“The King in the Field”

Where spirit, nature and people meet.

An old-new Jewish movement overseas

About three months ago I was privileged to participate in a formative event arranged by the JOFEE network (Jewish Outdoor, Food and Environmental Education), which took place in a convention center out in nature in the heart of the U.S.

For three days we pored over texts describing events that have shaped us as a people, from the well-known “Lech Lecha” until today; we got to know and examine different projects, for example community gardens of various temples, or agricultural farms run according to halacha; and we experienced spiritual activities in nature itself .

I suppose you readers are raising an eyebrow and stifling a yawn – so what’s new? Yet another esoteric new-age gathering about Judaism?

In order to understand what the innovation is here, you have to know that this was a conference in which the top Jewish organizations, communities and funds in the U.S took part, as part of the long-term process which the Jewish establishment has undertaken to adopt.

For example, in the framework of the event, we celebrated the graduation of thirty young people from a training course which prepared them for leadership roles in the field of Jewish environmentalism in Jewish community centers (JCC) throughout the U.S. These young people will receive guidance and support both from the community institutions and from active local Jewish environmental organizations, and their salaries will be paid by foundations involved with the future of the Jewish people. The expectation of these foundations is that these graduates will recruit other young people who are inspired by Jewish tradition to join and initiate social – environmental activities.

The story behind this development is even more far-ranging, in that JOFEE is one of four different “routes” of experiential learning that are concurrently being promoted in Jewish communities in the U.S. The other three routes are culture and art, social justice (Tikkun Olam) and spiritualism (non-affiliated). The function of these four routes is to set in motion a process that will bring young people back to Judaism and make them feel at home in Jewish communities.

Today’s young people, members of the Y generation as I learned at the conference, have grown up in a world of accessible knowledge and social networks are an integral part of their lives. Members of this generation typically know what they are looking for and know how to find it on their own, while using the system for their needs but without any feeling of commitment to it. With this in mind, it is obvious why young people don’t want any connection with traditional Jewish establishments (temples, communal organizations, youth movements and so on) and view them as irrelevant. On the other hand, many of them show deep commitment and loyalty to other values and outlooks on life which combine fulfillment, acquisition of tools and achievement.

The aim of this undertaking is that these four routes – culture and art, social justice, spiritualism and the environment – will strengthen the Jewish connection to a variety of current activities and ideas, will give them inspiration from Jewish sources and integrate them into the framework of Jewish organizations. For example, a young adult who feels committed to environmental tikkun olam, would be able to volunteer on a Jewish ecological farm, proceed to run an organic cooperative in the community and wind up heading a Jewish vegan movement offering an alternative to the traditional shabbos chicken.

Moreover, from the point of view of the initiators of this project, these are not post factum approaches, but have been decided on in advance. In their eyes, this project is reciprocal and multi-directional. After years of internal establishment and formation of communities, the time has come for U.S Jewry to share in the molding of life in the 21st century in the fields of culture, spirituality and tikkun olam.

I will make my song heard from the distant land of Israel” (Shai Agnon)

Sadly, not only was I the sole representative of Israel at this event, but Israel was not mentioned even once (except at a spontaneous meeting that I headed in order to make this exact point). However, in my opinion there would be deep meaning in learning more about these developments and examining them in Israel.

There is no question that there is an immense growth in interest in all four of these fields in Israel. Over the last few years Israel has turned into a superpower in naturalism and vegetarianism, interest in the environment has become the norm, Jewish culture and art are rousing interest, and there are many with a thirst for spiritualism. The concept of “social Judaism” is widespread, and many organizations actively involved in tikkun olam get their inspiration from Jewish bookshelves.

It is worth noting that all the above-mentioned activities are unaffiliated to any particular sector – there are various different kinds of artists, both bareheaded and wearing kippot, reviving liturgical poetry (piyutim), singing of spiritual growth, composing and playing, inspired by their Jewish sources;  in organizations like Tevel B’Tzedek graduates from HaShomer HaTzair and Bnei Akiva volunteer side by side; in Jerusalem there is a popular cooking contest called “The Vegan Cholent”, in which not all contestants know what the original cholent is from home.

It transpires that these four fields enable a meeting point and an affinity between individuals, between sectors of society and communities, between elements from different periods and approaches – and all these form a deeply meaningful experience which reflects the beauty of Judaism and of Jews.

This kind of activity is “outside halacha” – in other words, it does not go against halacha but rather belongs to the general sphere of moral, humane behavior – and in this way it neutralizes the sectorial divisions that separate and detach us from one another, and the different backgrounds of the various co-activists can serve as a fertile basis for learning, conversing and doing. The multitude of different ways of carrying out these ideas in practice allows people of diverse inclinations and abilities to relate to the ideas and activities in a variety of ways, at different stages in their lives and, in addition, allows them to bond with individuals and with groups who are different to them. Along the way, a new internal Jewish language is being created in Israel, and this is a true revelation both to Israeli society and to the entire Jewish world.

Between Heaven and Earth

In my field of expertise – Judaism coupled with nature in our country and our nature as a people – I was privileged to examine this subject in the framework of a summer camp run by Teva Ivri (Jewish Nature) – an organization which I direct – in conjunction with the Society for the Protection of Nature. The camp, (actually a hike,) named “Between Heaven and Earth”, was subsidized by the UJA Federation of New York within the framework of projects mentioned in this article, in order to check their relevance to Israeli society.

Fifty high school students and graduates of religious and non-religious high schools attended the camp. The counselors selected for the camp were young people with experience in “identity-building hikes”, and it is worth noting that the very fact that such identity-building hikes are spreading and are recognized as a meaningful educational tool is directly connected to the point being made in this article. The unique method used in our camp was the chavruta type of learning (study group), in which nature and environment play a major role. Whereas traditional chavruta learning is based on a text in order to understand its meaning, and pluralistic learning adds the experience and life story of the members of the group themselves, the “Between Heaven and Earth” camp related in addition to the location in which the learning took place and its unique nature. It was in this way that we approached the experience of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai sitting alone in his cave with water and carob fruit; we got up at sunrise to an internal and external awakening; we delved into Rabbi Nachman of Breslav’s “Tale of the Lost Princess” which we related as walked along, and we made a musical kabbalat Shabbat in the very place where the idea of kabbalat Shabbat was first conceived. We discovered that this way of learning, along with the experience of being in nature, helped to build a group that was open-minded, non-judgmental and eager to learn traditional Jewish texts as a basis for discussion and even to transform learning into action (in our case, into the subject of the environment). We also discovered that all the above-mentioned topics are connected: nature, spirituality, social action and music all served as basic tenets of the hike and the participants integrated them naturally.


