This is a guest post by Anna Levy, a member of JUFJ’s Montgomery County leadership council.
As we, individually and as a community, struggle to grapple with the health and economic effects of the pandemic which envelopes our world, and inevitably exacerbates the tenuous situation of those among us who have the least material wealth, it is incumbent on us to tap into our Jewish values to respond. Members of Jewish Community Action (JCA) of Minnesota, were inspired to advocate for relief of housing debt (rent and/or mortgage) based on the biblical tradition of Shmita. Although the next shmita year will not begin until Rosh Hashana 5782 (September 2021), this concept might appropriately be applied to our participation in the Maryland statewide and national movement to “CanceltheRent”.
Shmita means “release” and unlike many mitzvoth which are based on individual participation, shmita relies on both personal and communal participation.
Shmita is first referred to in the book of Exodus, and again in Leviticus in reference to the agricultural practice of leaving the land to lie fallow in the seventh year as a sabbath year.
In fact, this was read in the Torah portion, Behar-Bechukotai, this past Shabbat:
“The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and live as foreigners with me.
In all the land of your possession you shall grant a redemption for the land.”
Sabrina Sojourner, in a d’var Torah published in the Washington Jewish Week, notes that this concept of “G_d’s ownership of the land and we as its tenants is the underpinning of the……” concept of shmita and yovel. She also describes how these laws consider poverty; the treatment of the poor, workers, widows, and orphans.
In Deuteronomy 15:1-2 we are told that at the end of every seventh year that every creditor shall release the debt that he holds for his/her neighbor.“All of those who bear debt must release their hold.” And the Rambam in the Mishne Torah notes that although the debts were to be released at the end of the shmita year, the hope would be that the borrower would eventually find a way to return the debt.
How might the concept of shmita be applied to the cancellation or deferral of rent and mortgage? Shmita is implemented for the common good, to replenish the fertility of the land and to equalize economic inequalities.
- The landowners, farmers, and wealth holders need to be planning for the year of shmita by storing up resources in year 6, prior to the sabbatical year so that there is plenty for all during year 7 and year 8 until the land is once again productive. We, as a community, should be setting aside resources to support the whole community for the fallow times.
- Those who have lost income due to illness, closing of businesses and other related fallout, have essentially sacrificed for the common good, e.g., to protect the health of the greater community from the spread of the virus. It is our obligation to protect them by releasing them from debt and poverty.
- The purpose then, of Shmita, is to set apart a period of time that will slow down the personal pursuit of property and foster care, compassion and partnership between all of those who share the earth (from Yedidia Stern, Shmita: Rest, Share, Release; The Israel Democracy Institute, Sept., 22, 2014)
- Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in British Palestine, wrote of the shmita year of 1909-1910, “The Sabbatical year comes to correct the situation of inequality and societal rifts, by removing a major source of power of the elite: debts owed to them……….What the Sabbath achieves for the individual, the Shmita achieves with regard to the nation as a whole.”
Get involved in JUFJ’s campaigns for renters’ rights and housing justice:
Providing lawyers to Baltimore tenants facing eviction could pay for itself – The Baltimore Sun, Editorial Board
Study: providing lawyers for Baltimore tenants to fight eviction can save the city and state money – The Baltimore Sun
Housing advocates make case for providing lawyers to renters facing eviction – Mallory Sofastaii, ABC 2 News – WMAR