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A Conversation with Yael Eckstein, IFCJ President and CEO, on the Jewish Sabbatical Year

Yael Eckstein, IFCJ President and CEO, oversees all ministry programs and serves as the international spokesperson for the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

Prior to her present duties, Yael served as Global Executive Vice President, Senior Vice President, and Director of Program Development and Ministry Outreach. Based in Israel with her husband and their four children, Yael is a published writer and a respected social services professional.

Yael Eckstein has contributed to The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, Newsweek, and other publications, and is the author of three books: Generation to Generation: Passing on a Legacy of Faith to Our Children, Holy Land Reflections: A Collection of Inspirational Insights from Israel, and Spiritual Cooking with Yael. In addition, her insights into life in Israel, the Jewish faith, and Jewish-Christian relations can be heard on The Fellowship’s radio programs, as well as on her two podcasts: Nourish Your Biblical Roots, and Conversations with Yael.

Yael Eckstein has partnered with other global organizations, appeared on national television, and visited with U.S. and world leaders on issues of shared concern. She has been a featured guest on CBN’s The 700 Club with Gordon Robertson, and she served on a Religious Liberty Panel in May 2015 in Washington, D.C., discussing religious persecution in the Middle East. Her influence as one of the young leaders in Israel has been recognized with her inclusion in The Jerusalem Post’s 50 Most Influential Jews of 2020 and 2021, and The Algemeiner’s Jewish 100 of 2019, and she was featured as the cover story of Nashim (Women) magazine in May 2015.

Born in Evanston, Illinois, outside of Chicago, and well-educated at both American and Israeli institutions – including biblical studies at Torat Chesed Seminary in Israel, Jewish and sociology studies at Queens College in New York, and additional study at Hebrew University in Jerusalem – Yael Eckstein has also been a Hebrew and Jewish Studies teacher in the United States.

What is Shmita, or the sabbatical year?

You can learn about Shmita by reading Leviticus chapter 25, verses one to four: “The Lord said to Moses at Mount Sinai, speak to the Israelites and say to them, when you enter the land I’m going to give you, the land itself must observe a Sabbath to the Lord. For six years, sow your fields, and for six years, prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year, the land is to have a year of Sabbath rest, a Sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards.”

These verses are pretty straightforward. Sometimes verses from the Bible could be alluding to something or have a certain connotation. They could be spiritual and otherworldly, but these verses tell us exactly what God wants. From the time that the Israelites entered the Holy Land, they were required to count six years during which they could work the land, but during the seventh year, they were obligated to let the land rest. This meant no planting, no pruning, no working of the land in any way during the sabbatical year. Amazingly, the counting of the seven-year cycle has been preserved until this very day.

The most recent sabbatical year began in September of 2021 on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

How do Jews in Israel observe Shmita?

This has very real consequences for Jews living in Israel today. For example, we cannot work our land or plant new things. We won’t be able to work the land just as it says in the Bible. Every year, I like to plant vegetables, but during the sabbatical year, I planted in bags instead of inside the ground so that I could actually tend those vegetables and not need to worry during Shmita year that they’re in the ground. You see there’s something intrinsically holy about being planted in the ground of Israel. If you plant something in a pot, on your shelf, it’s not considered part of the Shmita. If you plant it in a planting bag, it’s not considered part of Shmita because it’s not in the ground. It’s the ground of Israel that is holy and being planted in the earth of Israel means that it is affected by Shmita.

And it’s not just the backyard gardeners like me and my husband that are affected. More and more farmers in Israel have taken this courageous and faithful step of letting their farmland lay fallow every sabbatical year. During the sabbatical year, many of these farmers place large banners in front of their farm saying “this farm observes the sabbatical year.” And I can’t tell you how much seeing those signs moves me and inspires me. These modern farmers take a leap of faith of biblical proportions, trusting that God will take care of them, even though they will not work their land or sell their produce for an entire year. Could you imagine just driving through Israel and seeing a sign with a farm that’s usually beautifully tended to, and suddenly it looks like it’s been totally neglected, but there’s a sign there that says, “we observe Shmita”?