Spirituality, the way we relate to nature, the environment and food, Jewish culture and social justice – altogether these are a great recipe for bringing individuals and groups together in Israel, and for bonding with our fellow Jews abroad.

Although this is already happening, there is more to do. The bonds must be strengthened, directions developed, a name and a place given, initiative and leadership are needed. The potential concealed in “outside  halacha” activity is reinforced by the fact that it is also non-political. Reading “Lech Lecha” in our generation points us towards building solid bridges to and from Judaism, and this will have a positive influence on the wider world.

Let’s all hope that the next conference I attend will not necessitate a physical elevation to higher places, but will be an elevation of the spirit here in Israel, the land of our forefathers.

Notes on the Summer Program “Between Heaven and Earth” / Adi Asherman (participant)

I heard about the Summer Program “Between Heaven and Earth” quite by chance. My mother met Einat, the director of the hike, at a conference, and during the conversation Einat told about the unique summer program that she was about to launch. I naturally called her to hear more details, and although the program sounded exciting, it took me a while to decide whether or not to sign up. In the end, I signed up three days before the opening and for me it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. As an 11th grade graduate, my vacation only began on 12/7 because of exams, so I had to give up on some of the things I’d wanted to do in the vacation. The “Between Heaven and Earth” hike gave me the experience I was looking for and even more. We did so much in one week: we climbed Har Meron, we hiked along the Amud stream, we visited Safed and kibbutz Tzivon, we planned shabbat together, learned in chevrutot, sang, danced, studied interesting texts, took part in social activities, met interesting people and even had a little time to sleep.
Going out into nature and getting to know our country, while simultaneously studying Jewish and Zionist sources, enabled a true meeting with both ourselves and with our friends. One of the most meaningful things that I learned on the hike was that true bonding with nature and disconnecting from distractions form a deep affinity to one’s own inner self. In addition, leaving one’s routine behind allows you to be more open to others and thus to form bonds with them. In my opinion, nature is a powerful educational means of imparting tools for life to us. If this program hadn’t taken place in nature, it wouldn’t have succeeded in achieving its aims.
We each had our own Jewish and Israeli spirituality, and interestingly enough, that was what united us. This expressed itself in a number of ways during the hike. For example, when we finished the hike along the Amud stream, we went up to Safed and stayed in a spiritual retreat called “The House of Love and Prayer”. The couple who run the center were greatly influenced by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Once we’d eaten and attended to our physical needs, we went on to attend to our spiritual needs. Hearing the Carlebach tunes gave rise to a spurt of Jewish spirituality in each one of us. Even though we were exhausted from the hike, the music filled us with renewed strength and we all sang and danced. Another spiritual high point was on Friday night when we made a tisch (Chassidic get-together). We sang a mixture of Shabbat and Israeli songs, interspersed with stories by some of the participants of meaningful spiritual experiences they remembered. I was surprised at how many of the group were prepared to reveal their spiritual world. Every evening continued in that spirit as we sat around in a circle, playing guitars and singing. There was a really uplifting atmosphere of unity and elation.
If I had to sum up the hike in four words, I’d say: “nature”, “Jewishness”, “spirituality” and “Israel”. These four components were the core of the hike, defined its character and guided us. I think each of the participants identified with these components in one way or another and it was fascinating to see how each of us was affected differently.
It’s difficult to sum up this experience because it’s ongoing. We are still in touch with each other and we’ve already met up again. I personally can tell that I made two friends on the hike who have asked to come and experience a religious Shabbat at my house. I am so pleased that I met all the others who came on the hike and that I was privileged to get a glimpse into each one’s unique world.
Einat Kramer is the director of “Teva Ivri”, an organization for Jewish-environmental responsibility, and is a resident of Eshchar, a mixed religious and non-religious community in the Galil.


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The Tree of the Field is a Person

Jewish sustainable celebration of Trees

Wouldn’t we all wish to be like a tree? Familiar with the soil we are planted in; possessing fresh foliage and firm roots that withstand strong winds?

As the world becomes faster and more interconnected, Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish “Birthday for Trees” – celebrated this year on January 25th – invites us to stop and observe. Where have we put down our roots? What is the culture that they are growing in? How does our landscape and environment form our identity? Where do we want to raise our children?

The Mishnah describes our roots as an expression of our values in action. According to the Mishnah if we want to strengthen our roots we must reinforce our knowledge with actions. As part of this concept we can celebrate Tu B’Shvat as a day to deepen our environmental activities. Whether we choose to spend our time planting new trees or caring for old ones, taking action to reduce our consumption, spend time volunteering in the community or launching a new social action project – we will not only deepen our roots but enjoy a healthy and sustainable environment.
Citrus fruit Photo Yefet Cohen from PikiWiki website

Tu B’Shvat – the social aspect:

Tu B’Shvat first appears in Chapter 1 of the Mishnah, in Rosh Hashanah tractate.Citrus fruit Photo Yefet Cohen from PikiWiki website According to Beit Hillel Tu B’Shvat was the date used to distinguish which fruits were grown in the past year and those grown in the coming one, for the purpose of tithe – donation of one tenth of the produce to the poor.

This date was created as a result of the ancient Israelites observations of nature, as they noticed the changing seasons.

They noted that most of the winter rains had already fallen halfway through the Jewish month of Shvat, and the fresh fruits had begun to grow. Hence, they chose it to mark the boundaries between the current fruits and those of next year’s crop.

Tu B’Shvat – the spiritual aspect:

Over the last two millennia the social aspect of the festival was forgotten and preserved only within the Ashkenazi tradition as a date forbidden to fast and to eat plenty of fruit.

In the 16th century Tsfat spiritualists and Kabbalists revived the concept of a Tu B’Shvat ‘Seder’ – a festive Tu B’Shvat meal where 30 different fruits would be eaten and blessings recited within a specific order. For the Kabbalists the Seder emphasizes the spiritual aspect of nature, seeing man as a partner in the act of creation and its daily renewal, who is able to repair the world through his or her actions.

