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By Menachem Mendelson
This year, 5768 in the Jewish calendar, is a Shmita year. Shmita is a year-long observance of not working the land. Originally a biblical commandment, today it is observed as a rabbinical ordinance. Shmita is connected with the Jubilee year, which came every 50 years. The Jubilee year which came after each seventh Shmita year included refraining from working the land like Shmita, but added the release of all indentured servants and the return of certain purchased lands to their original owners.
The method of determining which is a Shmita year is by dividing the Jewish year by seven. If it is evenly divisible by 7 it is a Shmita year, but this is not the reason for it, rather it started after the Jews conquered the land of Israel under the leadership of Jehosua, and divided the land amongst themselves, then the first seven-year counting period started. It just happened to coincide with the Jewish calendar year that was divisible by seven. The laws of Shemita apply only to the land of Israel, not to the lands that surround it or are distant from it.
Shemita is to the years what the Shabbat is to the week. Just like the week is divided into a period containing seven days, so too, the years are divided into periods of seven years. The Jubilee year is also related to seven: after seven periods of seven years (49 years) the fiftieth year is the Jubilee year. The Jubilee year is also the first year in the new counting of the Shemita year cycle.
During the Shemita year it is forbidden for Jews who live in the Land of Israel to work the land for agricultural purposes. Tilling, sowing, planting and other similar agricultural work activities are all forbidden. During this year, the land is to remain "fallow" - meaning that the land is to have a complete rest. It is forbidden for the owner of a field to lock his field to deprive access to it and any produce that may be in it to others. The ownership reverts during this year back to the Creator.
It addition, any fruits or vegetables that do grow in private fields become available to all, rich or poor alike. The land in effect reverts its ownership to G-d and He lets all eat from it, especially the poor, the orphans and the converts equally with the wealthy and the landowner himself, the birds and the beasts of the fields.
Just as the Shabbat is a sign between G-d and His people who do no work on this day rather they treat the day as holy, so too the seventh year is to be treated with holiness. We show our faith in G-d that He is the provider and we trust that during this year of non-production that He will provide for us. In doing so, we dedicate that year to other types of work such as studying Torah or other work that does not require agricultural work. In this manner the Jew is elevated about the gross materialism of this world and is reminded that it is G-d that is the real owner of the land, not man.
In ancient Israel, where the economy was based on agriculture, one out of every seven years the land was not worked. The fields, orchards and vineyards were not pruned, trimmed or its produce harvested. Instead, individuals were allowed to enter into all fields and take enough for themselves and their families for a few meals. It was forbidden to take the produce and make business with it.
Although today it may be considered reckless to follow such behavior, none the less, G-d promised that He would give His blessing on the sixth year that the land will produce enough also for the seventh and eighth. When the Jubilee Year would come after the Shemita year, G-d gave his blessing that the sixth year would produce on the forty-eighth year and for the forty-ninth year (Shemita), the fiftieth (Jubilee Year), and the fifty-first year. This means one year would provide enough for three years. This is the opposite of the common idea that Shemita is to let the ground rest for the purposes of gaining strength to continue to produce quality crops. Here the bumper crop comes in the sixth year, not in the first year after the ground rests.
Shemita demonstrates clearly that those who observe His laws and have faith in Him will not suffer. Just the opposite - they will gain stability in life and security by knowing clearly that He is The Provider, not the land and that He is the cause of their wealth, not their hard work. Through Shmita, we learn to be secure in the knowledge of G-d's infinite care which will bring us into true happiness.
This year we have the ability to share in the observance of Shemita. We can refrain from purchasing fruits and vegetables that have been worked on the seventh year. To observe Shemita correctly we must begin to learn the various laws. Although few today work the land for a living as it was during the time of the Temple, yet the promise of G-d that he will bring his blessings upon us for our sacrifice and our faith in Him still applies today as it did then.
from the September-October 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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