Archive by category "Observance"

Some Contemporary Thoughts on Shmita

Every seven years, we are supposed to give the land a break and let it rest. And so the Sabbath year, the seventh year (shviit)– also called the Sabbatical year (which took place last year in 5775) – is the seventh year of the seven-year agricultural cycle mandated by the Torah for the Land of Israel, and still observed in varying degrees in contemporary Judaism. It is called Shmita in Hebrew (literally, it means “release”), but it doesn’t apply outside of Israel. Until recent times it couldn’t, because in most other countries until recent times, Jews were not allowed to own land.

During shmita, the land is left to fallow, and all agricultural activity, including plowing, planting, pruning and harvesting is forbidden by Jewish law, called halakha. Other cultivation techniques (such as watering, fertilizing, weeding, spraying, trimming, and mowing) may be performed as a preventative measure only, not to improve the growth of trees or other plants.

Additionally, any fruits of any kind which grow of their own accord are deemed ownerless (hefker) and may be picked by anyone. So, seven years from now, anyone will be free to come and pick my oranges and lemons and kumquat. My family actually called a volunteer service last year to come and pick as many as they wanted and donate them to a homeless shelter. But their ladders weren’t high enough to get the ones at the top. Fortunately, there was a second crop. So there were a lot more for anyone who wanted them. (As far as my family is concerned, anyone who needs them can have them any year.)

Chapter 25 in the Book of Leviticus promises bountiful harvests to those who observe the shmita, and describes its observance as a test of religious faith. Although it is mentioned in numerous places in the Bible (Exodus 23: 10-11; Leviticus 25: 1-7; 20-22; Deuteronomy 15: 1-6; Jeremiah 34:13-14; Nehemiah 10:31; 2 Chronicles 36:20-21; and 2 Kings 19:20-30), we do not know the extent to which shmita was observed in biblical times. We do know that people were exhorted to produce double in the sixth year so that there would be enough for the seventh year.

In modern times, shmita’s observance is voluntary in the State of Israel. The first shmita in the modern state of Israel was 1951 (5712), and the last shmita year began on the Jewish New Year in 2014, extending through most of the calendar year 2015.

It has definitely stimulated the growth of hydroponics, and with accelerated cultural interest in eco-culture in many countries, interest has also grown in the ancient biblical principles of shmita.  As a matter of fact, there is a whole book called Zeraim in the Mishna, the first part of the Talmud (a commentary on the Torah), which is devoted to agricultural principles. For example, you’re supposed to use onions to separate crops because the onion’s roots go straight down and so form a natural boundary.

Sometimes observing shmita is actually good for business. In Israel, since grapes grow naturally, many Israeli wine-makers process and bottle their grapes in separate batches of shmita wine and give them away to purchasers of their non-shmita wine during the year of shmita.

There is one area of shmita which is problematic today. All debts, except those of foreigners, are supposed to be remitted. In biblical times, all Hebrew slaves were to be set free. The forgiveness of debts is hard to implement in a modern state – lenders become reluctant to lend –, and so a variety of laws, which are really legal fictions, have been set up to deal with the sale, consumption and disposal of shmita produce in a modern state. It still has to be worked out.

In the 50th year (that is right after 7 years times 7) – called Yovel in Hebrew and translated as Jubilee in Latin, all land is supposed to revert to its original owner.  The idea is to have a redistribution of wealth in society every 50 years. However, as far as we know, this idealistic idea has never been carried out. Traditionally, the Jubilee year will be recognized once again when representatives of all 12 tribes have returned, and the majority of Jews live in Israel. In the meantime, we can all have a glass of complementary wine together – and celebrate a beautiful idea, revolutionary in its time!