Tu B’Shvat – a national aspect:

With the beginning of the Zionist enterprise Tu B’Shvat once again evolved, gaining a new practical significance – becoming the day when children from across the country plant trees, putting down their roots figuratively and taking an active part in its building and blossoming.Photo The Religious Kibbutz Movement Archive from WikiPiki site

Photo The Religious Kibbutz Movement Archive from WikiPiki site

Tu B’Shvat– the international aspect:

In recent years, with our growing awareness of a worsening global ecological crisis Tu B’shvat has taken on a new significance as Jewish “Earth Day”.

Many Jewish communities around the world have chosen Tu B’Shvat as a time for ecological introspection and acknowledging that the destruction of nature does nothing but cut through the branch on which we sit. Tu B’Shvat allows us to take action to create a balanced world where nature and man co-exists in harmony.

Tu B’Shvat – the personal aspect:

Today Tu Bishvat is a special day uniquely combining tradition, history, spirituality, mysticism social action, Zionism and environmentalism. We all have the right – and the obligation- to pour our own personal values into this celebration, as we fuse our heritage with the current modern Israeli version of Arbor Day.

Overlooking Adolam.Photo Dov Greenblat SPNI

So what can you do to celebrate?

Overlooking Adolam.Photo Dov Greenblat SPNI

Plant a fruit tree: celebrate the traditional way. Just remember a tree is for life not just for Tu B’Shvat! Give it a few years and with the right care you enjoy its fruit at your own Tu B’Shvat Seder.

Make your own Tu B’Shvat Seder: download a Seder ceremony composed by “Teva Ivri “and invite your friends over to celebrate. You are more than welcome to join one of the Tu B’shvat Seders organized by SPNI in several locations such as Alon Tavor, the Beit- Ussishkin museum at Kibbutz Dan, and more.

Get out and enjoy nature, wherever you are: And if you’re lucky enough to live in Israel, SPNI has many activities planned, including our traditional tree planting and guided hikes around Modi’in, attended by thousands. If you live abroad look out for details of activities in your area.

Respect the elderly (trees): every tree has its own story and some trees in your neighborhood may be hundreds of years old. Tu B’Shvat is a great opportunity to do some of your own research and discover your neighborhood’s natural history. What you might find may surprise you.

Protect the environment: the environment is much more than just trees; you can volunteer in a conservation project by your local organizations, join one of the many action-oriented campaigns spearheaded by SPNI, or support SPNI’s all year round nature protection work.

Happy Holidays!


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Food for Thought – Exploring Judaism, Ethics, and Food

Teva Ivri is Israel’s leading non-profit organization promoting Jewish social-environmental responsibility.  With a variety of innovative programs and study groups for lay leaders, rabbis, and ordinary citizens, we are changing the way Israel thinks about environment, social justice, and religion.

Throughout the ages, Judaism has addressed the topic of food in a variety of contexts – what is permissible to eat, blessings before and after meals, the importance of eating in community, the prohibition of wasting food, and more.  Yet despite the wealth of Jewish sources on the subject and a growing Jewish food movement in the United States, contemporary Israeli society rarely questions the ethics of the food we eat.

Food for Thought – a series of lectures and study sessions for the religious public in Jerusalem on the topic of Judaism, Ethics, and Food – explores the environmental, social, and health issues related to our food from the perspective of Jewish pluralistic values.  Through lectures and discussions facilitated by skilled professionals, Jews of all ages and from all backgrounds grapple with challenging questions and receive a wealth of valuable information.  They leave the program empowered to take responsibility for their health, for the environment, and for humanity by making conscious food choices based in Jewish ethics.

In the fall of 2010, Teva Ivri piloted the first Food for Thought program in Jerusalem, in partnership with the B’Maaglei Tzedek and Zangveil Vegetarian organizations.  The program has since become one of our most popular programs.   For example, close to 100 people attended a session with popular Jerusalem educator Rabbi Dov Berkowitz on the topic of “Eating as an Act of Holiness.”  Rabbi Dov spoke about how and what human beings created in God’s image should eat, the connection between food and holiness, and how we approach food in general.  Hebrew-speakers can listen to the discussion here.  Rabbi Dov was joined by Miki Haimovitz, a popular media personality, who spoke about the health and environmental implications of eating meat and about the international “No Meat Mondays” initiative.

In another session, Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, Director of Sulam Yaakov Educational Institutions, introduced us to the Kashrut Yerushalmit project, a community volunteer-based kashrut supervision he has developed with the Yerushalmim Social Movement.  Based on a covenant of trust between the business and the community, the project is a new model of Kashrut – a unique process including study, emotional engagement, and strict volunteer supervision by trained community representatives and rabbis.  Rabbi Aaron explains:

“Kashrut Yerushalmit will mark a return to the days of the small village, where reputation and word of mouth were the foundation of trust.  The village square will be the World Wide Web, where community members will be able learn about the process, examine the standards, and read first-hand, dated reports from every inspection.”

Rabbi Dov Berkowitz

Two additional speakers reflect Food for Thought’s goal of promoting Jewish conversation about the links between food, society, and environment among residents of Jerusalem.  Rabbi David Rosen from Congregation Yedidya and Mrs. Yael Asor, director of the B’Maaglei Tzedek’s Social Justice Certification project spoke of their work to promote social justice in Israel’s restaurant industry.

Food has always been a central part of Jewish culture.  Now, equipped with knowledge and practical ideas for change, Jerusalemites are beginning to understand that our food choices also have an impact on the environment, the economy, and society.




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“So come do Shabbat (of the land) with us” – Did we accept the invitation?

Local Shmita

Right from the start of the Shmita year last summer, I made it my habit to spend a few days in one place or another with our “Shmita tent” – a broad, welcoming space offering people “time out” for relaxation, eating “the fruit of the land,” swapping books (we travel with a library from which people may take books), and listening and talking about all our social dreams, especially those relating to the Shmita values.  Many people came into the tent specifically to talk about how they personally chose to bring the values of Shmita into their lives: they often asked the question, “Is this considered Shmita?”  Sometimes I would immediately see a direct link between their action and the way I understand the Shmita year.  And sometimes, although I could not see any connection at first, for them it was obvious.  But sometimes (and these are my favorites) I was able to follow the path of their action from its source to its expression by them; such as when a teacher told me excitedly that her school students were keeping Shmita Notebooks, recording all the good things that happened to them each day.   She had not realized that the inventor of this idea was a career woman who decided that her personal Shmita would be to stop running in the “rat race” and to begin being grateful for what she already had!

