The Sabbatical Year (Shmita) in Israel is finally here… But can a modern nation disregard their fields for an entire year? Observing the laws of shmita is a test of faith and an opportunity to reaffirm one’s commitment to God.
A sabbatical year is something that most professionals look forward to in order to relax and revitalize for the years of hard work ahead. For many, a sabbatical year is a chance to explore different opportunities, to learn new things and to develop.
In Israel, the notion of a sabbatical is even more than that. It’s a right bestowed upon all produce every seven years, when the Jews are commanded to let the land of Israel lie fallow.
And yet, the specific laws of shmita are much more detailed and complicated than the simple concept of a sabbatical year.
In Exodus, the law is set forth through the following verses: “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.” (Exodus 23:10-11).
In Leviticus (25:20-22), the Jews are promised an abundant harvest if they adhere to these laws. Yet questions remain: how can an entire nation disregard their fields for an entire year? How can a country that is so dependent on income from its agricultural exports survive without earnings from these products? How can residents of Israel maintain a healthy lifestyle when fruits and vegetables are scarcely available?
Four Practical Solutions
There are four primary ways in which Jews in Israel can survive both financially and physically during the sabbatical year. Each of these ways poses unique challenges to Israeli society, but offers distinct advantages as well.
Prior to the 1909-1910 shmita cycle, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, Israel’s first chief rabbi, instituted the heter mechira, a loophole through which Jews could ‘sell’ their land to non-Jewish owners for the shmita year. Because only Jews were commanded to let the land lie fallow, non-Jewish owners of property in Israel could provide their produce to Jewish consumers and customers from abroad.
A hundred years later, the heter mechira remains a critical component of the shmita cycle, despite those who believed that it would cause the laws to be entirely forgotten. According to many rabbis, produce obtained from non-Jewish fields that lie within Israel’s borders are subject to laws of sanctity that apply to produce grown during the holy sabbatical year.
A partial resolution to the controversy surrounding the heter mechira, Israel’s beit din (Jewish court system) instituted the Otzar Beit din system, through which the land becomes the property of the beit din. Farmers who work the land owned by the beit din are thus not working their “own” land during the sabbatical year. The beit din then sells all resulting produce at cost and uses the proceeds to pay the farmers. According to all rabbis, this produce still retains the holiness of the shmita year and must be disposed of properly.
Another option is to purchase produce from areas outside of the biblical borders of Israel. Although this produce is offered at significantly higher prices than usual during non-shmita years, it is a good option for those not wishing to rely on the heter mechira or for those who prefer not to deal with the complicated process of disposing holy agricultural waste that is created by produce grown on Israeli soil during the sabbatical year.
Last, Israeli farmers have evolved unique methods of growing certain crops without planting them directly in Israel’s earth. One such method is hydroponically grown produce, which is grown in water. Another is to grow produce in pots, so that it is not planted directly in Israel’s soil. These agricultural products are widely accepted as permissible during the shmita cycle and offer the same health benefits as produce grown in the traditional way. In fact, lettuce grown through these revolutionary farming tactics is known to be less bug-infested than standard lettuce, and it is exported throughout the world to be enjoyed by those who are prohibited from eating produce that could contain bugs.
For Jews living in Israel, observing the laws of shmita and giving the Land of Israel a sabbatical year is a test of faith and an opportunity to reaffirm one’s commitment to God. Although this unique commandment can only be fulfilled every seven years, it provides a practical way to actualize God’s command and to reap the rewards that He had promised.