The Last Fruits of the Shemita Year

An exploration of the practice and philosophy of shemita in Israel today

It may seem that shemita (the sabbatical year) is over. After all, we are on the cusp of the second year marking its end. Yet, like with many other aspects of shemita, there is a richness and complexity that exceeds an initial understanding. For example, the shemita status of  the fruits of two characteristic trees of Israel, the Date and the Olive, only ends over the cusp of the late eighth and early ninth in year—in this case, in September and October 2023. Shemita is a cycle, not just a year. The sources on shemita give us a glimpse into the practical as well as ethical and existential aspects of this biblical injunction. Its practice has led increasing number of Israelis from different sectors of the religious community, and even secular Israelis, to a multifaceted reflection on nature and the relationship between God, man, and creation. For these Israelis, observing shemita, as an individual and as a community, in our capitalist age of industrial farming and land extraction is a transformative experience.

The origins of shemita is biblical.  It is mentioned multiple times in the Hebrew Bible, and its laws are elaborated on in the Mishna and the Talmud. In the Bible, shemita is mentioned in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy.  Each explores a different aspect of the commandment.  The sources in Exodus describe the foundation of the practice: the land must rest, but the poor and the beast of burden may eat from its produce. Especially important is the mention that olive trees and vineyards (two valuable products that can be grown for trade) are subject to shemita as well.

The sources in Leviticus 25:1-7 further explore practical aspects as well as philosophical underpinnings of the command. They elaborate on the concept of shemita as rest for the land: no sowing, pruning, or even reaping the aftergrowth. They also specify that the produce is to be eaten by all citizens, as well as male and female slaves, hired workers, resident aliens, domestic animals, and beasts that live in the land. The verses not only offer a precise how-to guide, but underline the equalizing function of the command. Shemita, like the Sabbath, applies the same way to everyone.

In later verses, further philosophical underpinnings are made explicit. The land cannot be sold permanently, for it belongs to God and therefore it must be released.  We are not owners, but rather stewards of the land: it is God’s land, and He allows its use.  To reinforce this existential point, once every seven years our lease is held in abeyance; now anyone may make use the field. Through this act, the land is redeemed. To ensure that all people have access to the fruits of the land during the other six years of the sabbatical cycle, once every 49 years the land reverts to its ancestral owner, and everyone starts again from the same place.

Finally, the sources in Deuteronomy anticipate how people may attempt to resist the command of shemita. They warn against those who, knowing that the seventh year is coming and that debts are to be released, refuse to lend money, repeating that people are commanded to lend to the poor. The text also describes the release of Hebrew slaves on the seventh year, with the additional proviso that they also be given goods upon their release, so as to enable a genuine fresh start. Without such help, slaves might very well be obliged to stay with their owner, despite their right to freedom.

The biblical command of shemita seems very much at odds with our modern world of 24/7 mini markets and global exports. But it is, in fact, practiced in Israel in a number of ways by both farmers and consumers.  While traditionally the laws of shemita do not apply to non-Jews, they may voluntarily observe them if they wish.

Jewish farmers in the historical Land of Israel have two broad options regarding shemita: observing it by circumventing it and observing it directly. The latter requires farmers to let the land lie fallow; the former entails moving their practice above ground in the form of hydroponic cultivation, or by going through a process of selling their land to a non-Jew for the year (this with the assistance of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel).

From these options, only produce grown on Jewish-owned land and according to the laws of the shemita has what is called the sanctity of the shemita (“kedushat shviit”). Fruits whose buds bloomed in the sixth year and are subsequently harvested in the shemita year do not have this sanctity . Only those fruits that bloom in the seventh year are said to be shemita produce; as a result, fruits with the sanctity of shemita may continue to be harvested as late as the end of eighth year and even early in ninth year—as is the case with the carob, which will be harvested in November of 2023, the beginning of the ninth year.  In the shemtiah year 2021-2022, of the farmers who kept shemita 75% performed Heter Mechira (temporary sale of the land to a non-Jew), 20% observed shemita or let the land rest, and 5% did not work the land. In the latter case, agricultural maintenance is permissible if it is for the purpose of keeping the plants alive through the shemita year. Still, working the land or the orchards to enhance growth remains prohibited. The laws therefore involve certain limitations on watering, weeding, trimming, and harvesting, while seeding, planting, pruning and plowing are prohibited. Similar restrictions may also apply to potted plants, depending on the circumstances.

