How the Jewish Year of Release can shape our giving in 5782

Liz Aeschlimann
5 min readNov 22, 2021
Field of golden wheat under a blue sky

As Jews, we are instructed to give a portion of our resources to those in need every year. But every seventh year the Shmita year heralds a year of release for the land, along with the canceling of all debt. It also challenges and inspires us to approach how we share our financial resources in new ways. In this Shmita year of 2021–2022, let us lean into Jewish tradition’s powerful framework for thinking about wealth as abundant, inherently collective, and transformative.

Abundance

During the Shmita year, the land lies fallow, and we eat only what has already been stored, or what grows without intervention from the land. The Rabbinic oral tradition imagines a system of storehouses, in which people bring their excess harvest to the storehouse and receive a distribution “on the eve of Shabbat, every person according to the need of their household” (Tosefta Shevi’it 8:1).

At the heart of the rabbis’ vision is a radical claim: there is enough to go around, if only we would share it.

Economic research backs this up. There is enough food, water, energy, and housing space for every person on the planet; unequal distribution is the reason 821 million people are chronically undernourished and over 560,000 people experienced homelessness in the United States on a single night in 2020. (Check out this powerful article from Yes! Magazine about quantifying and advocating for “Enough for Everyone”)

For those of us with more than our fair share, it is often our feelings of scarcity that keeps us from bringing our metaphorical harvest to the storehouse for redistribution. In this Shmita year, I am challenging myself to move through feelings of scarcity, fear, and guilt, and give with a spirit of abundance.

As you consider your own giving this year, I invite you to reflect on what helps you feel grounded in the abundance of enough: a meal with friends or family, a walk in the woods, pulling on the same warm sweater you’ve loved for years. As we share our resources, let’s remind ourselves of this kavanah, or intention: There is enough for all of us.

Shmita income is ownerless

During the Shmita year, all that grows from the land is considered hefker, ownerless. According to the commentator Rashi, any produce of the seventh year must be equally accessible to the owner of the land, the worker, and those who dwell in the land. Maimonides goes a step further, adjuring people not to lock the gates of their fields or take more than they need into their homes. “Thus everyone, [rich and poor], has equal rights in every place” (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Shmita v’Yovel, 4.24 ).

What would it be like to view our income, or even our wealth, as ownerless, equally the right of anyone to use? Such a view loosens my grip on the idea that what I’ve earned is mine, reflective of some absolute value of my labor. But it also loosens my grip on my sense that the money in my name is mine to give away as I see fit. Understanding wealth as hefker, ownerless, helps shift from the frame of wealthy patron bestowing a kindness on a poor recipient, to a frame of redistribution. Money has accumulated in the bank and stock accounts of a few, and our job is simply to unlock the gates that guard it.

One area that maps neatly onto the concept of ownerless harvests is the stock market: a field into which we sow seeds of capital and reap the harvests, often with no labor of our own. While the stock market rises and falls over time, most years investors can count on growth of about 5%-7%. Over the pandemic, the market hit record highs, with S&P 500 investors gaining over 15% on their investments in 2020. In this Shmita year, I encourage those of us with money in stocks, mutual funds, etc. to count all growth in these accounts as ownerless, and redistribute at least 5%. I commit to doing the same.

Releasing Debt

We are commanded in the Shmita year to release all loans (Deut. 15:1–2). In contemporary times, this may seem impossibly complicated, as our debts tend to come from distant institutions and not from our neighbors. However, people have devised ingenious ways to contribute to funds that buy off and then expunge often predatory medical and educational debt, as well as the financial bonds of the deeply racist bail system. This year, consider releasing the collective debt of our neighbors through the Shmita Debt Release Campaign of RIP Medical Debt, the National Bail Fund Network, and other similar efforts.

It is also a ripe time to lean into the economic “reset” of Shmita. During Shmita, poverty is alleviated as debts are erased, and the wealthy are forced to pause in their accumulation. Today, movements towards economic models rooted in racial and economic justice, collective ownership, and regenerative relationships with land are flourishing. In 5782, we can leverage money that is invested in accounts aimed solely at growing profits towards a vision of abundance and economic agency for all by investing in regenerative and justice-oriented economic models. Learn more about solidarity economy, just transition, and invest in worker cooperatives, mutual aid networks, and Black and brown-owned businesses through efforts like the Boston Ujima Project and Seed Commons.

Resources = Collective Power

As Jews, considering the wealth and resources we may or may not have access to is often fraught with centuries of persecution that paints Jews as wealthy and greedy, controlling the events of the world with financial power and schemes of domination. It is also fraught with the trauma we and our ancestors have faced. Trauma in which access to wealth may have meant the difference between surviving and perishing. And trauma in which wealth wasn’t enough to save someone’s life. The pain of these legacies is deep, and well worth the slow and transformative work of untangling.

But we also inherit a beautiful legacy of sharing collective resources. We inherit Shabbat meals in which abundance was coaxed from a handful of vegetables, and someone with less was invited to share. We inherit the tradition of the community kupah, a collective fund gathered to help those in need anonymously. And we inherit the radical vision of Shmita, a vision of abundance that resets our relationship to land and our relationships to each other, cultivating interdependence, releasing debt, and reminding us that all we harvest is a gift.

As Jews, we can do big things together. This Shmita year, let’s follow our tradition’s radical vision to embrace the abundance that’s possible when we release our hold on ownership, cancel the debts of inequality, and put our resources in service of a world where we all have what we need.

Deep gratitude to Hazon’s Shmita Sourcebook, the source of the texts quoted above and much of my inspiration about Shmita. Thanks also to Resource Generation, for informing my vision of wealth redistribution.

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Liz Aeschlimann

As a coach and facilitator, Liz helps people align their money with their values, and bring more joy, purpose, and ease into their lives. www.lizaeschlimann.com