Rosh Hashanah Shemitah Seder 5775

By Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin

To be shared, celebrated and enjoyed!

This seder is meant to be a template to be used and adapted as celebrants desire.

Please do share any adaptations, improvements, suggestions, etc. with me.

Ever since the first breath of creation, time has unfolded in cycles of seven. Six days reach their crescendo in the seventh day, Shabbat – the Sabbath, the day of rest. Six years reach their crescendo in the seventh year, Shemitah – the sabbatical, the year of renewal. Seven cycles of seven years reach their crescendo in the Jubilee year, the ultimate enactment of re-creation.

All three call forth nostalgic images of Eden, when humanity lived in abundance, peace, equity and ease.  All offer a way of partial return. But there are differences among them: Jubilee is more fantasy than experience, more vision than practice. And while it remains part of our sacred narrative, it has nonetheless fallen out of our sacred calendar.

Shabbat, on the other hand, is a constant presence. It is celebrated weekly, as time apart, 25-hours of a lived dream dimension. We enter Shabbat by leaving the work-a-day world and cross into a domain that is edenic, “a taste of the world to come.”  We are at leisure, eat well, avoid strife and pretend to create one world, diminishing the boundaries that daily divide us.

Shemitah sits between these two. Neither a fantasy nor a constant presence, it is both a vision of a new reality and a practice to be lived in here-and-now. It happens in the same time and space as all other years, only we are to live this year differently, more equitably, more fully, more intentionally than the six years before. It is a year of harmony and celebration with the earth, when the land of Israel rests from the agricultural labors imposed upon her yet when she yields sufficient goodness for us all to thrive. It is a year of commonplace manna, when food is ours for the taking, but modestly, temperately, with a deep sense of gratitude and awareness; when debts are forgiven and there is equity for all; when property boundaries are suspended and all becomes once again part of the Commons. It is, in short, a year of rebooting, recalibration and realigning our assumptions about property, land use, economic justice and social equity. Not as a dream but as a reality.

Rosh Hashanah 2014 marks the next shemitah year (the Hebrew year 5775).  Jews around the world are seeking ways to enter into the laws and spirit of this sabbatical year as they have never done before. They are extending its message beyond the boundaries of Israel to wherever they live; and extending the thrust of its ethic beyond the agricultural sector. To mark this moment, to help us begin this historic revisioning, renewal and re-imagining of the ways to live a year of shemitah, we offer this Rosh Hashanah seder. It is modeled on the Jewish tradition of new year’s simanim, symbolic food, like the traditional apples dipped in honey, that represent the blessings we hope will be ours.

The seder consists of six small cups or bowls arrayed on a decorative base plate.

This base plate represents the whole, the sweep of time, the sphere that encompasses and defines every 7-year cycle. For shemitah is not just one segregated year, as Shabbat is not one segregated day; it is the year that frames and gives shape to all the other years, both those just past, and those yet to come. Upon this foundation plate rest the six cups or bowls. Together they represent the six attributes that define the essence of the shemitah year, and a life lived in goodness, sacred striving and delight.

Slices of apples (and other perennial delicacies of your choice) are arrayed in the center of the base plate. These recall the fruits of Eden that sustained us, and the Tree of Knowledge that launched us on the irresistible human enterprise of curiosity, desire, exploration and pursuits. And it represents the perennial foods (fruits, nuts and berries) that grow on their own during the shemitah year and that we gratefully eat at a time when we do not plow, sow, reap or commercially harvest the produce of the field.

On this base plate set the following:

Cup One: Honey representing Sova – Enoughness. Sova is the feeling of fullness without being stuffed; of contentment through what was given and not wanting anything more; of maximum satisfaction with minimum consumption and disruption. This first cup is filled with honey. Pass around the cup for all to dip the apples in the honey, say:

“In this year of shemitah, may we know no hunger, either spiritual or physical. May we be as readily sated with the delights of life as this cup is filled by these drops of honey.”