But in reality it doesn’t matter whether the idea behind a person’s initiative is clear to me in terms of its relation to Shmita values.   For all the stories have in common that the people behind them share one thing: to try to “do Shmita” as they understand it, in ways which are meaningful to their personal moral code, in addition to (or with no connection to) any halachic obligations.

World Shmita

Nigel Savage, President of Hazon, a US organization promoting the idea of sustainable communities in the Jewish world, tracked a very interesting change in attitudes to Shmita in an article which fronted their March newsletter.   Reviewing articles about Shmita published in the New York Times during Shmita years over the past 64 years, a recent and startling change emerged.  In 1951 (the Shmita year 5711) a major article appeared explaining the heter mechira procedure which permits the “sale” of land to non-Jews to cope with the prohibitions of Shmita.  In September 2000 (on the eve of the Shmita year 5761) another article appeared that discussed the halachic debate around the matter.  An almost identical article appeared in October 2007 (the Shmita year 5768), and even then the main issue remained the “Jewish Wars” around the laws of Shmita.  In September 2014 (the current Shmita year, 5775) the traditional Shmita article was published, but this time the article was entitled ‘In Israel, Values of a Holy Respite Are Adapted for a High-Tech World,’ and was about all the Shmita-appropriate ideas and business initiatives inspired by high-tech companies. The entire article was written on a positive note with plenty of room for inspiration.

That watershed article reflects the two major trends that distinguish the current Shmita year, 5775, from its predecessors.

Changing media discourse – only good will grow for us from this

There is no doubt that the current Shmita year is characterized by a different way of talking in the Israeli media too. It seems that halachic saber rattling (which has not disappeared, but has reduced in intensity) was replaced by in-depth discussions of the nature of the Shmita year and the way in which it is relevant in Israel in the 21st century, along with descriptions of a variety of initiatives in the social, economic or environmental “Shmita spirit.”

The change in the discourse resulted from several factors that combined together. At the most practical level, the state Shmita Committee, which began its operations in the current Shmita year, gave budgetary endorsement to different halachic solutions to Shmita without defining which it considered a better solution.   In other words, the Commission realized that some residents of Israel would only eat fruits and vegetables imported from abroad, so it addressed how it could permit the sale of the land’s bounty to others, and what should be done so that all consumers could benefit from fresh and healthy fruits and vegetables. This worked to neutralize the economic dimension of making the choice between financial survival and halacha, reducing the intensity of argument so that the resultant dialogue has enabled “different species” of Shmita observance to grow.

Israeli society also arrived at the current Shmita year “ripe” for a different kind of discourse on the ideological and spiritual level.  Many members of the religious community were ready, after so many controversies in the two previous Shmita years, for a discussion of a different kind; meanwhile many members of the general public, for whom the religious controversies had always been irrelevant, made personal decisions of their own (sometimes informed by the recent social protests and their aftermath) to find a Jewish economics which could be integrated into a social Zionist identity. Connecting these two publics was the task of Israeli Shmita Initiative, begun before the Shmita year with a long series of conferences, events and seminars which created a positive buzz.   Our broad audience came from the kibbutz movement (more than 1,000 people attended the conference on the subject), from high-tech institutions (which issued a document listing 49 ways technology firms might try to fulfill the Shmita spirit), from the education sector, environmental groups, and the (previous!)  Knesset (whose Caucus for Jewish Renewal held a special session on the subject).  Bodies that perhaps would not normally have become a part of such a discussion were keen to get involved so as not to “miss the boat,” and everyone benefitted from this.  Perhaps most prominent among these was the Ministry of Religious Services, which found considerable funds to make sure its own Shmita campaign would be a part of what was happening, a campaign entitled ‘Shmita – only good will grow for us from this.’

“Truth grows from the land” – a local practice

The second distinctive feature of the current Shmita year is the proliferation of grass roots initiatives. These are people who have chosen privately, whether as an extension of their commitment to halacha or not, to work actively so that they will have what they personally consider a “real Shmita.”   Some people did so on a completely personal level – for instance reducing their hours of work, beginning to engage regularly in learning, joining a hike on the Israel National Trail, or moving to a vegetarian diet.   Others led initiatives that created a positive impact on the people around them in different ways.  We ran a competition ‘Dreams of Shmita,’ to encourage and coordinate this type of initiative; just two of the many innovative entries were a venture that led to the separation of compostable waste in one community (while maintaining the sanctity of the Shmita), and a grassroots project between Jewish and Arab women in the Gilboa region to promote peace through learning and keeping alive traditional crafts.

At the local level there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of different types of initiatives, based around every type of community.  Many community gardens were deliberately left fallow as a way of promoting unity in communities where some of the volunteers were religious. To this end the principal activities of the gardens were changed from planting and maintaining to mapping and documenting ancient trees, enhancing accessibility for disabled people and putting on communal cultural activities.   Several communities from the Hitchadshut Yehudit (Jewish Renewal) movement – an evolving and uniquely Israeli form of contemporary Jewish-Israeli identity – took on a series of Shmita year projects dealing with the connections between people, and seeking to reduce consumption.   Examples included a shmate (second hand) market, a free “garage sale” and more.

Among synagogue-based communities the Ramban synagogue in Jerusalem was notable, mobilizing the entire community with its ‘Hour of Shmita’ initiative.   Recognizing that, since most of us no longer make our living from the fields, the initiative posited that our time and our skills (rather than our fields) should be opened for everyone, even symbolically, with the result that each member of the community is donating time each week throughout the year. The Community of Zion in Jerusalem also started the year with an impressive activity: each member of the community committed, during the year, to give up comfortable “fields” of thought or habit and to open themselves to a new self-awareness “with ourselves, with our lives and with the space in which we live and the people that make it.”  The task of each community member was to select one of seven “paths,” defined and created by the community, and to select one to explore.  These paths represented new fields, often “the other,” such as the Charedim, other religions, people in need and so on.

