What’s the Deal With The Shmita Year?

When I first launched this blog, I wrote about the (then) coming shmita year, which began at Rosh Hashanah in September of 2021 and concludes at the Jewish New Year in September of 2022. Shmita is something my family and I are observing on our homestead, but I’ve quickly learned that the practice is exceedingly rare outside of the Holy Land.

Among those I know of who are interested in observance, there’s additionally a lot of confusion about what shmita is and what it involves. So, I decided to convert an old temple small group presentation into a blog post, and to write out some of the frequently asked questions I’ve seen dealing with the shmita year.

Defining Terms & Biblical Parameters

In my first post on this subject, I gave this definition:

“[A] shmita year is a year-long rest for the land. Shmita literally means “release,” but we could also understand it as a sort of sabbatical for the planet. If you’re familiar with the concept of a weekly sabbath, shmita is very similar. Instead of a weekly sabbath though, we mark shmita once every seven years for a full year starting and ending at Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year).”

But why? And what exactly are the terms of this land-based sabbatical?  To understand those questions, we can turn to several passages in the Tanakh.

In a section on observing sabbath laws, the Book of Exodus gives us these general instructions:

“‘For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what is left. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove.'” (Exodus 23:10-11 NIV)

We can even find the parallel to shabbat in the verse right after those (Exodus 23:12).

In the Book of Leviticus, things get a bit more granular and we’re introduced to the related concept of a jubilee year (Leviticus 25: 8-17), a fiftieth year that breaks off the seven-year cycles after seven repetitions before a new seven-year cycle begins. Here’s how shmita is described (emphasis added) :

“[HaShem] said to Moses at Mount Sinai,Speak to the Israelites and say to them: “When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to [HaShem]. For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to [HaShem]. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest. Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you—for yourself, your male and female servants, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you, as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. Whatever the land produces may be eaten.”‘” (Leviticus 25:1-7 NIV)

In the Book of Deuteronomy, we get the other two releases that happen as part of shmita: the release of debts (Deut. 15:1) and the release of slaves (Deut. 15:12-18), which is also described in Jeremiah 34:13-14.

Using Torah as our guide, we can understand that the shmita year is a parallel to the weekly sabbath, a year of rest for the land given to us by our Creator, and part of a seven-year cycle where debts are forgiven and slaves are set free. But in practical terms, these passages offer very little detailed guidance for how the shmita year can or should be observed today.

Additionally, the reality of diaspora and the globalization of Abrahamic faith opens us to questions about whether shmita even applies to those of us living outside of the Holy Land. The context of these passages too–dictated to a proto-agricultural community–in comparison to our own lives in a hyper-modernized, globalized agricultural society where most people do not farm or grow food themselves also creates a space for shmita’s relevance and application to be debated in ways that aren’t mentioned in the original texts.

To better understand the traditional observance of shmita, we can look for guidance from our rabbinical sages.

The Talmud and Beyond

One of the central Talmudic texts we can refer to which addresses shmita is Seder Zeraim. Important to note here is that the rabbinic commentary for the full text is only present in the Jerusalem Talmud, not the Babylonian Talmud, and this is because it was understood that shmita only applied to those who live in the Holy Land. So, if you want to stick to tradition, if you aren’t living in Israel, the shmita year isn’t something you are obligated to observe.

Nevertheless, I think it’s important to push past the distance diaspora and modern agriculture have put between us and the land (where that is applicable). To dedicate an entire seder (order) of the Mishnah to right agricultural practice demonstrates an extreme meaningfulness between our people and right relationship to the land. Furthermore, the inclusion of the first tractate, Berakhot, which some misunderstand as being out of place, connects these land-related observances directly to Shema, that is, the central, daily affirmation of Jewish belief and peoplehood.

The spirit of the tradition here is for us to understand Jewish religiosity as something tended in tandem with Jewish land-use; the perceived dissonance between these practices is a function of the unconscious influence of diaspora and diasporic agricultural norms redefining what it means to be Jewish and in what parts of our lives religious identity can be observed. Our indigenous religious intention is to be connected to the Promised Land, and to keep the sabbath alongside the land.