Cup Two: Wine (consider fruit wine, including Passion Fruit Wine from Israel or homemade date wine)* signifying Hodayah – Gratefulness. Hodayah is the feeling of gratitude, of deep satisfaction and elusive peace with what we have received. Wine is the age-old symbol of celebration, an expression of shared gratitude. It takes years for the vineyard to grow and produce grapes and time enough for the wine to ferment. On the human side, this requires steadfastness, peace, stability, and longevity; on nature’s side cool and heat and sun and rain and rich soil all in the right amounts – surely things to be grateful for. This cup is filled to the rim with the wine. (Wine cups at everyone’s place may be filled with this too.) Hold it up and say:

“In this shemitah year, may we know peace and be strangers to disappointment and disruption. May the earth find renewal amid its rest. And may gratitude fill us all as the wine fills this cup.”

Cup Three: Figs representing Revaya – Abundance. Revaya is the awareness of the vast resources of a healthy world, the earth’s ancient capacity of growth and self-renewal, and our call to keep it going. Figs are not like most other fruit crops. The fruits on one tree do not ripen all at once but one by one, each in its own time. They offer abundance without surfeit. This cup is filled with figs (either whole or cut, fresh if available though dried figs are fine too), speckled and spangled with seeds. Pass around the cup for all to take from it and say:

“In this year of shemitah, may we recognize abundance and know no waste. May we celebrate the vast goodness that lies within even the most modest cache of life; may we reverently receive life’s abundance and, like the continuous fruiting of the fig tree, give what we can, at the time that is right.”

Cup Four: Raisins representing Hesed – Goodness, Kindness, Generosity. Hesed is a response to our gratitude for the varieties of gifts we have received in this world. Having received we are moved to give. Such is the nature of the gift. The raisins heaped in this cup signify the sweet, satisfying substance that can be given even after other extractions of goodness have been taken. They recall the leaves, the juices, the wine, the vinegar, the shade, the wood and delight that are all gifts of the grape. In response to all that we have been given, we are moved to give more. Pass around the cup for all to take from and say:

“In this shemitah year, may we know no greed. May we recognize the gifts we have received and in return realize the manifold ways of giving that lie within each of us.”

Cup Five: Pomegranate representing Poriyut – Fertility. Poriyut is the creativity, the dynamism, the fecundity that characterizes the majesty of nature. It is what allows us to eat during this year of fallowness and renewal. It is the dormancy that bursts forth, in the right conditions, inspiring the human gifts of imagination, discovery and awe. This cup is filled with pomegranate seeds, symbols of overflowing fertility. Pass the cup around for everyone to taste and say:

“In this shemitah year, may we know no barrenness, no emptiness. May this year of material enoughness bring forth overflowing acts of discovery, delight and spiritual bounty.”

Cup Six: Dates representing Otzar – The Commons. Otzar is earth’s shared resources, owned by none and gifted to all. It is the storehouse of the ages, the fundamentals of life that we all depend upon. It is the stuff of earth and society, natural and cultural, that we share now in our lifetimes and leave behind for others. Our stories, our knowledge, our goods, our homes, our earth. This cup holds stuffed dates, signifying all that we share in the giving to and taking from the Commons. (Another option: put a few symbolic dates in the center cup but in addition, array dates – pitted and sliced – on the outer edge of a serving plate, surrounding a center mound of stuffing: chopped almonds, walnuts, pistachios or pine nuts that have been soaked in honey and wine. Let everyone fill a date with the sweet filling and give it to someone else at the table.) Everyone takes a date and says:

“In this shemitah year, may we know no isolation, no loneliness, no selfishness. May we recognize that we are joined in partnership to the earth, and to one another through our common heritage, the Torah, our past and our future that bind us to one another forever, throughout the cycles of space and time.”

Then wash it all down with a drink of l’chaim.

Note: This multi-layered seder is a tradition that can be adapted to mark every year of the shemitah cycle. On Rosh Hashanah of the shemitah year (the seventh culminating year), all the cups are filled, celebrating the completion of one shemitah cycle. The following year, the first year, only the first cup with the  honey – and the apples – appear on the plate. The second year, the first two cups; the third year, the first three, and so on until the completion of the cycle and the celebration of the next shemitah year.