Only lack of space prevents me listing all the Shmita projects in which Israeli youth were mobilized.  But a particularly lovely example is the Youth Movement, Zameret, which established a project called ‘Dropping the Face, Changing the Status,’ in which its members decided to forgo Facebook for a year, so that the real world would replace their “virtual land.”   Also a variety of groups have joined with Leket Israel in picking fruit going to waste locally for the benefit of the needy, a lovely example of a local translation of the commandment of Shmita.

These and many more like them are all practical initiatives “on the ground,” the result of mobilizing individuals and local leadership. They took on great importance because the state’s Shmita project, which showed real promise, failed with last summer’s war in Gaza, the disintegration of the government and the recent election campaign. Alongside the simple fact that large national structures are more cumbersome and slower to adapt to changes, this had important implications for us.  It revealed a picture of a generation looking for something, uncompromising, unwilling to put up with the built-in disconnect between the utopian vision offered by Shmita and its poor expression – for anyone who does not have a plot of land – in real life.  On the one hand, we are dealing with a generation in search of personally-useful spiritual ideas; on the other, they are trying to be part of something bigger which “happens now.”  I think this is a significant statement that should lead the way forward.

Every Shabbat (of the land) has a Motzei Shabbat

Parashat Behar is located in the heart of the Shmita year, with the end almost in sight. Another moment and we will snowball into six more years of action.  To continue this Jewish dynamic of action and relaxation – the six years of action and the Shabbat of the land – requires steps which ensure the cycle happens in our lives, whilst we learn and internalize the social and personal process we went through during the Shmita year.  In my view this matter has to focus in two directions, reflecting the two major successes this year:

A public Hakhel event (in ancient times, the mitzvah of assembling all Jewish men, women and children during Succot, after the end of the Shmita year, to hear the reading of the Torah by the king of Israel), well-publicized and documented, which renews the covenant between God, the people and the country, will close the year, providing inspiration in the years to come.  The main dialogue of the Hakhel will be around the idea of a “covenant,” a covenant between us.

The complementary inspiration for us as individuals will be found by translating “gifts for the poor” from its ancient agricultural basis to reflect the reality of our times: acts of social tikkun olam (repairing the world).   In this we will focus on commandments such as ma’aser (the 10% tithe given to the poor), which effectively promotes unity with the weak in society. We will encourage people to give a “tithe” of social vision and spiritual commitment, contributing actively to improve society, and creating a sense of unity and mutual support.

May this year be merely the beginning of the process, so that the more we will hold to Shmita and Jubilee and our inheritance, the more will be guaranteed to us the promise: ‘And if you shall perform My statutes, keep My ordinances and perform them then you will live on the land securely. And the land will then yield its fruit and you will eat to satiety, and live upon it securely.’ (Leviticus 25:18-19)

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Cultural Dreams of Shmita


The mitzvah of shmita, as it appears in the Bible and in Rabbinical thought, commanded all the agriculturalists in the land of Israel to abandon their fields once every seven years, forsake its fruit, let the land lie fallow and at rest, and allow all who wished, man or beast, to come into the field and partake in the blessings of the earth. The year of shmita concluded with a magnificent ceremony that took place in the eighth year, when, during the holiday of Sukkot, there was a great gathering of the people of the land, who would come to the Temple to hear the King of Israel read the Torah to his people, a ceremony called Hakhel. The crowd then dispersed, each to his own land, to begin the cycle of work and Sabbath all over again.

In this way the mitzvot of shmita presented a cyclical system, seven years long, that provided a nation with the opportunity to consider anew the building blocks of life: the relationship to land and property, to work, to God, and to the other – neighbors, the poor, the convert, and even animals.

And Now…

All of us can recall formative years in our lives. The kind that after them nothing is as it was, years in which we learn to understand the true value of things or make crucial, even fateful decisions. Shmita is an ambitious attempt to bring about this kind of year on the collective level, a year in the life of a nation that examines the very basic notions of our lives and leads to a more deserving society in every aspect.

Shmita shows us that the source of strength and blessing does not lie within but comes from a source greater than ourselves – the land is on a sabbatical for God, we refrain from working in the fields, and still there is abundance and plenty. The idea of letting go for a year of the strain of work in favor of family, community, culture and spirit, ignites the imagination on a personal, communal, and national level. In terms of the environment, shmita offers a radical view – a yearlong cessation from looking at our partners in creation in a purely utilitarian way, and of course providing the opportunity for the resources of nature to recover from over use. Shmita of money expands our view of the financial world and suggests that each person deserves a “new start” economically, if they have reached a desperate or hopeless situation.

Over the course of the past year hundreds of initiatives on the part of individuals and groups have taken place under the auspices of “Shmita Yisraelit” that have drawn from the ideas contained within shmita and applied them to our current reality. There are those who have “abandoned” their parking spot, others who have written a diary expressing their appreciation for the good that befalls them, those who have become vegetarian or established a facility for second hand items in their neighborhoods. Broad-based volunteer initiatives and activities to bring about agreements regarding debt for thousands, have led to real change in our reality, and groups of learners have led to changes in themselves. And the good news? Shmita is still here for another few months. So if you have a dream for bettering your society or environment or you just have a true desire to slow things down and look at the choices you have made in your life – now is the time. Happy shmita year!




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Will we choose well? My personal campaign

I do not know exactly when my inner emotional life first became coupled with our national situation. It certainly wasn’t as a child or teenager – when I was completely self-centered around my personal life experiences. Later, as a bleary-eyed young mother I had begun speaking about the “situation,” but with the kind of emotional detachment of someone who has too little time and is overloaded building home and career. But somehow and at some time it just happened: I saw the direct connection between what happens to us as a people, and what I was going through personally.

Still, it surprised me recently how I metaphorically fell apart when the government literally did.

There were reasons why the folding of the current government affected me.  After two years of hard work to promote a meaningful Shmita year and raise ethics at a national level, winning the commitment of three ministers and a deputy minister and partnering with Knesset members of all parties – all of a sudden there was nothing, a vacuum.

But this reality did not break my spirit.  My difficulty was with the political atmosphere but normal life continued in the social justice arena. When I set up the “Israeli Shmita Initiative” I planned this year as one of unity, of connecting people, of joint mobilization to highlight the good that we share. The reality of elections achieves pretty much the opposite of this, and the current election system is particularly harsh.