For consumers, the primary choice is whether to procure food with or without the sanctity of the shemita. For those who choose the former, the main avenue is to do their shopping through the Otzer Beit Din, a rabbinical court organized for this purpose. This organization hires workers (usually the farmers themselves) to harvest the food left fallow in the fields, given that most people cannot easily go out into the country to pick their fruits and vegetables themselves. The workers also bring the produce to the city, where the rabbinical court appoints agents to distribute it and recover the costs of the harvest and distribution. For those who choose produce without the sanctity of shemita, the options are to buy imported produce, hydroponically grown produce, or produce from land owned by a non-Jew either permanently (Arab famers) or temporarily (“heter mechira”). Not all supermarkets and online grocery stores carry produce with the sanctity of shemita; most Jews who keep kosher buy heter mechira produce. Some ultra-orthodox neighborhoods do not buy heter mechira but rather use exclusively shemita produce overseen by the Otzer Beit Din rabbinic court, imported produce, or produce grown by Arabs or other non-Jews locally. Some people travel to access sanctified food, and some join the Otzer Haaretz organization, whose rabbinic court arranges for the kosher raising and handling of the sanctified crops. There are disagreements, but prominent rabbis support each of these methods of keeping the command of shemita.

There is yet one final approach, whose proponents say most closely approaches the biblical command: that of permaculture. Simply letting the land usually used for commercial agriculture lie fallow is perhaps the most widely known shemita practice. Religious permaculture enthusiasts claim that one can prepare the land during the preceding six years so that it yields abundantly in the seventh without active husbandry. They argue that, in fact, a permaculture approach to land is the intent of the biblical injunction.  Permaculture, as a practice seeks to move away from monoculture, and towards gardening which reproduces the abundance and self-sustaining features of nature itself. In this vein, Israeli permaculture practitioners have and continue to launch various initiatives conducive to agriculture, food security, the environment, and shemita. During the six years preceding shemita, they develop public spaces and community gardens for water harvesting and food forests, which are not only ownerless (“hefker”)—open to the public—but self-sustaining into the seventh year of the shemita cycle. Thus, unlike the current fields which have a reduced yield, during shemita these food forests are bountiful as is promised in the biblical texts.

The practice of shemita is most dramatic for farmers who let their land lie fallow, even if they are paid as workers through the Otzer Beit Din.  However, it can have a consequential impact on many poor families as well.  As shemita ends for many fruits and almost all vegetables after the seventh year, there are continued opportunities to support Jewish farmers in Israel, and to perform the mitzvah of “shemitat desafim”—the cancelling of debts—which happens only once every seven years. While many lenders forgive the debts that they can as a form of charity, so as not to lead to abuse of the system other organizations implement the prozbul system. The prozbul offers a contract by which one’s debts are transferred to the rabbinic court, such that court becomes responsible for them. The shemita year does not cancel the debts of one who transfers his documents to the beit din. During the shemita year, there are also campaigns to raise funds to be lent with a prozbul to some of the poorest in Israeli society. Specifically, there is a custom of making loans in the last month of the shemita year.

In additional to the practices of shemita, traditional commentators offer ways to ponder its moral and philosophical meaning, which many religious Israelis learn over the course of the shemita year. Maimonides’s The Guide for the Perplexed (Moreh Nevuhum) (written at the end of the twelfth century)  and Aharon HaLevi’s The Book of Education (Sefer ha Chinuch) (thirteenth century ) offer two different glosses on the practice. These two books, written in the Spanish exile, also testify to the continued importance of the Land of Israel in Jewish thought—and for Maimonides who moved to Israel —even in Jewish life, in the Middle Ages.

