A Shabbat for Eretz Israel
Every seven years the Jewish New Year begins a sabbatical for the land. This is called the Shmita year. It is a Torah mandated year long furlough from farming Eretz Israel. In modern Israel this has real implications for farmers, supermarkets and families.
What is Shmita?
Shmita is mentioned throughout the Old Testament, however it was first mandated in Exodus 23:10-11.
You may plant your land for six years and gather its crops. But during the seventh year, you must leave it alone and withdraw from it. The needy among you will then be able to eat just as you do, and whatever is left over can be eaten by wild animals. This also applies to your vineyard and your olive grove.
The Shmita is a Shabbat for the land – every seventh year the land is to rest from work, just as we are mandated to rest from work every seventh day.
How was Shmita traditionally observed?
In Biblical times it is assumed that Shmita was observed exactly as written in the Bible. The following passages are the best source of the Shmita observations: Exodus 23:10-11, Leviticus 25:1-7, Leviticus 25:20-22, Deuteronomy 15:1-6, Deuteronomy 31:10-13, Jeremiah 34:13-14, Nehemiah 10:31, 2 Chronicles 36:20-21 and 2 Kings 19:20-30.
It is important to understand that Judaism does not have a continuance of Shmita customs as is so with other traditions. This is because the commandment only applies that the lands of Israel fallow for a year, not all land Jews work. Therefore, once the Israelites were exiled from Israel, Shmita was not observed and not a part of Jewish life. The few Jews that remained in the Holy Land were not permitted to work the land.
However, when Jews returned to Eretz Israel in the late 19th century, created kibbutzim and began to work the land, Shmita once again became relevant.
The evolution of Shmita.
The Jewish pioneers were struggling to feed themselves, a year without crop production was a matter of life and death. As it was not part of Jewish life for so long, this particular commandment did not have the centuries of interpretation and regular progression of observation specified by Jewish sages. Therefore, the rabbinate of Israel needed to create a way to not violate the Biblical mandate, but also not allow the pioneers to starve – after all the first and most important mitzvah is “to preserve life.”
After much consultation and prayer the rabbinate decided to apply the concept of “heter mechirah” or “approved sales.” They based this on the existing practice of mechirah during Passover when leavened products are sold to non-Jews when purchased back after the holiday.
In this case, Jewish farmers were permitted to sell the land to a local non-Jew for one year for a token amount. They also had to hire non-
Jews for all forbidden labor such as sowing and harvesting (tending and cultivating was considered somewhat permissible). This way the pioneers could continue to grow crops and provide for the community without sinning.
Today many farmers across Israel continue to use the concept of heter mechirah during the Shmita year. The sale must be handled by the rabbinate in order for the crops produced to still be considered kosher.
Another option in modern Israel is the use of greenhouses and hydroponics. Since the Biblical mandate is to allow the land to lie fallow and the work is only forbidden for crops in the soil connected to Israel, Jewish farmers can continue to plant, tend and harvest crops created in greenhouses or through hydroponics.
Finally, there is a small minority of independent farmer who choose to not observe Shmita. Their produce will not have kosher certification and it must be made clear as such to the consumer. This choice is for them to make and they alone are accountable to God for their choices.
The effect of Shmita.
The consequences of Shmita are obvious for anyone who makes their living working the land of Israel. It can be a difficult year. However, with more people aware of the stresses to the land, many more farmers are starting to embrace Shmita as something good for the earth.
The people of Israel can expect to pay more for produce. These higher prices are a result of any of the solutions for the Shmita. The costs to farms to complete heter mechirah and hiring of additional non-Jewish workers can be substantial. Additionally, the increased importation of produce and the use of hydroponics are both expensive solutions.
There are also implications beyond produce. Public parks, community gardens and other recreational areas are not fully attended as they are owned by the state and are not subject to heter mechirah. The Jewish Nation Fund who cares for the forests throughout Israel announced that they will groom the forests to prevent forest fires, but will not plant new trees during Shmita.
The Shmita strengthens the bond and the symbiotic relationship
between the People of Israel and Eretz Israel. It reminds us that the land is precious. It is a gift from God and it is our spiritual duty to conserve it and respect it despite any hardships.