Shemittah: The Sabbatical Year
October 12, 2007
Shemittah, the Sabbatical year, occurs every seventh-year. Shemittah is like Shabbat for the land of Israel; the land “rests” in a fashion, similar to the way the Jewish people rests every seventh day. The Torah describes the very intricate laws of Shemittah in parashat Behar, Vayikra (Leviticus), chapter 25.
The Torah tells us (25:4), “the seventh year shall be a complete rest for the land, a Sabbath for Hashem; your field you shall not sow and your vineyard you shall not prune.” Furthermore, we may not reap what grows on its own. During the Shemittah year, it is prohibited to treat the land as personal property. The produce of the land is permitted to be eaten by one and all, but it may not be bought and sold commercially.
Additionally, private loans are canceled at the end of the Shemittah year, as per Devarim (Deuteronomy) 15:1 (“private loans” as opposed to commercial loans, such as from a bank. More on that distinction in a later article).
Since no planting or harvesting may be done during the Shemittah year; the population must rely on the produce of the sixth year to sustain them for three years – the sixth, the seventh (Shemittah) and the eighth (because planting was not permitted in the Shemittah year. God promises a crop abundant enough to suffice for all three years (Vayikra/Leviticus 25: 20-21); this is a promise that no human being could make and fulfill.
The agricultural laws of Shemittah are mitzvot teluyot ba’aretz – laws dependant upon the land. They only apply to land in Israel and to produce imported from Israel. Other produce, such as Washington apples or Idaho potatoes, is not affected.
Shemmitah, Shabbat and Exile
There are many parallels between Shabbat and Shemittah. Each occurs on a cycle of seven: Shabbat every seven days, Shemittah every seven years. Each involves rest: one for the individual and the other for the land. Each involves recognizing Hashem: on Shabbat we recall that Hashem created the Heavens and the Earth and that all acts of creation are His; during Shemittah we remember that Hashem is the Master of the land, not us. And, in each case, we put our faith in G-d: each Friday in the wilderness, a double portion of manna fell to feed us through Shabbat, just as the sixth year will yield enough produce to see us through Shemitta. The Torah calls Shemittah a form of Shabbat (Lev. 25:4, cited above).
While observing Shemittah guarantees abundant produce, neglecting it leads to exile. The prophet Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) foretold that the Jewish people would be exiled for not keeping Shemittah (Jer. 17:4). This is what happened, so that the land could make up the rest due it (2 Chronicles 36:21). The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (5:11) teaches us that exile is the penalty for the three cardinal sins (murder, idolatry and sexual immorality) - and for neglecting to keep the laws of Shemittah!
The Jubilee Year
Shemittah occurs every seven years; seven Shemittah cycles is 49 years. The fiftieth year is an additional sabbatical year called Yovel (Jubilee). In addition to the normal laws of Shemittah, Yovel has many unique features. The most striking is that indentured servants go free and real estate returns to its ancestral owners. Land in Israel is not “sold” according to the Torah; it can only be leased until the next Jubilee, priced according to the number of years remaining. Yovel is not only the source of our word “Jubilee” for a major celebration, particularly a fiftieth anniversary, it is also the source of the verse appearing on the Liberty Bell, “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” (Vayikra/Leviticus 25:10). (Although we currently observe Shemittah, the laws of Yovel are not applicable nowadays, for reasons beyond the scope of this overview.)
Some (Very Basic) Laws of Shemittah
There are authorities who prohibit any produce which was guarded by its owners (since it must be made available to all) or which was worked in normal fashion by its farmers during the Shemittah year, although this is not the prevalent opinion. Vegetables and grains that were both planted and harvested during the Shemittah year are prohibited. This would apply to any product containing grain imported from Israel, such as may be found in baked goods or powdered mixes. There is a difference of opinion as to whether such items would be permitted after identical products have become available following the next year’s harvest.
The fruit of Shemittah is holy and must be treated as such. For example, it may not be thrown out unless it has become inedible. (Parts that are normally thrown out, such as pits, are not holy and may be discarded as usual.) Fruit harvested during Shemittah may not be sold in the normal manner, although if it is, the fruit is not prohibited. The problem is that the money exchanged for Shemittah produce assumes a category of holiness and may only be used to buy more food.
Some (Slightly More Complicated) Laws of Shemittah
There is a question about fruits grown on non-Jewish farms in Israel. Rav Yosef Caro, the Mechaber (author) of the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), was of the opinion that such fruits are not holy because of Shemittah and are therefore subject to normal tithes; most other authorities differ and practices in Israel today differ accordingly.
Because most authorities feel that the laws of Shemittah do not apply to land in Israel that is not Jewish-owned, a late 19th-century problem was solved with a creative solution. In order to address the prospect of widespread starvation, an emergency measure was undertaken to temporarily sell land to non-Jews. This is called “heter mechira” and is halachically similar to the sale of chametz (leaven) before Passover. This move was highly controversial and was never intended to be a permanent feature of the Shemittah year. In recent times, fewer observant Jews are relying upon this leniency and look to alternatives, such as food grown hydroponically or outside the Biblical boundaries of Israel.
Shemittah Produce Outside of Israel
While there are a slew of relevant laws for those in Israel (“May I tend my garden?”), Shemittah is not without its implications for those of us in other countries. While it would be advisable to avoid Israeli produce from the Shemittah year, most packaged goods with reliable kashrut supervision pose little problem. But one must still be aware of the issues.
A practical ramification for a North American or European consumer would be purchasing an Israeli Shemittah-year etrog for Succot. May it be disposed of after the holiday if it is still edible? Does the money used to purchase it assume the holiness of Shemittah? These issues are very real and not just hypothetical for those of us in the Diaspora.
The laws of Shemittah are very intricate and complicated. The above in no way addresses all the issues at hand (and answers none of the questions of practical application). We will continue posting information about the Shemittah year and its produce, but no web site can take the place of personal guidance. For questions of halacha (Jewish law), please consult your Rabbi.