Shemittah: Putting Your Trust in God

May 16, 2022

דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם וְשָׁבְתָה הָאָרֶץ שַׁבָּת לַיהֹוָה׃

Speak to B'nei Yisrael and say to them: When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a Shabbat of Hashem.

Leviticus 25:2

In addition to the weekly Shabbat which was observed in the desert, Leviticus instructs the Children of Israel to keep the Shemittah. Shemittah (literally, ‘release’) is usually translated as the sabbatical year, and is described as ‘Shabbat’ of the land in Leviticus (25:2). This article is intended as an introduction to the agricultural aspects of the Shemitta known as Shemitat Karka, “release of the land”.

Shemittah, the seventh year of a seven-year agricultural cycle, was only instituted after the nation entered the land of Israel. In fact, the first Shemittah cycle started after the years of conquering and dividing the land, in the fifteenth year after they crossed the Jordan River. Though the Shemittah is dependent on the counting of years, it is fascinating that the designated years are all precisely divisible by seven. For example, the year 5782, that is to say 5,782 years since the Creation, is a Shemittah year. If you divide 5782 by seven, this equals 826, or the 826th possible Shemittah year since the creation of the world. The year following the destruction of the second Holy Temple was also a Shemittah year. In the Jewish calendar, counting from Creation, this was the year 3829 (68–69 CE on the secular calendar), which was the 547th possible Shemittah since the creation of the world.

The Torah lists several activities which are forbidden during the Shemittah:

Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a Shabbat of complete rest, a Shabbat of Hashem: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. Leviticus 25:3-5

Sign declaring that Shemittah is being observed

God promises that if the Jews keep the Shemittah, they will be secure in the land and the land will yield its bounty (Leviticus 25:18-19).

The Torah anticipates the concern that there will not be enough to eat if the fields are allowed to lie follow for a full year. So God promised a bounty that will suffice:

And should you ask, “What are we to eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?” I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years. Leviticus 25:20-21

In this regard, the Shemittah is a supreme test of faith in God as the provider.  By allowing the land to lie fallow, the farmer is acknowledging that it is God, and not his own labor, that provides. This also gives the farmers respite from their labor, allowing them to focus on spiritual improvement.

The Israel Bible explains:

Leviticus Chapter 25 describes the blessing of the Sabbatical year, which is often cited as one of the proofs of the Divinity of the Bible. Verses 20-21 state, “And should you ask, ‘What are we to eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?’ I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years.” No human being would ever make such an audacious guarantee – essentially sentencing the entire nation to starve every seventh year. Certainly, after one failed cycle, no one would obey the Sabbatical restrictions again. Only the one true God could make and keep such a grandiose promise.

During Shemittah, the land is left to lie fallow and all agricultural activity, including plowing, planting, pruning and harvesting, is forbidden by Jewish law. In addition, the Jews relinquish personal ownership of the land. Any produce that grows of its own accord is deemed ownerless and may be picked by anyone. 

One may not do business with Shemittah produce. It may not be used to pay a debt, and it may not be sold commercially. One may sell only small amounts of produce which might be left over from what gathered for personal use.

Whenever a certain species of produce goes out of season and is no longer available to scavenging animals in the fields, that species of produce must be removed from the home too. This is called biur. The one performing biur takes the produce outside and declares it ownerless in the presence of three people. It may then be reclaimed.

Other cultivation techniques, such as watering, fertilizing, weeding, spraying, trimming, and mowing are forbidden by rabbinical decree and may be performed as a preventive measure only, not to improve the growth of trees or other plants. This applies to plants that bear fruit as well as those that do not. A variety of laws also apply to the sale, consumption, and disposal of Shemittah produce. 

Like other agricultural commandments, Shemittah is only observed inside the Land of Israel. But it impacts people outside of Israel as well. Produce which is exported from Israel may be eaten only if it bears reliable rabbinical certification, attesting that it was grown in compliance with the rules of Shemmitah.

Produce that is grown during Shemittah has a special sanctity referred to as kedushat shevi’it (the holiness of the seventh year). It must be treated with respect and may be used only in the manner that it is commonly used. If it is normally eaten raw, it may not be cooked. If it is ordinarily eaten by humans, it must not be fed to animals. In addition, foods that contain the holiness of the seventh year must not be wasted or thrown away. Food leftovers, too, must be treated with respect. Everything good should be eaten. If there are leftover scraps or edible peels, they should be put somewhere that is designated for the “holiness of the seventh year” until they rot and become unfit for human consumption, at which point they can be thrown out.

A public Shemittah bin in Lod (Wikimedia Commons)

Shemittah produce may be eaten only in the Land of Israel, and must not be exported.

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