Rabbi Kevin Kleinman characterizes shemittah (“release”) as “Judaism’s prescription for maintaining economic, environmental, and social balance in the world,” as timely nowadays as it was in biblical times. How has an ancient regulation concerning crop management assumed such importance? Our tour of the history of shemittah will begin with its origin in agricultural practice and conclude with modern efforts to reinterpret the practice in the context of latter-day environmental concerns. Along the way, we will consider non-agricultural biblical and post-biblical adaptations of the concept of “release,” especially in association with social justice–manumission, debt remission, and alleviation of poverty–and with esoteric teachings about the duration of the world. Alan Cooper is the Elaine Ravich Professor of Jewish Studies at JTS.
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