Living A Year of Shabbat: How GatherDC is Embracing Rest and How You Can Too

by Rabbi Ilana Zietman / February 23, 2022

The words "Living a year of shabbat, Shmita, How GatherDC is embracing rest - and how you can too, Rabbi Ilana Zeitman" over a background of leaves

The idea of resting for an entire year as if it were Shabbat might conjure up certain images. For me, sleeping in without an alarm, wearing cozy PJ’s all day, making challah french toast and other comfort foods, reading just “for fun,” having casual plans with friends, and most importantly of all—not working, come to mind. 

While many of our weekends look just like this, we at GatherDC have been taking on another kind of Shabbat-inspired rest… a time frame Jewish tradition calls Shmita, or, literally, “release.” 

(P.S.: If you haven’t heard of Shmita, it’s okay. Since ancient times when it was only practiced in the land of Israel, it has largely fallen out of practice until more recently.) 

Shmita is an ancient biblical tradition of letting the land rest from the work of our hands and forgiving personal and societal debts (see Exodus and Deuteronomy excerpts below, respectively). It’s intended to be a total environmental and economic reset that comes every seven years, just as Shabbat comes every seven days. As it turns out, we are currently in one of these special sabbatical years and have been since Rosh Hashanah, when we started the Jewish year of 5782. 


Exodus 23: 10-11

Six years you will sow your land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh you must let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild animals eat. You shall do the same with your vineyards and your olive groves.

Deuteronomy 15:1-2

Every seventh year you must practice remission of debts. This will be the nature of the remission: every creditor shall remit the due that he claims from their fellow.


Since we’re now several months into 5782, I thought I’d share how our own Shmita experiment is going and what we’ve been learning from it. 

First, we at Gather know we aren’t in the business of farming or banking, but we ARE in the business of interpreting Judaism for our time, and finding ways to bring its wisdom into our daily lives. Therefore, our Shmita year was always going to look different than the one laid out in the Torah. 

As we entered into the second year of the COVID pandemic, we decided we needed to find a way to bring rest and release to our team and see how we can help others to do the same. Shmita came at the perfect time to inspire and support us in this quest. 

We began by asking the question, “What is rest?” 

Thankfully, Jewish tradition has asked these kinds of big questions, many times over. 

To start, one of the main ways the Torah describes the origins of Shabbat, our weekly day of rest, is the following, “In six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God ceased from work [shabbat] and was replenished [vayinafash]” (Exodus 31:17). 

The word “shabbat” used as a verb doesn’t mean “rest.” It actually means “to stop,” and the end goal of it all is not the rest itself but to be “replenished.” If Shabbat is a day of rest, the kind of rest it’s talking about involves stopping in order to be renewed; physically, for sure, but also, mentally and emotionally. 

And yet, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once warned that taking a break on Shabbat is not about giving us the energy to do more or even better work later in the week. He wrote in his Shabbat manifesto, The Sabbath, “Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work.” 

We engage in rest on Shabbat not to enhance our weekday working selves, but to give us a taste of another way of existing all the time.The rabbis of our tradition refer to Shabbat as “me’ein olam habah,” “a taste of the world to come.” Rest has immediate practical implications for sure, but it can also be more transformative in the long run! 

Similarly, GatherDC felt no matter how we spent our Shmita year, the Shabbat of all Shabbats, we did not want it to be in service of doing more for productivity’s sake. Shabbat and Shmita call for a paradigm shift—one in which we invest in ourselves, one another, and the world to change things up for the better. So, we knew that unless our Shmita year served as an opportunity to live and work differently, it wouldn’t quite be fulfilling its mission. 

Given this, the model of rest and release that we decided to use for our Shmita year includes some of the following: 

  • Releasing the burdens of common “shoulds” in favor of the things that feel authentic and motivating to us and those we serve;
  • Exploring new ways to enrich our own Jewish lives;
  • Simply having fun in our lives inside and outside of work!

We’re accomplishing some of these goals through structural means like holding special team retreats, designating time for all of us to get to work on projects that never get our immediate attention, doubling down on our Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice goals, incorporating detailed Shmita learning into team meetings and our external curricula, and even providing extra vacation time to our team.

We’re also trying to address our goals by infusing them into our work culture by being mindful of why we plan the experiences we do, intentionally saying “no” to things that don’t actually serve our mission, sharing with each other Jewish experiences we think we would each enjoy outside the context of our professional lives (and providing support to make those happen), and offering community learning and action experiences that touch on the larger societal issues Shmita emphasizes. 

All in all, observing a Shmita year with others is making a difference in our relationship to work, community, and personal lives. I’ll speak for myself when I say it has already made me focus on measuring success by quality over quantity; seeing and relating to my coworkers in a much more holistic way; noticing what work policies should be in place to enable people to be at their happiest, most creative, and most bold inside and outside of work; not feeling guilty for taking a real lunch break in the middle of the work day, and thinking even more than I usually do about ways I can let the environment rest and how to help others relieve their debilitating debt. 

By sharing this with all of you, I hope you can also take on something from the Shmita year that can allow you to let go of something that is getting in your way of feeling fully whole in this otherwise challenging and strange time, and bring in something that fills you up instead. 

Whatever change you make doesn’t have to be drastic like moving across the country (although we applaud you folks who left us for the West Coast!), nor should it involve checking out of daily life and its responsibilities. Shmita is about stopping some things and taking on others within the very context of your daily life to provide all of us with an ongoing experience of renewal and wellbeing. 

If it helps to make doing something for Shmita more realistic, Jewish tradition tells us that observing the limits of Shmita for an entire year is supposed to be hard. It’s one thing to let go of what have become normalized ways of living for a day, a week, or a month (as we might on Shabbat once a week), but a whole year where the point is to do less, to make less, to move away from transactional models of relating to other people and the planet—it’s hard, and may come with tricky consequences because it’s either how we’re used to operating in the world or it helps us feel accomplished. About the one who fully observes Shmita, our sages ask, “Can you conceive a person mightier than them?” (Vayikra Rabbah 1). 

Rest and the ensuing open-endedness it comes with—as it truly is meant to be lived out according to Jewish tradition!—involves a release, a shmita, of some order, certainty, and security. But, this bold rest/release can be the thing that brings us back to living a life of actual fulfillment, generosity, and possibility, especially while in a pandemic. 

I hope our example will inspire you to explore this quite radical practice of Shmita for yourself. If you’d like ideas of how to make Shmita your own, I suggest this comprehensive guide from our friends at Hazon and welcome you to reach out to us, too!  



About the author: Rabbi Ilana Zietman is GatherDC’s Community Rabbi. She loves meeting new people and creating real and meaningful connections with them. When Rabbi Ilana isn’t officially Gathering, she can be found cooking in her kitchen, practicing yoga, going on hikes, and desperately searching for good pizza in DC (seriously, help her find some!).



The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.