In Shabbat 31a, Resh Lakish observes this connection between emunah (faith) and the Seder Zeraim as well. Right land-use, including observance of shmita, is an expression of our faith, literally our faithfulness to G-d’s commandments. The passage in Isaiah which inspires Resh Lakish there, Isaiah 33:6, in context describes land which has fallen to waste and dried up through lack of care, lack of faithful tending. While Isaiah prophesies G-d’s punishment on Assyria through that imagery of the desecrated land, I see another parallel which further connects back to Zeraim. In the Christian Bible, Jesus speaks of the “faith of a mustard seed,” (Matthew 17:14-20, Luke 17:1-6) and further uses the imagery of a mustard seed in his parables (Matthew 13:31-32, Mark 4:30-32, Luke 13:18). Zeraim, of course, translates to seeds.

So, you have this span of around two thousand years between Torah and Talmud, punctuated by prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Nehemiah (Nehemiah 10:31), as well as charismatic figures like Jesus, all either directly referencing shmita or employing imagery of land and seeds to describe the Jewish people and faith. While there’s an obvious traditional interpretation of shmita not applying to agriculture outside of the Holy Land, I think the correlation between faithfulness and shmita challenges us to consider what it means to separate our own religiosity from land-use (even when our separation from the Holy Land is outside of our control or not feasible to remedy).

Put another way, if being part of this tribe chosen by the G-d of Abraham was characterized by observing both a social sabbath and agricultural sabbath for so long in our people’s history, how much of our identity in that tradition is lost if we don’t find some way to carry these observances with us, even where our circumstances make them so very challenging?

Putting it All in Practice

In my experience, trying to find contemporary guidance on this stuff is ridiculously difficult. The common refrain among American and European Jews is either that they don’t live in Israel (and thus are excused from observing), or that “hardly anyone is a farmer anymore.” I’m yet to meet a rabbi who seems concerned about answering these questions for those of us who are farmers, homesteaders, or otherwise in relationship with land.

Hazon (and the associated Adamah) is one Jewish organization I know of which seems genuinely connected with land and shmita observance in the diaspora.

But there’s still a degree of Jewish wisdom that’s being lost in the absence otherwise. Our options are either to just ignore the shmita year because we aren’t in Israel and live in the modern world, or to find the time to become scholars of Torah and Talmud in an effort to more completely understand all of these fading traditions.

Its in recognition of what is being lost that I’ve felt so impressed to not only observe shmita but to blog about this journey when possible as well. Jewish agricultural wisdom has value and shouldn’t be lost or relegated only to those who understand Hebrew fluently or are traditionally trained in Jewish textual scholarship. The below common questions I’ve seen by others in this boat I’ve answered from my present understanding, using what I know of Torah and Talmud for guidance.

Where I appear or am mistaken and uninformed, please adhere to more traditional sources than myself.

So Can We Harvest? (Or, What Do We Eat?)

This one comes from a common misconception which I think has arisen again from that distance between the agricultural communities of Torah and present-day. In today’s world, the shmita year often gets summed up as a blanket “no farming.” The meaning gets lost there though. Shmita is about releasing the land to rest. Stuff is going to continue to grow on it, whether we work on it or not. So this question about harvesting matters because really what it’s asking is whether shmita means an obsessive hands-off year or simply a year where we don’t perform certain practices on our land.

I can’t find a Torah source for understanding shmita as the former. On the contrary, there’s actually a lot of anarchic, communal, hands-on action that seems like it’s welcome during the shmita year. Poor folks without any land are supposed to be free to eat from anything that grows (Exodus 23:10-11).

And G-d tells all of us in Leviticus that “whatever the land produces may be eaten,” (Lev. 25:7). There is some gray area there because we’re also told not to reap our untended grapevines (Lev. 25:5). But the message to me seems like we’re meant to eat from the land, we’re meant to forage, and we’re meant to reconnect to this more primal diet of understanding what it is we actually need to survive (vs. how much we might harvest if we’re focused on selling it for profit).

Additionally, G-d tells us in Leviticus 25:22 that we will be blessed with a bountiful harvest prior to the shmita year, so there’s this implicit practice of storing up food too that becomes part of shmita as the cycles repeat.

So What If We Don’t Store Up Previous Harvests Prior to Shmita?

This is a great question and one which I think our ancestors who fled oppression certainly faced in a different capacity. It also hits at the heart of what we’re getting from our shmita year, and that’s a reminder that G-d provides for us. Creation is designed so that life is in balance, right?  This year is about reminding our hearts of that, sharing where we’re able, relying on one another and relying on that bountiful system of life begun by our Creator. Have faith!

Can We Grow in Containers?

My understanding is that this is actually something many farmers do in Israel during shmita. While I haven’t done an exhaustive search of all Talmudic and rabbinical references to specific practices, the Rambam mentions growing in pots in his Mishneh Torah: “And we may not check seeds in a pot full of dirt, but may rather only check them in a pot full of dung.”

