An Israeli farmer tends to his vineyard in the Negev Desert. (Shutterstock) (Shutterstock)
An Israeli farmer tends to his vineyard in the Negev Desert

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There is no question that observance of the Sabbatical year is a big test of faith for farmers within the biblical borders of the Land of Israel.

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

This week’s Torah portion is “Re’eh” (Deuteronomy 11:26–16:17,) and in it we read about the Sabbatical year: Every seven years, the Land of Israel must rest and lie fallow. No agricultural work is allowed.

This is not only theoretical Scripture, but it begins in real life in about a month’s time! That’s because the Jewish year of 5782, which begins on Rosh Hashana, is a Sabbatical year. Let’s learn about this mitzvah (Torah commandment) known as “shmita.”

During the shmita year, all land in the biblical borders of the Land of Israel must rest. Plowing, planting, pruning and harvesting are forbidden by Torah law. Most other land-based labor is forbidden as well, although preventive care and upkeep of the land is permitted with activities such as watering, fertilizing, weeding, spraying, and mowing.

Any produce of the land, whether fruits, vegetables or flowers, is considered to be ownerless from the perspective of Torah law, and everyone is permitted to help themselves to the produce. That doesn’t mean that all forms of trespassing are permitted to get these ownerless fruits…speak to a rabbi before entering someone’s yard to pick tomatoes.

Let’s see some of the biblical references for the mitzvah of shmita:

“You may plant your land for six years and gather its crops. But during the seventh year, you must leave the land alone…The needy among you will then be able to eat…and whatever is left over can be eaten by wild animals. This also applies to your vineyard and your olive grove.” (Exodus 23:10–11]

This is a very clear passage that tells us that there is a seven-year cycle, and in the seventh year the land must rest. We also see from this verse that the produce of the land is ownerless, and everyone is permitted to take for themselves. Even when trespassing is not an issue, one is only permitted to take what is needed for immediate use. Hoarding is forbidden.

Here is a similar passage from a different book of the Torah:

“God spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai…speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land must be given a rest period, a sabbath to God. For six years you may plant your fields, prune your vineyards, and harvest your crops, but the seventh year is a sabbath of sabbaths for the land. It is God’s sabbath during which you may not plant your fields, nor prune your vineyards. Do not harvest crops that grow on their own and do not gather the grapes on your unpruned vines, since it is a year of rest for the land. What grows while the land is resting may be eaten by everyone…” (Leviticus 25:1–7)

Of special interest in this passage is that we see clearly that the mitzvha of Shmita only applies in the Land of Israel. It does not apply in the Diaspora. In fact, almost all land-based mitzvot of the Torah are only applicable in the Land of Israel.

There is no question that observance of the Sabbatical year is a big test of faith for farmers. They have to essentially give up their livelihood for a year. They need to find ways to generate income and support themselves. But no farmer has ever gone hungry by keeping the mitzvah of Shmita. The Torah promises bountiful harvests to those who observe shmita, as it says:

“And if you shall say: ‘What will we eat in the seventh year? We may not sow…’ God says: ‘I will command My blessing upon you in the sixth year, and it shall bring forth produce for the three years. And you will sow in the eighth year, and eat of the produce until the ninth year when the new produce comes in.” (Leviticus 25:20–22)

How to Survive?

God has His ways of supporting people even if they are not working in their chosen professions.

So how are Israelis supposed to get fruits and vegetables during the Shmita year? There are at least five different methods that are used to observe the mitzvah of shmita and yet ensure that Israelis don’t get scurvy.

– A surprisingly large variety and amount of fruits and vegetables from the sixth year can be picked and stored for much of the seventh year when working the land is forbidden. Produce grown during the sixth year is not subject to any restrictions.

– Produce grown on land owned by non-Jews is not subject to any restrictions, and as such, much of the Israeli fruit during the shmita year comse from them. In a similar manner, many Jewish farmers “sell” their fields to non-Jews so that they too can work their land. This is a very controversial option with some rabbis allowing it and most others forbidding it.

– Produce grown on land outside the biblical boundaries of Israel. To give one example, the city of Eilat is outside the biblical boundaries of Israel, and, as such, a lot of fruits and vegetables are grown in these southern areas.

– The  “otzar beit din” system. This is a system where land is transferred to a rabbinical court which is allowed to harvest and distribute the fruit and vegetables to stores. Payment is given for the work and effort in distributing the produce, not for the produce itself.

– Greenhouses. As a general rule, produce grown off-ground in greenhouses are not subject to Shmita restrictions. This is a great but costly solution.

Of course, there are canned fruits and vegetables as well as fresh produce that is imported to Israel from foreign countries all the time. Don’t worry….you’ll be fine in the Shmita year. God has promised it!

For more insights by Rabbi Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below.

https://unitedwithisrael.org/living-torah-for-happy-and-health-children-protect-their-environment/

https://unitedwithisrael.org/living-torah-the-holiness-of-gods-names/

https://unitedwithisrael.org/living-torah-what-timeless-lesson-can-be-learned-by-eating-in-jerusalem/

https://unitedwithisrael.org/living-torah-cleave-to-god-for-a-happy-marriage/

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“…the seventh year shall be a complete rest for the Land…”
“…I will ordain My blessing for you…” (Leviticus 25:4,21)

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