This recent Rosh Hashanah holiday, or Yom Teruah (The Feast of Trumpets) as it is known biblically, also marks the beginning of the SH’MITA YEAR which is known biblically as the Sabbatical Year. Simply put, according to the Torah (God’s instructions through Moses), all farming activities are suspended for the next 12 months.
As recorded in the book of Exodus 23:10-11, Moses instructed Israel saying, “Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its produce, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave, the beasts of the field may eat. In like manner, you shall do with your vineyard and your olive grove…”
The very next verse continues, saying, “Six days you shall do your work, and on the seventh day you shall rest…,’ making it very clear that the context for both commandments is REST. Rest for the people and rest for the land. Other biblical references prohibit planting, trimming or harvesting during the Sh’mita year, bringing farming in the Land of Israel to a total standstill, and effectively giving the Land a Sabbath rest following six productive and hard-working years.
The Hebrew root for the term SH’MITA is שמט, (SH-M-T), which serves as the foundation for a number of words such as “mish’ta’met” or “sha’mat,” all of them referring to dropping, ceasing, or avoiding something. In modern times, the sabbatical principle has spread to academics, clergy, and other white color professions where a sabbatical year is granted in order to freshen up, rest and study.
Since the Sh’mita commandment applies only to the Land of Israel, once the Jewish nation was driven out of its land into a long and painful 2,000-year exile, it became largely theoretical. Consequently, Jewish farmers in Europe, Asia, the New World, and elsewhere were under no obligation to let the land rest, forsaking the commandment altogether.
However, once Zionism gained momentum and waves of Jewish immigrants started returning to the Land during the 1880’s and beyond, the Sh’mita became relevant again. It also became very challenging, since the Jewish farmers who could barely keep their farms viable as it is, couldn’t fathom ceasing their farming activities for an entire year.
In order to circumvent the dilemma, rabbinic authorities created temporary sales permits called “heter me’chi’ra,” allowing Jewish farmers to fictitiously “sell” their land to non-Jews for a symbolic amount while keeping the land productive.
The issue didn’t go away but only grew as Israel’s population and agricultural footprint continued to expand, leading to ongoing efforts to adapt to modern times. Not only the original “heter me’chi’ra” sales continued to be practiced, but other exceptions were granted regarding crops that DO NOT grow on the actual soil such as greenhouse vegetables that grow on raised tables or hydroponic systems.
And while most large Israeli farming operations use that “sale” loophole to maintain business as usual, there are secular farmers who ignore the sabbatical year prohibitions altogether, forgo the “kosher certificate” from the rabbinic authorities, and sell their products independently.
And what happens to fruits and vegetables that grow on their own during the Sh’mita year? According to God’s commandment, these are supposed to be free for anyone, especially the poor.
While most of Israel’s population isn’t affected by the Sh’mita, zealous Jewish families and businesses who don’t trust the legal loopholes prefer to obtain their produce from non-Jewish farmers. Consequently, Israel sees an increase in agricultural imports during this year, mostly from her Arab neighbors.
In addition to the agricultural implications of the Sh’mita year, the Bible also tells us that all personal loans must also be forgiven at the end of every seventh year. According to the rabbis, this law applies outside of Israel as well, but only in reference to personal loans. The timing of this release is associated with the same holiday.
As it is written, “At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release of debts. And this is the form of the release: Every creditor who has lent anything to his neighbor shall release it; he shall not require it of his neighbor or his brother, because it is called the LORD’s release ... For the LORD your God will bless you just as He promised you; you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow; you shall reign over many nations, but they shall not reign over you.” (Deuteronomy 15: 1-6).
What could have been the reason for that cyclical loan amnesty? The 13th-century scholarly volume “Sefer Hachi’nuch” (Educational Book) explains that forgiving our debts every seventh year trains God’s people towards generosity. Letting go of money that is rightfully ours ingrains in our hearts a strong faith that ultimately every blessing and provision comes from God, and when we treat others generously we express our trust in God’s generosity towards us and are ready to receive more of His blessings.
May this coming Sh’mita Year bring you God’s gracious blessings and abundant provisions.
Your Sar-El team