It took me a while to realize that elections affect us only at a superficial level, leaving intact the many choices each of us makes on an inner level every day. The values of Shmita reside within us, where they retain the potential to influence society for the better. And I had a tool – our Israeli Shmita Tent.

So what is this Israeli Shmita Tent?  It is, as the name suggests, a huge tent with which we travel around the country, offering people a space for relaxation, eating fruit, swapping books (our ‘Take and Keep’ library), and a space for shared discussion about our social dreams. With our Tent we will go anywhere we are invited, and stay a few days, getting to know the place and its people, and discussing the possibilities of positive action arising from the values of Shmita.

The Tent’s journey began early in the year, but the election made us raise our game – really plowing the length and breadth of the country, reminding us how good it all is. Here are some of the stories I’ve collected along the way:

On the pilgrimage “Connections on the Road to Jerusalem”, I pitched my tent next to the Teva employees, who took part in the march as representatives of the business sector: a commercial company which chooses to invest in sending its employees on a two day march calling for unity in Israeli society. Definitely exciting.

At Festival Indie-Negev, which I went to for the local culture (not for corporate sponsorships), I came across an interesting choice made by one of the festival’s producers who made teshuva, but did not cancel the event (which takes place on Shabbat) but placed alongside it a ‘Jewish complex’ where people could pray, hear Kiddush and engage in spiritual activities. It was packed throughout the whole of Shabbat, and I got into deep conversations of inestimable value.

In Yeruham I met a community which chose not to give in to the stigma attaching to many a southern town. Cultural and intellectual life is vibrant, there is huge social entrepreneurship in evidence, and a variety of institutions combine learning and practice: these are the result of just some of the wonderful choices of the local people.  If I had not settled in the Galilee, for sure I would pack my bags and move.

In Jerusalem we pitched our tent at the First Station complex – a commercial complex which is trying to reinvent itself as Jerusalem’s latter-day ‘forum.’  In seven sessions around seven themes we met many residents of the Holy City, and found creative ways to imbue the values of Shmita in their lives.

There were more: the ecological farm in Modi’in which completely recycles all its waste; the Zionist Youth Congress which continues to bring relevant meaning to Zionism today; the Emek Hefer march that brings people closer to nature; and many more.

So whether you are happy with the result of the Israeli elections or not, I hope that all of us remember that the real choices which matter are those we make every day – not just at election time, and that the values inherent in Shmita invite us to chose good!

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Tu Be’Shvat, a milestone on the route of the Shmita

Often we work towards a goal, and along the way identify a point we build to that seems to be a climax: the start of the Shmita year represented something of a climax for us at the Israeli Shmita Initiative, after months of hard work preparing for it.   But of course it was merely the beginning, a milestone or waymarker and, as we continue our climb, we never reach the summit!   Each is a step on an ongoing journey.   Tu B’Shevat, which has just passed, was certainly a landmark – if not a peak – of our Shmita year.  Because it is all about nature, the day has in recent times become a popular springboard for Jewish socio-environmental action, what I like to call our “Jewish Earth Day.”   It is a wonderful time to reinforce the connection between humans and nature that is inherent in Judaism: as the Torah has it, “Man is a tree of the field.”

So we give great focus to Tu B’Shevat, and this year we produced a special seder for the Shmita year with the co-operation of the Ministry of Agriculture & Rural Development and Ministry of Religious Services, producing some 20,000 copies which were provided to schools, synagogues and communities and anyone else who we could reach!   We were a central point of contact for so many people wanting to run communal seders, or to find out where they could attend one; over three hundred were held from Yerucham in the south to Shlomi in the north.

But we are all about personal interaction with people, so just before Tu B’Shevat we took our now-famous Shmita Tent to Jerusalem and set up store at the the First Station, the hip former Jerusalem Railway Station.   We had a great few days and met so many people: young and old, environmental activists, religious, secular – you name it, we met them and talked with them and listened to their ideas and shared what Shmita and Tu B’Shevat mean and can be in modern Israeli society.   And we had the good fortune to be able to spread our message of social and environmental Judaism.

On Tu B’Shevat we were pleased to give out the prizes in our Dreams of Shmita contest, in which sixty-four projects were submitted to us.   Of these, forty-nine had been chosen to go forward forward and six were awarded a “prize” of assistance from us in the form of practical help and modest funding assistance.   Examples of the winning projects include a community garden planned and arranged during the Shmita year (but to be built and planted after the year ends), a community house built by a group of students at Har Hazofim, and a grassroots project between Jewish and Arab women in the Gilboa region to promote peace through learning and keeping alive traditional crafts.

Our Shmita Tent has become vital to who we are and what we do, not just at Tu B’Shevat.   For one thing it is the place where we really impact people, perhaps those who never knew about Shmita, or never intended to learn about it: the passers-by who are tempted to come and see what is going on when we pitch our tent!   Travelling the length and breadth of Israel throughout the Shmita year, to diverse events and communities, the tent has been a magnet for members of the public with its unique, warm, communal atmosphere.   Whether there happens to be something organised going on in the tent, or it is a quiet period between events, people who come into our tent find themselves enveloped in an atmosphere of informal learning and endless possibilities as they pick up books and leaflets and chat interact with the people they find there.   People have told us how our tent enabled them to realise, for the first time, the potential of the Shmita idea to benefit themselves and society in ways beyond the agricultural origin of the mitzva.  That makes us proud.

But as a democratic space of equality and possibility, where boundaries between teacher and learner are in constant flux, the tent has changed us too!   Every place we went with the tent has had a connection to a particular aspect of Shmita – sometimes by design, and sometimes emerging unexpectedly.   We ourselves have learned how the ideas of Shmita extend, almost without limit, potentially influencing positively societal values such as unity, local culture and environment.   Although we always knew that Shmita was a great concept, we have been surprised to find out it was even bigger than we realised!

Onwards and upwards!


For more information, visit http://ishmita.org.il/en/ or contact info@tevaivri.org.il; you can also find us on Facebook.




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Tu B’Shevat in Shmita

Marked the world over, Tu B’Shevat, literally the 15th of Shevat, falls on Wednesday 4th February in 2015. As many people know, it marks the beginning of a ‘New Year for Trees.’   But what does this mean?