Biblical Shemitah Texts:

  • Exodus 23:10-11
  • Leviticus 25:1-7
  • Leviticus 25:20-22
  • Deuteronomy 15:1-6

*Only wine that includes grapes qualifies for the Kiddush blessing: borei pri hagafen, who creates the fruit of the vine. “Shehakol nihiyah bed’varo” is said over fruit wines without a grape base. If the blessing over wine (Kiddush) and bread (Hamotzi) have already been said at the beginning of the meal, no additional blessings need to be recited over the foods of the seder plate.


Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin is the co-founder of the Sova Project and the founder and director of the Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network, an organization dedicated to greening her local Jewish community; the founder and director of the Baltimore Orchard Project, an organization that grows, gleans and gives away urban fruit; and a co-founder and chair of the Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake, an interfaith organization that works on behalf of the health of the Chesapeake Bay watershed and all its inhabitants.


The views expressed on this site do not necessarily reflect the views of The Sova Project or its founding partner organizations.  All comments on this site are the responsibility of their writers.



Shmita and Human Rights

By Shaiya Rothberg

In reading the previous contributions to the Sova Project, I am struck by how many facets of Torah wisdom they touch on: everything from personal spiritual practice to politics and the economy. I’d like to add another perspective and suggest that human rights theory and praxis are an important part of the Shmita project. I’ll begin with some Torah sources that frame my understanding of human rights.

The Bible teaches that in the beginning, at the very dawn of humanity, we were all one person. In that state of primal species-ness, when we had just entered Eden, we were not even separated into male and female. We were the collective totality of everything Homo-sapien; one body – one mind. And in that state, God commanded us:

וַיְצַו ה’ אֱלֹהִים עַל-הָאָדָם לֵאמֹר  מִכֹּל עֵץ-הַגָּן אָכֹל תֹּאכֵל 

And YHVH-Elohim commanded humanity saying from all the trees of the garden you may freely eat.

The sages of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 56b) learn from this verse about what God commands all people: the Noachide laws. Rabbi Yochanan learns from the first word in the verse – וַיְצַו – and God commanded – that all human beings are commanded to set up legal systems (“mitsvat dinim”). What does that mean? In his commentary to the Torah, Nachmanides says that “dinim” are like “mishpatim” (see Breshit 34:14) and that this is what they are about:

אֶת-מִשְׁפָּטַי תַּעֲשׂוּ…אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם  אֲנִי ה’.

You shall do my laws…which if a person does, she shall live through them. I am YHVH.

“God says ‘which if a man do, he shall live by them’ (Lev. 18:5) – because the laws [dinim] were intended to foster life for human beings through the establishment of civilized communities and peace among people so no one damages or kills his fellow.” (Nachmanides on Vayikra 18:4-5).

If we follow the intertextual path laid out by Rabbi Yochanan in the Talmud and Nachmanides in his commentary to the Torah, we find that way back in Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden), God commanded collective humanity to establish the rule of law in all places to guarantee dignified life for every human being.

My thinking about these themes is informed by Moses Maimonides, who gave them his signature medieval philosophic twist. First, he explains (The Guide 2:40) that given the material makeup of human beings, their survival requires the rule of law. Without it, they’ll kill each other. It turns out that the Bible’s primal myth about what God said to humanity in Gan Eden reveals a truth that is critical for the survival of humanity as understood by reason and philosophy. Maimonides further explains that the rule of law as envisioned by God is twofold: it seeks to mend the body and soul of humanity. Maimonides’ idea of “mending the body” of humanity is more or less the same, I think, as what Nachmanides said about dinim above: “civilized communities and peace among people so that no one damages or kills his fellow.” In another place (The Guide 3:27), Maimonides emphasizes that this includes a suitable environment, healthy food, and so forth.

The second aim of the rule of law, “mending the soul”, is of much higher value for Maimonides. It consists of a global order in which all the resources of the planet are invested in cultivating consciousness of God among all human beings. That’s the kind of global economy that interests Rabbi Moses Maimonides. At that time of redemption, every person alive will know God to their fullest potential, and the consciousness of God will fill the earth like the waters fill the sea (See Hilchot Melachim 12).

