The Sabbatical Year


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Shemitah Year

By Nachum Mohl

From last Rosh HaShannah, 5768, until now we have been living during a special time. This special time comes once every seven years and is called in Hebrew Shemitah, the Sabbatical year. Shemitah is the year in which land in Israel is to lay fallow, not to be worked, and those fruits and vegetables which grow by themselves are free to all who come to the field to take them. The owners of the fields have no rights to them.

The laws of Shemitah are giving in the Torah, Leviticus 25:1-7:

    And the Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai saying: Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: When you shall come into the land which I give you, then the land shall rest a Shabbaton unto the Lord. Six years you shall seed your field and six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in the produce. But on the seventh year it shall be a Shabbaton of holy rest for the land. A Shabbat for G-d, your field you shall not seed and your vineyard you shall not prune…

Shemitah means "release" or in other words, relinquishing procession. Every farmer and land owner in the land of Israel is commanded to leave his farmland, his vineyard and orchard and stop all agricultural activity. He must refrain from plowing, seeding, reaping, fertilizing, planting, pruning and gathering both the fruit from the trees and the vegetables of the ground. This rule only applies to the land of Israel, but not to lands outside of the borders. Although in the time of the Temple, lands which surrounded Israel observed certain customs of Shemita.

What ever grows of itself in the seventh year is considered hefker – free for everyone – both the poor man and the rich man, the passer-by and even the owner have equal rights to the produce. But it may not be harvested in the normal manner but only may be taken in small amounts; enough for a few meals as per the size of the household. A person can not bring his truck and fill it with produce and go to the market and sell it. Dealing in Shemitah produce is strictly prohibited. The produce that grows in the seventh year has a special holiness in it; we may not treat it disrespectful or throw it in the garbage.

The produce of the land reverts back to every one in an equal manner. However the land owner is still the owner of the fields and it is only the fruit and vegetables that are hefker, not the fields nor the trees. Whereas it is forbidden to lock the gates to a field to prevent entry to people who which to take fruit or vegetables, it is permitted to lock the field to prevent damages to the orchards and fields. The condition is that a sign is posted informing those wishing to partake of the produce that they may approach the owner who will allow them access.

Shemitah is a strange and wonderful mitzvah. Like the holy Sabbath, it comes in cycles of sevens and like the Sabbath certain activities are forbidden. But unlike the Sabbath which lasts only 24 hours, the Shemitah lasts a whole year. Like the Sabbath, we refrain from work before the Sabbath begins until long after it has left, so too with Shemitah, we refrain from activities before the Shemitah comes in and even after it has gone we are careful with the produce which grew in that year.

Like the Sabbath, the Shemitah comes to reinforce the concept that we are not the masters of our destiny. There is a G-d that is the real owner of the world and it is He, not us, that makes the final decisions. Although He is the guiding force through out the entire world, the Land of Israel is his chosen land. It is here that He reveals His presence in a most revealing manner, more than can be perceived in other countries and lands. For this reason He desires that all who live in this special land be attuned to the special holiness that is imbued in the land.

Although He has proclaimed: "All the earth is Mine", that it belongs to G-d, and not to man, it was only given to man for mankind's usage. The land of Israel is unique and must be used in a special manner, and when those living in it observe the Shemitah laws, they are saying in effect, that this is G-d's country. He is the boss, we are merely the workers. Observation of Shemitah testifies to G-d's ownership not just of the Land of Israel, but to all the world. We do not worry about loss of wealth because it is the blessing of G-d that really brings wealth; our observance of Shemita is a testimony to this belief.

When we observe the Sabbath properly, we are free to spend much time praying and studying since we (the farmers and landowners) do not work our fields. This is order that we may become even closer to Him. When we observe a year of Shemitah by not working we strengthen our faith. We do not merely study subjects of faith and become more knowledgeable in the subject; we actively refrain from making a living and instead rely upon Him to provide for us. During this year, we will see G-d's special providence upon us. We will no longer believe in Him because of what is written in books, but because we have put ourselves in a position of faith and lived with it.

Just like the Jews have never become poor by observing the Sabbath, so too, they will never lose by observing the Shemita. Although a person from outside may consider that those Jews who observe the Sabbath suffer financially, the reality is just the opposite. There are many very wealthy Sabbath observant Jews, many middle class ones, and yes, even poor ones. But there are even more who suffer from not observing the Sabbath – financially and emotionally.

In a similar manner, a Jew who observes the Shemitah will never suffer, he will gain not only in the spiritual world, but also in the material. Bottom line: do what you can to observe Shemitah, whether it be little or a lot, you will reap the benefits.

Today we do not live in small villages; we mostly live in cities and do not have access to fields. Yet we can still participate in this wonderful mitzvah. How? By ascertaining that the fruit and vegetables that we purchase is not in violation with the customs of the Shemitah year. You can simply observe Shemita merely by being careful by what you purchase in your supermarkets.

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For more on Jewish Customs and Traditions, see our Customs and Traditions Archives


from the July 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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