Shmita: My Modern Day Jewish Reset Button

by Lois Kimmel / June 30, 2022

After almost two years of working and living from home, I was burnt out. I didn’t enjoy any of the hobbies I previously did. I avoided spending time with friends. I felt stressed all the time. Something drastic needed to change. With the Great Resignation happening all around me I witnessed young millennials quitting their jobs. Their reasons for leaving varied: Sometimes for a better position and other times to try something totally different. Here’s the thing—I really like my job. But I was tired. Tired of the computer, email, and sitting at a desk every day. I needed a change. 

I turned to Judaism, more specifically the Jewish calendar, for some wisdom. Every seven years, the Bible commands us to take a Shmita or a sabbatical year (see Exodus 23:10-11). During this year, we ideally refrain from working the land, we forgive all debts, and we generally just chill. Kind of like a year-long Shabbat for us and the earth. We believe Jewish people have been doing this for a long time, although since being dispersed around the world we haven’t followed the traditional farming or economic requirements of a Shmita year for centuries. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t alternative and modern ways to observe a special year and take a break. 

A Shmita year seemed to be what I needed. Rest. Extended rest. Rest that was more than a vacation. So, just like the ancient Israelites who worked in agriculture would let their fields sit idle, I was going to do the same by letting my computer sit idle. I decided to take a six-month sabbatical from my office job. 

At first, I had mixed feelings. Yes, it was nice not to set the alarm. But I felt unnerved, having every day totally empty. It’s hard to feel like you are living a life of purpose when you’re not working. It was even a little scary. I had weeks on end in my Google calendar without a meeting or event scheduled. I imagine the ancient Israelites felt the same way. Yes, we are grateful for the time to rest. But we can’t help but be tempted by the idle land or computer calling to us to just do a little work. We both had to put our livelihoods on hold for some time.  

I learned the importance of three things during my sabbatical: friends, Shabbat, and land. 

  1. Friends. Lots of us in our 20s and 30s struggle to identify and find community (I mean, that’s why we all feel a connection to GatherDC). During the sabbatical, I questioned if I could have a purpose in life without work. I know it sounds cheesy, but I learned that being a good friend can give me purpose. Strengthening friendships, meeting new people, and just being there for others became so important to me. 
  2. Shabbat. During the pandemic, we all went through that phase of not knowing what day of the week it was—remember that? I had the same thing happen during the sabbatical. Without work, weekdays and weekends had the potential to meld together. Shabbat offered a different, more holy rest than my weekday rest. Yes, there are different types of rest. Watching bad TV and reading Twitter all day is restful. But Shabbat forced me to have a spiritual rest. A rest from my rest almost. The ritual of lighting candles distinguished the days, but also gave me time to reflect on myself and the world. 
  3. Land. I did a lot of thinking about Shmita. Since it traditionally is an agricultural holiday, I thought about how we treat our land and the impact of farming and how we eat on the environment around us. Shmita is all about giving the land a rest. Since I usually don’t work on the land, I used my sabbatical to get to know the land. I volunteered and lived at Pearlstone Farms in Maryland for six weeks. This Jewish farm had multiple fields of vegetables, orchards, and animals. Volunteering at Pearlstone taught me how difficult farming can be physically and mentally. Farming is connected to the Jewish calendar in a way I never understood before. I now understand how our ancestors who raised sheep and harvested wheat worked back-breaking jobs to feed the community. I finally understood why in Judaism we have different prayers for different foods, and not just one universal prayer for food. Each individual plant requires a tremendous amount of care and should be singled out for its magical-ness when we consume it. 

Now that I’m back at work, I feel like I understand the classic Jewish folktale about the man who complains that his house is too crowded and the rabbi has him bring a series of animals into his home. Once the man finally removes the animals and returns to where he was before, the house is less crowded than before even though it is the same. I was sick, tired, and burnt out at work. I changed things completely during my sabbatical and am working again; my life is back to what it was before. Nothing major has changed but after my Shmita break, I feel like life is less stressful. This time away made me appreciate things. I just needed a rest beyond rest. A deep rest beyond what vacation time could give me. A Shmita rest, a Jewish rest. 

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