“For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.” - Exodus 23:10-11
What is Shmita?
This year, 5782 by the Jewish calendar, is a shmita - שמיטה - or sabbatical year. Jewish-owned land is to be left fallow, whatever grows there is to be free and at year’s end, all personal debts are to be forgiven. Shmita occurs every seventh year, as a sabbatical for the land, and is mandated in the Torah.
Shmita literally means “renunciation”. We renounce the right to work the land, and let it lie fallow. “The seventh year shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land,” (Leviticus 25:4) and we renounce our right to collect debts. “At the end of every seven years, you shall make a release. And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release that which he lent unto his neighbor.” (Deuteronomy 15: 1-2).
After wandering for 40 years through the barren desert, Moses gathered the Israelites at the plains of Moav and gave them a detailed law about the soil. For as soon as they entered the Land of Israel, they were to become people of the land with their whole lives bound up in agriculture.
The Torah understood that we cannot continually demand of the earth, and expect her to keep producing. However, this wasn’t a simple thing for the communities of Israel to do. It required a huge amount of faith that G-d will provide. It also required communities and families to support one another. That worked fine in a primitive economy before decent fertilizer, but shmita presented problems for the new Jewish state. Zionism was founded on the notion of a return to the land, but a modern country cannot live on what falls to the ground.
For many generations (until the crop rotation system was devised in the early 20th century), both Jews and gentiles saw the logic of letting the land periodically rest and, even unwittingly, followed the law of the Torah in agriculture.
For centuries, as the Jews of the Diaspora became largely non-agricultural, the law of shmita regarding the land was just a theoretical problem to be discussed by Talmudic scholars. With the establishment of the State of Israel, however, it again became a practical problem for the Israeli people.
There are many reasons for the shmita year. It teaches mankind that the earth does not belong to them, but only to G-d. It also teaches man to have confidence in G-d, for even though he rests from his work for a year, G-d will invoke a blessing for him. Another reason is that once every seven years, man is freed just to study Torah, for he is not preoccupied with working the land.
Why Every Seven Years?
Seven has always had mystical connotations in Judaism. Seven is one of the greatest power numbers in Judaism, representing Creation, good fortune, and blessing. A Hebrew word for luck, gad, equals seven in gematria. Another Hebrew word for luck, mazal, equals 77.
The Torah is replete with things grouped in sevens. Besides the Creation and the exalted status of the Sabbath, the seventh day, there are seven laws of Noah and seven Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Several Jewish holidays are seven days long, and priestly ordination takes seven days. The menorah in the Temple has seven branches.
The first verse of the Torah consists of seven words and seven is the recurrent number in Pharaoh’s divinatory dreams in Genesis. The walls of Jericho fall after the Israelites encircle it seven times.
This emphasis on seven continues outside the Talmud, with seven wedding blessings, seven circuits performed about a groom, and seven days of mourning, shiva, after the death of a close relative.
How Has Shmita Been Applied in Jewish History?
During the Second Temple period, the Jews strictly adhered to shmita throughout the land. The fall of Beth Zur, during the Hasmonean War, was attributed to famine in the city as a result of the Sabbatical year. Julius Caesar exempted the Jews from taxation during a shmita year since “they neither take fruit from the trees, nor do they sow.”
After the Bar-Kochba revolt the Jews were again compelled to pay taxes, causing severe hardship, which in turn convinced the rabbis to relax many prohibitions. Learned rabbis agreed to the use of a “heter mechira” (special dispensation) to sell the land to non-Jews during the Sabbatical year, to permit the land to be worked. The heter mechira remains a disputed concept among observant Jews. They insist their produce must be grown by non-Jews on non-Jewish land.
Shmita Observance in Israel Today
How does a country that is mostly self-sufficient in its own agricultural production, not to mention also a major exporter of its produce, continue to meet its agricultural needs during shmita? While the Torah guarantees that those who observe shmita will be provided for, some early authorities explain that the Torah’s promise only applied when shmita was biblically commanded.