Though cold and wet (for Israelis used to warmer weather), at this time of year there is much green growth and colorful flowers begin to blossom, so winter is not a time of plants dying back as is the case in many colder climes.   Just now, the earliest-blooming trees in Eretz Yisrael are emerging from whatever brief sleep they took – if they did – and beginning a new fruit-bearing cycle.   This is important because the mitzvot of the various tithes that must be separated from produce grown in the land of Israel differ from year to year in the seven-year Shmita cycle, and Tu B’Shevat is the point at which a budding fruit is considered to belong to the next year of the cycle.

Historically there have not been particular traditions associated with this day, but following the practice of the Kabbalists of 16th century Safed, it is now often marked by eating fruit, particularly from the ‘Seven Kinds’ that the Torah refers to as comprising the bounty of the Holy Land: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates.

Because it is all about nature, the day has in recent times become a popular springboard for Jewish socio-environmental action, reinforced by the connection between man and nature that is inherent in Judaism.   There is much to be gained from a day on which we remember that “Man is a tree of the field” (Deuteronomy 20:19) and reflect on the lessons we can derive from our place in balance with nature.   In fact the idea of marking the day by planting trees, only began in the last century, being taken up throughout the year by the tree-planting scheme of the Jewish National Fund (JNF), Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael.   But even in the Shmita year when we cannot plant trees in Israel, there is much else we can do.   “Let’s do Tu B’Shevat” is a collection (in Hebrew) of learning and activity materials about Judaism, the environment and protecting trees which we produced with the Ministry of Agriculture & Rural Development – you can access it here.

In recent years a number of organizations have begun to write Tu B’Shevat seders which may be followed through a festive meal comprising the Seven Kinds, something like a parallel of the Pesach (Passover) seder.   This year we have produced a special seder for the Shmita year with the co-operation of the Ministry of Agriculture & Rural Development and Ministry of Religious Services.   Written in Hebrew, 20,000 copies have been produced, intended primarily for Israelis for whom Shmita applies, and hundreds of schools, synagogues and communities have received copies already.   But anyone with an interest in the seder may either download it here or request a hard copy (while stocks last)!   If you are in Israel and would like to join a communal seder, we already know of a hundred being held from Yerucham in the south to Shlomi in the north.   To find one near you, contact us, or arrange your own in your community and tell us!   After all, who doesn’t like to eat fruits and sing!

We are on the move for Tu B’Shevat!   The team here at the Israeli Shmita Initiative is off to Jerusalem where we will be from 29-31 January with our famous Shmita Tent.   The main event will be at the The First Station.   There is no better place in Jerusalem for us to be.   The First Station, the former Jerusalem Railway Station, is the hip, new public space for Jerusalemites with agendas, the modern Forum of the city.   The idea of such a public space is to give people a space for their voices, and to come together to hear each other.   Our tent is a Shmita-related microcosm of this wonderful idea.   If you are nearby – come and see us!   We’d love to see you!

The following week, on the Friday after Tu B’Shvat itself, we are moving our tent to the city of Modi’in, midway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, to the Hava & Adam Eco-Educational Farm.   We expect to have an equally exciting time with the people of Modi’in, in joint study, workshops and fun!

On top of that, our website is brim-full of ideas and lessons to make Tu B’Shevat the highlight of this Shmita year.


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Teva Ivri collaborates with Hazon on publication of elemental Shmita text

We are proud to partner with Hazon on the translation and publication of a new Hebrew-English edition of the 1909 essay by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935), the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the British Mandatory Palestine. The essay is the introductory text to his book on Shmita, entitled Shabbat Ha’Aretz, or Sabbath of the Land.

From the Hazon website:

Rav Kook advocated for new halakhic approaches to Shmita in the context of the Zionist agricultural revival…His essay is a classic of authentic religious environmentalism, a meditation on the relationship between ancient legal structures and the deep spiritual life that they embody.

To purchase Shabbat Ha’Aretz : info@tevaivri.org.il .

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Shabbat Behar: Ready, set, LET GO!

The Israeli Shmita Declaration
The ancient mandate of Shmita obligates all farmers in the Land of Israel, once every seven years, to leave their fields fallow, relinquish ownership of the produce, let the soil rest, and enable all people (and animals, both wild and domestic) to take part in the land’s blessing. During this year, financial debts are cancelled, and people receive the opportunity to start over in a new period of financial and social freedom.

During Shmita, property assumes less importance, time is less pressured, and nature becomes much more than a resource to be exploited. Shmita presents an alternative to the race of modern life and is characterized by love of the people and Land of Israel, a heightened sense of social responsibility, and a framework for environmental practice. Shmita invites us to renew quality of life in all spheres of reality, through a unique public effort.

It is a year of social involvement, spiritual and ethical renewal, and environmental reflection.

It is a year of brotherhood and sisterhood, culture, spirit, family, and community.

It is a gateway in time, once in seven years, to renew the covenant between humans and earth.

It is a year that leaves a distinct impression on the subsequent six years.

Recognizing that the values of Shmita are fundamental to education in Israel, and with an understanding that with the return of the Jewish people to Zion, the Shmita year can now be actualized, we, the undersigned, seek to revitalize the Shmita year and establish it as a year of individual, social, communal, and national significance.

Almost half a year ago, the “Israeli Shmita Declaration” copied above was signed in Tel Aviv by the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi David Lau, as well as tens of representatives of Jewish identity organizations, social activism NGOs, educational institutions, and businesses, marking the launch of the groundbreaking Israeli Shmita Initiative. At the launch event, round table discussion groups addressed the question “What is Shmita?” in the context of education, economy, welfare, environment, social justice, Israel-Diaspora relations, national unity, local community-building, and the business world. Shortly after, a special session in the Knesset featured ministers and MKs (led by MK Ruth Calderon, Chair of the Opposition, and MK Yitzchak Herzog) stating their commitment to promote a meaningful Shmita year in Israel. Since then, the above-mentioned conference participants and government officials have been busy working together to build a wide-scale coalition that will effectively put the Shmita year back on the Jewish calendar year in the modern State of Israel, as a time of self-reflection, social involvement, and environmental responsibility. It is called “Israeli Shmita.”

What is it about the Shmita year that is driving so many people to reconsider their lifestyle and that of Israeli society in general?

