it invites us to see paradox as complementarity. We can consider the six days – or years – of work, building up, action and production as the “black fire.” Then the Sabbath, or the Shmita year, is the “white fire.” Observing the Sabbath becomes a backdrop of merciful idleness against which our work, activities, and involvement in the world can be significant. The Shmita Sabbath offsets all the industriousness we put into the world. This period of passivity offers repair for the mind and spirit.

The second consideration is that we are not to cultivate; we are instead to reap for only our own nourishment, in equal stead with all of humanity, and even the animals. We can reap, but not sow. Temporarily, we are released from our part in the cause-and-effect rules that govern our lives. This can seem antithetical because we are taught in our tradition to take action, and to heal the world. Much of the wonderful writing and discussions on the Shmita year offered ways of thinking about our actions, how we could be inspired by the Shmita mitzvah to work in new ways. The focus, still, on the work we do to repair. Tikkun Olam.  But what if we are the world that that needs repair? What if we are the ones broken? Being in grief one knows brokenness. We will all, at some point – if we are fortunate to live long enough – know some amount of grief. Perhaps the Shmita year encourages us to remember that we are part of this broken world. As its inhabitants, like the fields, we too are in need of renewal and healing.

Third, in this year we increase our regard for that which sustains us. We become more mindful of the very short tether we have to the earth, and to the elements that enrich, and even ensure our very survival: the soil, the air, light, water, the people and animals behind every bite we take. The simple practice of mindfulness of the food we consume with each meal is how we become aware of the interconnectedness of all things. We consume completely, aware and grateful for the ways in which we are supported by all that we see, and all that is unseen. Instead of rushing from the meal to the next thing, during the Shmita year we linger, suspended in a moment of awareness of all the things that have transpired to give us life. Taking this pause to notice and sanctify, we choose life.

Fourth, during the Shmita year, let us consider that we should release debts owed to us. The commandments for the Shmita year interrogate ideas of ownership: the land and its fruits, and the circulation of moneys. As we know, death is the great democratizer; and although each loss is unique, the bereaved walk together under a different sky.  During the Shmita year, all people are made equal. To move toward this equality, we can ask, “What emotional debts are due to me? What emotional debts do I have outstanding with others? What actions or inactions in others have diminished my wellbeing, and how can I forgive them? For what might I seek forgiveness?” There are so many emotions that continually swirl, and morph with grief; the tumult of loss is a churning sea. When loss fills our skies, there is no one who is enough, no person, no action, no practice, no thing to fill that human shaped space that is forever empty. All the world is an inadequate replacement for the one who is lost. When I think of forgiving emotional debts, my heart breaks open for all those people who are inadequate, and thus my heart breaks open for all of us, all of humanity. Because no person can replace another, nor by ten thousand others. To forgive emotional debts is to forgive human imperfectness, theirs, mine, ours.


A Shmita prayer for the bereaved

Let me lay on my back in a quiet, unkempt field, without order or arrangement.

Let the light from the day pass over me, the clouds move as shadows,

And let the stillness infuse my muscles.

Let the seasons shift above me, causing nothing in me to stir.

But let the seasons move as they do, through the most quiet and lifeless to the vibrant, and full. And let me lie on my back in the field causing nothing in me to stir.


Let all my temporary parts wither and float on the wind,

And let all my organic parts break down and go back to the earth.

For this time, let me become as the soil, indistinguishable, unnoticed, assumed.


Maybe this is how it is, to become as the soil: Fallow

Then richer for the rest.


Nothing in me moves, the breath is just air.

Fallow ground, not even waiting.

Maybe it is not dust we become, but soil.


In honor of Ariel Stone Schwartz on his second yahrzeit


Asha Wilkus-Stone is grateful to parent three young children, and share life with her partner, Clay. She enjoys deep learning, cooking, community, and playing outside with, or without family and friends. She is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in private practice in Santa Barbara.