The difference he seems to be making is between soil that comes directly from the land and soil that comes from animal waste, or presumably any type of compost that hasn’t yet become part of the land itself. While I can’t speak to his particular logic here, to me, I think he is erring on the side of caution to discourage people from digging up their land (which is supposed to be at rest during the shmita year) in order to simply transplant it into a field of pots.

If that caution feels unnecessary to you, it may be worth recalling here that Jewish tradition is hardly a settled, singular interpretation of everything, and historically our communities have very strongly disagreed with one another on subjects such as the rabbi’s commentary here.

What About Watering?

The Rambam actually covers this one too. He writes:

“We may water an irrigated field in the seventh year–and that is a field for sowing that is very thirsty. […]. And likewise may we sprinkle water onto the dirt of a field for trees, for the sake of the trees–such that they will not be lost.”

I wanted to include this one especially because it hits at a core perspective here, that we’re still caring for the land. We’re relieving the thirst of dehydrated fields and trees. And we’re doing it specifically for their sake, so that they won’t be lost.

I think that intention is relevant for a lot of us with very fragile land projects in our care. I don’t believe that the heart of shmita is respected if we let our land go to waste during the sabbath year. It’s supposed to be rest, not death.

So What if We Mess Up?

This is a great one because Jewish tradition gives us this concept of chet (sin), or, missing the mark. The short answer is that you learn from your mistake and make an earnest effort to be better moving forward.

Teshuvah, that process of coming back from missing the mark, is something so vital to Jewish metaphysics, you might even challenge yourself to look at messing up as a blessing to bring yourself even closer to G-d.

So don’t fret!  Just reset and do better. …which brings me to my final thoughts here, what does contemporary shmita observance look like for those of us outside of Israel? (Besides, that is, a whole lot of messing up and feeling disconnected from a living tradition rooted halfway around the world).

The Big Picture

If we zoom way out, what’s the point of the shmita year? Is it this archaic, incomprehensible and irrational Mosaic commandment that’s meant to confuse and divide us (or worse, to starve and to bankrupt us)?

No. That’s not what shmita is about.

Like observing the sabbath, shmita is about resetting to a Jewish sense of time. It’s about two key activities: resting and remembering, which we accomplish by refraining from work and by focusing on religious study. What is it we’re charged with remembering? And why is rest connected here? Easy. We’re remembering G-d’s creation of the universe. We’re resting because that’s what G-d did too.

Shmita is about Creation (specifically), and creation (generally). Everything about how we implement the shmita year, about the practices we question or don’t understand, needs to root back to that theme. The shmita year isn’t about obsessively keeping yourself off the land. And it isn’t about letting the land die. It’s about the joy of rest (for you and the land alike) after six periods of hard work. It’s, at the very least, about treating the seventh period differently than the other six.

Put another way, if G-d needed to rest on the seventh day, surely we do, and surely the land does as well.

In the loss of ongoing traditional practice, the absence of particular guidance, and the separation from the Holy Land that’s defined our time on this Earth so frequently, I think reconnecting to that sabbath vibe is as good a place to start as any. In the same way that observing shabbat might slowly be built up over one’s lifetime to a deeper level, our observance of shmita (and the other years of the cycle) can be nurtured over time.

Right now, the sun has set. Maybe we didn’t accomplish all that we intended or needed to accomplish to fully stop working until the next evening. Maybe we already committed ourselves to work that must be done tomorrow. At the risk of being heretical, I don’t think we ought to lose our minds over that.

Instead, I think we ought to do what we’re able to do. I think we ought to remember at least the power of our thoughts and intentions that can be aligned to the spirit of resting. That itself, that internal state, is one of faith that G-d will provide (and that G-d will sanctify our missed marks). And faith, again, is something we’ve traditionally understood as vital to the shmita year.

Make this time different. Choose rest over work when possible. Mind the same for the land G-d has given you. And when the next year starts, remember that you have six years to study deeper and to prepare more fully before it’s time to rest again.

For those of you who are coming across this subject for the first time, what questions do you have? For those of you who are somewhat familiar with shmita and looking to observe it or learn more, what questions of yours have I left out here?

If there’s more interest in this subject, I’d be happy to write more posts on it, or to write more in depth at a later time about some of the cool stuff we are doing at our homestead this year.

Thanks for reading! -JP

The Scripture quoted in this passage is taken from THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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