A Utopian Idea
The mitzvah of Shmita, as it appears in Behar, this week’s Torah portion, is part of a seven-year cycle that shapes the way the Jewish nation relates to the building blocks of life – G-d, land and possessions, work, the other (neighbor, poor person, convert, and animal). It expands the notion of Shabbat, a time of rest and peace, from the individual sphere to the national sphere, as Rav Kook writes in Shabbat Ha’aretz:

Life can only be perfected through the affording of a breathing space from the bustle of everyday life. The individual shakes himself free from ordinary weekday life at short and regular intervals-on every Sabbath…What the Sabbath achieves regarding the individual, the Shmita achieves with regard to the nation as a whole. A year of solemn rest is essential for both the nation and the land, a year of peace and quiet without oppressor and tyrant…It is a year of equality and rest, in which the soul reaches out towards divine justice, towards God who sustains the living creatures with loving kindness. There is no private property and no punctilious privilege but the peace of God reigns over all in which there is the breath of life. Sanctity is not profaned by the exercise of private acquisitiveness over all this year’s produce, and the covetousness of wealth stirred up by commerce is forgotten. For food – but not for commerce.

The idea of a conscious society that scrutinizes and challenges its own conduct in the most basic areas of life and spirit on a regular basis is an inspiration for many people who feel that today’s Israel would greatly benefit from such a process.

On a personal level, the idea of Shmita challenges the western consumer ethic to which we have grown accustomed in recent generations. Shmita teaches us that the source of our strength and blessing is not rooted in the individual. The land rests for G-d, we rest from laboring in the fields – and still we enjoy abundance. Implicit in the concept of Shmita is the understanding that our personal occupations and possessions are not what define us – wealth, happiness, health, and abundance are Divine gifts, available to all in equal measure. The idea of taking a break from the “yoke” of work for a year (the farmer of the past) for the good of one’s family, community, culture, and spirit, captures the imagination of many.

Shmita also offers a radical environmental perspective – a break for an entire year from what is ordinarily a purely utilitarian relationship with the natural world. Shmita offers a space in which we can both acknowledge nature’s gifts and enable natural resources to regenerate after an extended period of use (or overuse, as the case may be). Likewise, the concept of debt forgiveness in the Shmita year, which does not appear in Parshat Behar, expands this idea of restoration to include the economic world, and offers every person an opportunity for a financial “jump-start.”

Why now?
What is different about this upcoming Shmita year? Why is the time ripe to bring the deeper ideas of Shmita into the light?

The wealth of ideas and values that Shmita encompasses, of which only a few are mentioned here, provide a welcome complement to the typical Shmita-year topics of Kashrut and gardening (not relevant for many Israelis). In general, Shmita is characterized by tedious and temporary mechanisms designed to cope with the logistics of the Shmita year. In order for foundational change to occur, now and throughout the next stage in the Shmita cycle, individuals, organizations, and institutions must take an active part in the process.

Israelis appear to be ready and eager to do just that. The upcoming 5775 Shmita year has already begun to inspire a host of local and national initiatives spearheaded by Israelis seeking social and environmental transformation.

The reason for the new-found interest is varied. Five years ago, the whole topic of Jewish identity for secular people was less developed. Likewise, the public call for social justice. The last national elections, along with the social struggles of the past two years, set the stage for some real processes of deep change in Israel. The general Israeli public is now engaged in an ongoing national conversation about social-economic identity. The conjunction of Shmita year with a climate of political and social openness invites the possibility of applying Jewish social-environmental values to the endeavor to strengthen the Jewish democratic nation.

For the religious public, it seems that more and more people are seeking a deeper meaning to Shmita – to take Shmita a step beyond the factional conflicts surrounding issues of Kashrut and agricultural industry. They wish to apply this mitzvah in as many facets of life as possible, expanding the halachic conversation to one that touches upon the spirit of the commandment and its contemporary implications.

The Israeli Shmita Project
For all of these seekers, there is a practical address for organizing and doing in preparation for a meaningful Shmita year. In previous Shmita years, some individuals and organizations did attempt to raise awareness about environmental, social and economic issues connected to the values of Shmita. Most of them did not succeed, primarily because began during the Shmita year, initiated by very busy people who did not coordinate with others and simply tacked the Shmita concept on to what they were already doing. Israeli Shmita is different. In 2013, over a year before Shmita, the initiative began to bring together educators, leaders, and government officials. Most importantly, it provides an unprecedented framework for grassroots activists and local and national government agencies to work together.

As the 5775 Shmita year approaches, the Israeli Shmita initiative encourages us all – individuals and communities alike – to embark upon a course of study and action that bring the Torah values of Shmita into our everyday lives. Join a Shmita leadership program, or establish a Beit Midrash in a local synagogue or community center. Or you can jump on board one of the wide-ranging community programs supported by the Israeli Shmita initiative, such as the Shmita Debt Relief program, in which designated funds will support a unique Shmita year economic recovery program, in which debt forgiveness is the first step on the road to financial rehabilitation for thousands of Israeli families in severe need. Another community initiative, spearheaded by the Center for Halacha and Instruction, calls for communities to establish volunteer time banks, in which community members “deposit” hours of their time dedicated for the welfare of the community (around an hour a week). The “bank” will be operated in a community framework for maximal optimization of the volunteers.

Basically, choose any format you want to ensure that you and your community reach the Shmita year well-prepared with activities that draw people together and nourish local culture and spirit.

I will end with a wish that Shmita will bring an air of unity and peace to Jews in Israel and round the world, as articulated by the Kli Yakar, a rabbi, poet, and Torah commentator from the turn of the 16th century:

The year of Shmita…promotes a sense of fellowship and peace through the suspension of cultivation, even for the needy of your people, for one is not allowed to exercise over any of the seventh year produce the right of private ownership. And this is undoubtedly a primary factor in promoting peace since most dissension originates from the attitudes of ‘mine is mine,’ one person claiming ‘it is all mine’ and the other also claiming ‘it is all mine.’ But in the seventh year all are equal, and this is the real essence of peace.
– Kli Yakar, on Devarim 31:12

May we all merit peace and fellowship during the upcoming Shmita year.

For more details, to receive study materials, or to discuss ideas, please contact us at info@tevaivri.org.il. Visit our website (Hebrew) or find us on Facebook.

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