But mending the global “soul of humanity” is a long way off. First we have to mend the body. While there are pockets of dignified life for humans in some places, the collective body of humanity is broken and desecrated. I think that one of the most important reasons that corporations and states are free to rampage across the globe, destroying the environment for short-term profits, is the same lawlessness that enables them to operate their vast military and financial machines in total disregard for human life and dignity. There is a common failing underlying both racist oppression and the devastation of the environment: our inability to hold the powers that be accountable to the rule of just law.

But in a world of 190 states, to what law can they be held accountable? On this point, we can learn from Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn (1857-1935), a sage of religious Zionism trained in his father’s yeshiva in Jerusalem. Rabbi Hirschensohn believed that mending the body of humanity involves the slow evolution of human civilization. Gradually, the peoples of the earth will enact covenants between them on higher and higher standards for protecting humanity, as exemplified by the treaties on the laws of war signed during his lifetime. While he was critical of the international institutions of his day, he saw that in them the peoples of the world were gathering together to agree on norms that would enable them to fulfill God’s commandment – mitsvat dinim – to protect all human beings through the just rule of law. We might say that in Rabbi Hirschesohn’s vision, the free peoples of the earth will gather together to enact a human covenant that will enable them to pursue humanity’s divine purpose.[1]

I think it is clear that the global human rights movement today is the embodiment of Rabbi’s Hirschensohn’s vision of the movement for the human covenant. The essence of the human rights movement, as I see it, is inviting all human beings to a global discourse built on non-violence and equality aimed at 1) agreeing on basic legal norms to protect and nurture humanity and 2) building pressure to make those norms a reality.

For all their failings, it is remarkable how widely accepted human rights theory and praxis have become in less than seventy years. They are a sort of lingua franca of moral and political legitimacy. Never before have we been closer to species-wide agreement on the contours of global justice. Important in the context of Sova is that human rights discourse has clearly begun to shift away from its previous over-emphasis on civil and political rights and to focus much more attention on economic rights and environmental sustainability. The rise of human rights is a dramatic event in the history of our species that may well end in total failure. But it is hard to imagine a more perfect embodiment of Rabbi Hirschensohn’s vision of how humanity should try to fulfill her divine obligation to protect all the members of the species.

I believe that human rights and sustainability are connected at their core: political oppression pollutes our waters. Mending the body politic of humanity requires empowering global civil society through human rights standards to which the peoples of the world will hold their states accountable. The unity of these struggles is embodied in the inner logic of Shmita and Yovel: The Earth is the Lord’s – Back to the Land – Set the Captives Free. Somehow in the magic 7, and 7 times 7, of Shmita and Yovel, there is a power that drives the political and economic interests back into their places – You shall not pass! – and makes room for the sacred life-giving rhythm of the Shmita. May our learning and kavanot (intentions) add to the power of the upcoming Shmita year to heal the brokenness of our species.

[1] For selections from Rabbi Hirschensohn’s writing on these subjects (pgs. 11, 32-34), and additional interpretation of his ideas in light of human rights (pgs. 68-70), download the (free) course-book of “The Torah of Human Rights” at


Shaiya RothbergShaiya Rothberg lives in Jerusalem with his wife and three sons, and teaches Bible, Jewish Philosophy and Kabbalah at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He also directs the yeshiva’s Human Rights Track. Shaiya holds a PhD from Hebrew University in Jewish Thought, and a B.A. in Jewish Philosophy and Talmud from Bar-Ilan. To learn more about the ideas in this blog (and to download a free copy of the course-book for the Torah of Human Rights), see

The views expressed on this site do not necessarily reflect the views of The Sova Project or its founding partner organizations.  All comments on this site are the responsibility of their writers.

The Modestly Dressed Environmentalist

By Richard Dale (@rdale)

We live in a world of abundance. I would like to propose that in order to maintain this abundance and make it available to all of humanity, we might look at how Jewish traditions have foreseen the most modern of phenomena: Social Media. You might share, tweet and “like” this article, or you might comment on its erudition (or lack thereof)… and either way you are participating in a world of renewable abundance. Curious? Read on!

Rabbi Meir would say: Whoever studies Torah for Torah’s sake alone, merits many things; not only that, but [the creation of] the entire world is worthwhile for [that person] alone. (Pirke Avot 6:1)

I recently saw a wonderful TEDx talk, from the London School of Economics (LSE), entitled “The Naked Environmentalist”, given by Solitaire Townsend. The un-cited quotes to follow all come from Townsend’s talk.