Maimonides argues that the purpose of shemita is to teach compassion and grace to all mankind. Whenever we eat something during shemita, it offers us an opportunity to remember to help the poor and downtrodden, prompting us to emulate God’s grace and compassion. Likewise, most poor people have debts; but with shemita they get a fresh start, standing equal to others. What could be a greater act of kindness and mercy on God’s part? But, more to the point, Maimonides insists on the collective impact of this command. The spiritual practice of shemita refines and focuses the entire Jewish people in all of the Land of Israel.

Rabbi Aaron HaLevi claims that the purpose of shemita is to emphasize the limits of man’s power. As farmers, it might be easy to think that the creative power of the world comes from man. But ultimately, it comes from God.  HaLevi elaborates on this point.  The command of shemita is given so that a man remembers that God created and sustains the world, and that humans are merely tenants here for a short time.  As a congregational rabbi both in the US and Israeli, I have often sat with people in their last hours. I have known people to have many regrets about how they spent their lives. But I have never known a person to regret the commandments that they performed, the good deeds they did, the charity they gave, the time they spent with their family. What deeds have we done in this world?  HaLevi writes about how the Sabbath and the Shmittah year are the times we should contemplate these questions.

The personal practice of shemita and its many rules, as an Israeli citizen, became for me an invitation to an extended meditation. Having spent many years with Native Communities in the south-western United States as an environmental activist (as well as a doula and NGO administrator), I had come to see the land and food production as an integral part of spirituality. Through this experience, I then reconnected to the holiness of Israel, the land of the spiritual tradition of my birth, by putting into practice the agricultural laws both in my garden and then with shemita.

The first agricultural command I learned as a new Israeli citizen was related to land ownership. The herbs growing in the front of my house had been declared ownerless by our landlords, in front of witnesses; they could now be harvested by the public.  Making the produce of one’s gardens ownerless also frees landowners from the obligation of separating one-hundredth of each harvest and designating it for the temple priests. With respect to produce from the back yard, six out of seven years we as tenants and our landlords still carry out this obligation in preparation for future times, and allow the tithes to compost. On the seventh year, the shemita, nothing is separated since all of the land is ownerless. Other laws I discovered included spacing out crops, giving space for each plant—a practice at odds with my guerilla gardening techniques in California.

As the new year approached and the shemita on the verge of commencing, I discovered further laws about planting and harvesting. For example, if I gave away baby strawberry plants growing from shoots off my plants, the transplanting had to occur at least three days before the New Year so they could be established in the ground before shemita. Vegetable seeds planted must sprout above the ground before Rosh Hashana, or else the crop would not be permissible for harvesting and consumption. I tend to harvest leaves on Fridays, when preparing Shabbat meals. The leaves I cook with are from the broccoli and kohlrabi plants that I planted and grew the previous winter, which continued to grow through summer and into the winter. Therefore, the food from these plants has extra sanctity during the shemita year.

Additional details about making the produce ownerless on the onset of shemita also became clearer. The edible produce growing in private yards had to be declared ownerless, but people had to given permission to enter the private domain in order to eat it. Many families, thus, put up signs for passers-by to help themselves; some of them are still there for the last fruits of shemita. I also learned we harvest only what we need and can use within a few days, similarly to how Moses gave over God’s instructions to the Jews in the desert—take only as much manna as they would need that day.

The laws of shemita also extend, as I came to understand, to the use of produce in the kitchen. If the produce has the sanctity of the shemita, none can go to waste; scraps from food preparations must be disposed of in a certain way. One shemita ingredient in a pot makes the whole soup holy. Compost can be left in a heap, but not put to use.

Over the eighth and ninth year, olive oil and wine with kedushat shevit becomes available. Owning such holy products also takes practice, because such products with shemita sanctity are permissible for certain uses and not others. For example, one cannot use olive oil with the sanctity of shemita for lubricating objects—only for food and candles.

If following all of these laws became an extended meditation for me, observing the land itself was a revelation. Without human care, the plants continue to thrive because, as the texts tell us, the Master of the Universe makes it so. I have seen the kohlrabi, broccoli, onions, leeks, and celery go feral. Formerly domesticated, the plants keep growing, reseeding in harmony with the seasons. The plants are free, and I am in awe.

 

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