What is Shmitta?

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah for her neshama.

By Shayna Hulkower

You might have seen facebook invites to events entitled, "What you should know about Shmitta" or "How to prepare for Shmitta". These events are undoubtly helpful, but useless if you don't even know what is shmitta. Let us explain.

As stated in the Torah, "When you come to the land that I'm giving you and you will live in it, [there will be a] Shabbat for G-d.  Six years you will sow your fields, six years you may tend your vines and gather your crops. And the seventh year will be G-d's Shabbat for the land, a Shabbat for G-d [so that] you can't sow in your field or prune your vines, it will be a year of rest of the land. It will be a Shabbat for the land and you can eat the produce...(Vayikra 25:1-6). It goes on to enumerate the rules relating to being able to eat from the land while not doing any real farm work on it.

Some of the language might sound familiar to you - 'six years you may work but the seventh is for G-d'. It is a very similar structure for what we say every week at Kiddush - six days G-d worked creating the universe and everything therein, and on the seventh He rested. So to, do we treat the land. For six years we can work it, but the seventh Jews are commanded to let it lie fallow.

There are a few interesting things about this mitzvah. First of all, it only applies to land in Eretz Yisrael (one of the mitzvot that only applies when you are living in the land of Israel). Secondly, it only applies to Jews - if a non-Jew has a farm he is under no obligation to not work the land. Lastly, it's very notable that the idea of letting land lie fallow for a period of time is in such an ancient text - way before there were ever any agronomists or plant scientists proved that it was healthy for soil and crop production!

Since so many Jews now live in Eretz Yisrael, even though it's still disputed whether the majority of the world's Jews live here, shmitta has been observed to varying degrees in the State of Israel. It gets complicated and expensive buying fruits and vegetables every 7 years. People who are diligent about the laws of kashrut are careful to ensure they only buy from places that import their produce from out of the country. Some rely on produce grown in the Negev, since the southernmost part of Israel (south of Be'er Sheva) is not considered to be part of Biblical Israel). Hence, why the laws of Shmitta are on everyone's mind.

In addition to rule about crops, there is another part of the law, that unfortunately for anyone with a mortgage or credit card debt here is not in effect: the cancellation of debts. The Torah also says, "At the end of 7 years you will make shmitta. And this thing, the shmitta, will be released," (Devarim 15:1), and goes on to discuss the cancellations of debts (in various forms including indentured servitude). It's nice to know, that not only does the land get a break, but also those working to get out of debt and for a better life for themselves!

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