The simplest, albeit more difficult, solution is to schedule planting and harvesting in ways that avoid the shmita calendar dates. The realities of agricultural phases, problems of food storage, and general logistics make this a prohibitively limited solution.
As an alternative, most authorities consider produce from fields of non-Jewish ownership to be exempt from shmita. Local produce is harvested from fields that are owned by non-Jews. Verifying the sourcing from non-Jewish lands is often challenging, however, due to the security difficulties with having kosher inspectors visit Arab-owned lands, particularly in Palestinian-governed areas.
Growing and harvesting vegetables in soil that is detached from the ground (similar to flower pots), in an indoor environment is another workaround. Produce grown in specially-designed greenhouses is halachically exempt from shmita, in a process known as matzah menutak.
In order to implement shmita in modern Israel, respected rabbis from both the Ashkenazic and the Sephardic communities compromised. In a contemporary interpretation of religious law — halacha — they devised the “heter mechira,” a sale permit, which allows Jews to temporarily “sell” their land to non-Jews ahead of the shmita year, so the land may be cultivated.
The Chief Rabbinate of Israel arranges the sale of Jewish-owned land (via power of attorney) to non-Jews for the period of shmita, thereby exempting all produce grown on that land (though not necessarily agricultural work) from the laws of shmita.
Some authorities have found this transaction problematic and do not wish to rely on this carte blanche exemption. They consider that even gentile-owned lands are not exempt from shmita. For this reason, these rabbis arrange harvesting and distribution of produce in a non-commercial, non-profit manner to ensure that all handling of produce complies with shemittah restrictions. This is often referred to as Otzar Beit Din, and the produce must be treated, by the end consumer, with the same care shmita-sanctified produce requires.
Shmita Observance Outside of Israel
The agricultural laws apply only to the Holy Land and fruit grown there. So what elements apply to those of us who live in the Diaspora?
Chapter 15 of the book of Deuteronomy calls on the Jewish people to cancel all debts left unpaid at the end of the last day of the shmita year. Even if a borrower wishes to repay his debt, the lender may not collect unless they first remind the borrower that the debt has been canceled. If the borrower still insists on giving the money back as a gift to the lender, he or she may do so.
Even though the Torah specifically ties the agricultural elements of shmita to Israel, the loan amnesty applies anywhere in the world. This applies to debts owed from one individual to another, but not to monies owed to the rabbinical court (beit din).
Be Mindful of Israeli Consumable Products
Unless you have done your research, it is advisable not to purchase, or accept as a gift, produce grown in Israel during the year. This includes wine and olive oil.
Jews are prohibited from conducting business involving produce grown in Israel during shmita. Because the produce is holy, it may not be wasted or destroyed, but it must be used for food or other human pleasure. Nor can you store it after the time that it naturally stops being grown in the fields. This applies to fruit imported from Israel, such as oranges from Jaffa or olive oil from Galilee. Olive oil, however, may be used for cooking. Additionally, one must take care to consume all shmita olive oil by Shavuot the following year.
If you open a bottle of Israeli wine during this year, make sure not to waste any of it. For example, if you pour a cup of wine for Shabbat, make sure to drink the whole thing. Since no grapes from the shmita year are still on the vine by Passover of the following year, this wine must be consumed by Passover.
If you visit Israel during this shmita year, only purchase food and produce from vendors with reliable rabbinic supervision.
Learn Extra Torah
One of the unofficial purposes of shmita was to give the farmers and their families time away from labor to reflect and study on what it means to be a Jew, including the study of Torah and other spiritual pursuits. In the same manner you can make additional time this year to further enrich your Jewish knowledge and connection to the Torah.
Additionally, because this year is considered a Shabbat, it is the perfect time to take a close look at your lifestyle and home and make sure that everything is in the spirit of Shabbat: spiritually refined. And just as Shabbat is a day of pleasure, it is our responsibility to reach a state in which we enjoy these holy pursuits.
Send Your Support
There are thousands of Jewish farmers in Israel who refrain from farming during this year. They will make very little profit, if any at all, and can certainly use any financial assistance we can offer. To help them, you can donate to an organization that supports farmers in Israel.