How does observing Shmita serve God?

We believe in the promise of God that we will not be penalized for not tending to our field, but rather we will see the blessings from it. Equally inspiring to me is the incredible blessing that I see in the produce of Israel every year. And I don’t think these are disconnected from one another. Do you know what Israel looked like a century ago? It was desolate. No nation could get anything to grow here until the Jewish people returned and the land bloomed once more, just as God said it would. And not only does the land yield its fruits, but it does so in abundance.

The other day, my daughter and I harvested a zucchini from our garden that was the size of her entire arm. It was the biggest zucchini I ever saw. And it reminded me of this biblical promise that, when we take care of the land in a biblical way, then God blesses it. In Leviticus 25:21, God promises that when we refrain from working the land in the seventh year, the sabbatical year, he will bless us with abundance. This is what He says: “I will send you such a blessing in the sixth year that the land will yield enough for three years.” When I see how Israel is blessed to grow enough produce – not only to feed her own people in this land that was once a desert, but actually to also export beautiful fruits and vegetables to countries around the world – I can’t help but wonder if it is all in the merit of the holy farmers who do not work the land in the seventh year. They are living their faith.

What does ‘Shmita’ mean exactly?

The word Shmita literally means release, because during the seventh year we release our control. We let go and we let the land lay fallow. The term Shmita teaches us that the seventh year isn’t just about letting the land rest, but about letting go and trusting God. The main message of the Shmita year is that we need to let go of control and recognize that only God is truly in control.

Since the beginning of time, human beings have worked according to the equation that our actions produce our results and that the more we work, the more we will achieve. The problem with that equation is that it shuts out God. While we need to put in our effort, this equation doesn’t give the right credit to the fact that God is the true source of our success. And unless we let God into our work, our results won’t be optimal. The purpose of Shmita is to remind us that God is the one in control. God promises that when we observe Shmita, he will bless our produce so much in the sixth year that there will be enough for the seventh year, the eighth year and even the ninth year until new produce emerges. The process of holding back from working the land and then receiving God’s blessing in return teaches us that sometimes we need to do less in order to achieve more.

How can we work to include God and trust in God that He will provide?

There are so many ways that we try to take control in life, but what this Bible lesson is teaching us is that, specifically by letting go, we make room for God. By having control, we’re filling all this space. By bringing in God, we’re making room for Him to bring his blessings on us, our lives and our decisions. God wants to help us, my friends. God wants to bless us, but we need to let go and let Him in. We need to make space for Him. 

We bear the burden of worrying about things like our income, our children, our health, our plans for the future, politics. But all of that weight that bears down on us is completely unnecessary. God carries us and he can carry our burdens too but only when we let Him.

There are many times I feel overwhelmed by the amount of work that I have to get done.  Sometimes it all just feels too much for me. And when that happens, instead of needing to accomplish more, needing to do more, needing to check more off my to-do list, I actually press on the brakes. I stop. I go outside in nature. I take a walk and I put my burdens on God. I tell God how much I depend on Him in order to accomplish what I need to do. I tell God that I’m feeling overwhelmed. I tell God that if He gave me all these responsibilities, He has to give me the strength and the wisdom to carry them. And you know what? When I return to my to-do list, things always come together. Somehow by letting go, by turning to God, by putting the brakes on the stress, the brakes on the worry, I’m able to do whatever needs to be done when before it seemed impossible.

How can we begin to embrace Shmita today?

Start by asking yourself, where in your life do you need to let go right now? What worries are you holding in your heart? Can you let it go and let God take over? As the Shmita year teaches us, letting go of control and placing our faith in God can be a catalyst for abundant blessings in our lives.

In Psalms 46:10, we read, “Be still, and know that I am God.” It’s one thing to say those words, but another thing to live them, to stop trying to control everything, to stop worrying about everything. The observance of Shmita demands that we put our faith into action, truly letting go of something and trusting God to take care of it. We all have areas in our lives where we need to control less and trust God more for our own sake, for our own mental, emotional, and physical health. And I hope that you will practice doing that this week.