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The Gifted Economy

By Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin

We long to live in Eden, that idyllic world flowing with beauty, bounty and equity, the world that is captured in the very first chapters of Genesis. The Bible imagines Eden as a place where gifts flow freely from God to Earth, and emerge from the ground in a graceful partnership between nature and humanity. It is a place where we all have enough; where we keep no accounts, accrue no compounded debt; a place where our exchanges are in the form of gifts, not purchases. It is a world in which we are cherished for who we are and what we choose to offer each other, not measured by what we earn, amass and hold for ourselves.

But that is not the world we live in. Not even close. Instead we live in a world of markets and finance, loans and debts, where our value is what we consume, and our worth in what we “make”.

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Yours? Mine? Ours? Economies for a Sustainable Earth

In honour of Earth Day, which we marked on April 22nd, 2014, below is a video from one year ago reflecting on questions of managing our planet sustainably.

On April 22, 2013, the FinkeIstein Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary sponsored a program called “Yours? Mine? Ours?” which addressed the following question: In a finite world, how are we to equitably and sustainably share, manage and manipulate the common resources of the earth?

Expanded a bit, the question goes on: What can be considered “just” in the ownership, allocation and use of the world’s resources, from which our wealth comes and on which our economy and humanity’s well-being springs?

Even more, how do we build a marketplace that honors this vision?

We are compelled to ask – and answer – this question because for the first time in history, humans have become a geophysical force – a species able to affect by our appetites and behavior not just a river bank or a city or a floodplain or forest (as in the days of old) but the very workings of the planet. And though we tend to forget, the workings of the planet form the very foundations of the well-being of our civilization, and each of us.


The views expressed on this site do not necessarily reflect the views of The Sova Project or its founding partner organizations.  All comments on this site are the responsibility of their writers.

Kedushat Shevi’it – The Holiness of the Seventh Year

By Dr. Meesh Hammer-Kossoy

I recently ran, together with my entire family, in the Jerusalem Marathon. Admittedly, I ran merely the five kilometer non-competitive race, but it was a special feeling just the same. It was a chance to run with an amazing mosaic of people including Jews from America, soldiers from across the country, high school kids from Gush Etzion and even Christian pilgrims from Hungary and Italy. More than a dozen Pardes students, teachers, and staff from the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies (where I serve on the faculty) were out running the full marathon, half marathon, 10-K or family run, and it felt like the entire neighborhood was there, too. In fact, throughout the last months of training (yes, I had to train even for the 5-K run), there has been a feeling of camaraderie and excitement on the streets as the number of runners multiplied in preparation.   We got strength from each other, and the successes of the day have inspired us to push forward to greater heights.

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Rest, Share, Release (Part II)

This piece is a continuation of the last post, a translated essay that was published in Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper, on September 24, 2007- before the start of the previous shmita year. The authors relate to the Israeli reality then – which is only recently beginning to change. Many of the recent new initiatives around shmita have been taken as a response to critical appraisals and calls for action similar to the ones expressed here, but their trenchant critique remains highly relevant.

By Avi Sagi and Yedidia Stern

tr. Yale J. Reisner

It is difficult not to be impressed by the profundity of the idea that moves cautiously between the desire to preserve private property and the wish not to see property as the be-all and end-all.  Shmita is a call for the creation of a bubble in time in which economic activity slows down, and which brings kindness, compassion and even partnership among all those who share the face of the earth, including the beasts of the field.  In the eighth year, the race will resume, because humanity requires it, but the idea and its memory are meant to reach beyond the sabbatical year into the six years of feverish productivity.

The idea of shmita was given to us in a time when all of economics was private: each under their grapevine and under their fig tree.  But today when we benefit from a national economy, shouldn’t we upgrade the personal and societal message to the situation of the state?  Is shmita to be observed only on the micro level and not on the macro level as well?  This question should have been the focal point of the religious discussion of our generation, since the restoration of Jewish sovereignty is the greatest novelty to have occurred in Jewish civilization over the last two thousand years.  And instead – how frustrating! – there is silence.

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