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 Religious Responsibility for Creation

By Barbara K. Darling

We live on a fragile planet.  Frogs are disappearing; by some counts 1 in 3 amphibian species are at risk of extinction.   Twenty to 25% of all mammal species are endangered.  Water supplies are fouled; coral reefs are destroyed; soils are depleted.  Poisons from the air find their way into the lungs of human children, causing unprecedented occurrences of asthma.  Pelicans and cormorants appear on television news stories, their feathers drenched in oil from an oil spill.  All of these grim examples—and countless more—demonstrate how human activity has damaged the earth.

We have not even mentioned the harsh reality of human-caused climate change.  Polar bears are losing their frigid habitats.  Populations from the Philippines to Pakistan to Long Island to California experience extreme weather events.  The systems on which humans and all other beings depend are in danger of collapsing–soon.

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The Land Shall Rest: Exploring Shmita in the Diaspora

By Rabbis Ebn Leader and Margie Klein

In the Jewish calendar, the next Shmita year will commence in 2014, and Jews around the world are beginning to think about it.

In North America for example through the Shmita Project and other efforts, Hazon, the Jewish Farm School, and other groups are embracing Shmita as an opportunity to explore Jewish values around land, food, and sustainability. The Shmita Project encourages people not only to hold study groups, but to plant “Shmita gardens” that follow the Shmita laws in our own backyards and practice alternate economic models that promote collaboration and sharing.

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