According to Jewish law, every seven years, agricultural fields are to lie fallow during the Shmita, or Sabbatical. (photo from commons.wikimedia.org)
This Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the year 5755, a year that has a special significance, as a Shmita, or Sabbatical year, a year of rest for the soil.
Shmita literally means renunciation or release. We renounce the right to work the land, and let it lie fallow in the seventh year. In Leviticus 25:4, it says, “The seventh year shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath unto the Lord, thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard.” It is also a year in which we renounce our right to collect debts. “At the end of every seven years, thou shalt 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)
Although the laws of the sabbatical remittance of debts apply to Jews everywhere, the obligation to let the land lie fallow is limited to the boundaries of Israel, as these laws begin only “… when ye come into the Land which I shall give you.…” (Leviticus 25:2) After wandering the desert for 40 years, Moses gathered the Israelites at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and gave them a detailed law about the soil. As soon as they entered Eretz Israel, they were to become people of the land, with their lives bound up in agriculture.
For centuries, as the Jews in the Diaspora became largely non-agricultural, the law of Shmita became a theoretical problem to be discussed by talmudic scholars. However, with the establishment of the state of Israel, Shmita again became a practical problem for the pioneers and early settlers.
Until the system of crop rotation was devised at the beginning of the 20th century, both Jews and non-Jews saw the logic of letting the land periodically rest. For Jews, these agricultural cycles were detailed in the Torah. For centuries, as the Jews in the Diaspora became largely non-agricultural, the law of Shmita became a theoretical problem to be discussed by talmudic scholars. However, with the establishment of the state of Israel, Shmita again became a practical problem for the pioneers and early settlers.
There are many reasons for the Shmita year. It teaches human beings that the earth does not belong to them, but to G-d. It also teaches people to have confidence in
G-d; even though we are asked to let the land rest, the Lord will invoke a blessing for us. Letting the land lie fallow is useful for another reason, too: every seven years, freed from the preoccupation of working the land, we are freed to study Torah full time.
Apparently, even Julius Caesar exempted the Jews from taxation in the Shmita year, since they did not have any livelihood from their fields. After the Bar Kochba revolt, however, the Jews were again compelled to pay taxes, causing grave hardship, which in turn convinced the rabbis to relax many prohibitions.
During the Second Temple period, the Jews rigidly adhered to Shmita in Eretz Israel. During the Hasmonean War, the fall of Bet Zur was attributed to a famine in the city since it was a Sabbatical year. Apparently, even Julius Caesar exempted the Jews from taxation in the Shmita year, since they did not have any livelihood from their fields. After the Bar Kochba revolt, however, the Jews were again compelled to pay taxes, causing grave hardship, which in turn convinced the rabbis to relax many prohibitions.
In the days of early modem statehood, Shmita was problematic in Israel, when its unbearably heavy economic load became too much for the young state to bear. Learned rabbis, like the late Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, agreed to the use of a heter (special dispensation) to sell the land to non-Jews during the Sabbatical year, to permit the land to be worked.
In recent years, there have also been developed other methods of using a heter for Shmita, such as early sowing of vegetables before the New Year (relying on the view of Rabbi Shimon of Sens, for example) and the growing of crops by hydroponics or soil-less systems. The Israeli botanist Meir Schwartz founded the first fully automatic hydroponic farm at the Agudat Israel Kibbutz Chafetz Chaim, but there are now other hydroponic farms at Ein Gedi and Eilat, which use water culture and gravel in agricultural production.
How does the Shmita year affect Orthodox Israeli consumers? Throughout the year, in local newspapers, there are regularly published lists of shops from whom it is permissible to buy fruit and vegetables in the Sabbatical year; there are also chains of shops that market Arab Israeli-farmed or imported produce. Many Orthodox Jews buy their fruit and vegetables in the Arab market in East Jerusalem, for example, or travel to Arab cities to shop.
It is not easy in Israel to observe the Shmita year, however. Although different dispensations have been made in recent years to make it less difficult, they are considered “emergency measures,” as implied by Kook in the introduction to his work on the Shmita, Shabbat Haaretz, in which he wrote: “We today are charged with preserving the memory of the commandment until the time is ripe for it to be carried out with all its minutiae.”