Flapping proudly in fallow fields, large green and yellow banners in rural Israel proclaim: Kan Shomrim Shmita (“Here We Keep Shmita”). The banners are issued by an organization called Keren Hashviis, which financially supports Israeli farmers who strictly observe one of the Bible’s less practical commandments: to let all agricultural land in Israel lie uncultivated for one out of every seven years.
Shmita, which literally means “release,” is also called shabbat haaretz (“Sabbath of the land”) and is currently being observed during year 5782 on the Hebrew calendar. Just as the weekly Sabbath is a day of rest for Jews, so is shmita supposed to be a year of rest for Jewish farmland. In addition to its agricultural dimensions, during shmita, according to the Bible, debts are to be forgiven and Hebrew slaves freed.
The origins of and reasoning behind shmita are unclear. Today we know that letting soil rest allows it to regenerate and improves its fertility, but the degree to which this was understood in the ancient Near East is unknown. And while occasional debt forgiveness was practiced by monarchs in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, Aharon Ariel Lavi, a rabbi and author of Seven: Shmita Inspired Economic and Social Ideas, says the regular practice of shmita appears to have been a Hebraic innovation. The Torah represents shmita as an essential piece of the covenant permitting Jews to dwell in the Promised Land, and numerous prophets, including Jeremiah, portrayed the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian exile as a consequence of transgressing these laws.
While shmita may be a respite for the land, historical and biblical sources recount that despite divine assurances of increased abundance leading up to shmita, these years could be times of starvation and vulnerability. Both the First Book of Maccabees and Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus write that observing shmita compromised the ancient Israelites’ ability to withstand siege during the Hasmonean revolt against the Seleucid Empire in 167-160 BCE.
Josephus also recounts that Alexander the Great and Gaius Caesar both granted the Jews exemptions from their yearly tributes for the seventh year. But the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and the subsequent exile of the Jews from Israel hastened the demise of shmita practice. Around 200 CE, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, who redacted the Mishnah (the foundation of the Talmud), argued that the arduous sacrifices entailed by observing shmita were not biblically mandated for the few Jewish farmers who remained in Palestine. More and more, shmita became a hypothetical topic of discussion among Jewish scholars and commentators, rather than an actual practice.
Historical and biblical sources recount that despite divine assurances of increased abundance leading up to shmita, these years could be times of starvation and vulnerability.
Widespread interest in shmita—as well as debate over how to observe it—revived in the 1880s during the first major wave of Jewish immigration to Palestine. (Perhaps coincidentally, it was in 1880 that Harvard began granting its academics a “sabbatical,” or a year off, once every seven years, an adaptation of shmita that quickly spread to many other academic institutions.) Early Zionist pioneers who established agricultural settlements prioritized survival over shmita. One popular workaround was the heter mekhira (“leniency of sale”), which allowed Jewish farmers to sell their land to non-Jews for the sabbatical year, thus letting Jews continue to farm and sell produce as workers on the land, not owners of it. (This accommodation’s provenance stretches back to a still unsettled dispute between two 4th-century sages over whether selling land to gentiles exempts it from tithes.)
One reluctant proponent of the heter mekhira method was Abraham Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, who agreed it was necessary due to the settlements’ precarious circumstances. “Have I not repeated several times that it is a temporary measure that is only [suitable] because of great need and great necessity?” wrote Kook in a letter to a detractor. “Heaven forbid that we should abandon such a great and overarching mitzvah—the sanctity of the Shmita—without a tremendous need that touches our very soul.” Kook later published an influential book on shmita called Shabbat of the Land before the 1909-1910 sabbatical year.
Today in Israel, produce in an average Israeli grocery store during the shmita year is usually grown under heter mekhira. Even secular farmers use this method, in order to keep their kosher certifications. Other farmers prefer another option, the otzar beit din, in which the land is transferred to a rabbinical court to manage during the shmita year. But these methods don’t work for everybody: Some believe they circumvent the spirit of the biblical law, as they keep Israeli agricultural land in production. Shmita observance presents “a conflict between religious values, national values and economic values,” says Lavi.
This tension has led to other alternatives, such as importing food from Europe or neighbors such as Gaza or Jordan. A more expensive and consequently less common course of action is to grow food in a greenhouse sealed off from the land. “It’s like a spaceship, a bubble where you can plant, you can sow, you can do whatever you want,” says Lavi.
These workarounds mean shmita is invisible to most Israelis, since the availability, quality and price of most produce is unaffected, says Lavi. “It just looks like every other year, which is sad because we lose this very special mitzvah and all the values and content that it brings. On the other hand, we have 9 million people. We need to feed them somehow. It’s really not realistic to abandon all the lands in Israel.”
Then there is the Keren Hashviis approach, with its green and yellow banners. The number of farmers participating in the Keren Hashviis program grew from 1,836 in 2000 to more than 3,000 in 2014, and the acreage rose from 45,000 acres to 90,000—still a small fraction of the 1.1 million acres under cultivation in Israel, according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. These farmers rely on subsidies from the government and donations from private individuals in order to observe shmita.
Although shmita does not technically apply to land outside of Israel, diasporic interest in the biblical concept started to grow in the 1990s when Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a leader of the Jewish Renewal movement, suggested using the sabbatical year to reflect on the impact of work and the economy on ourselves, our relationships and the environment. In 2007, Hazon, an organization devoted to promoting sustainability through Jewish eco-agrarian lifestyles and education, launched the Shmita Project, which partners with Jewish groups to develop plans of ecological sustainability, resilience and climate action. Hannah Henza, who currently oversees the Shmita Project, views the interest in shmita as an outgrowth of the American Jewish search for meaning and identity. “When we look at some of the most pressing issues of our time—financial and socioeconomic inequality, hunger, land degradation, climate change—there is an invitation to look back on our history, on our ancestry, on our tradition, and say, ‘What wisdom is there that might inform a conversation for us facing these issues right now?’” she says. “One of the pieces that comes out really quite clearly is the concept of shmita.”
The project’s partners include agricultural ones, such as the Jewish Farmer Network, which encourages members to select shmita plots to keep fallow as a spiritual nod to the commandment. “As farmers, so much of our work is having a plan for the land,” says Shani Mink, a farmer and director of the network. “The work of shmita is finding out how to lean into that and be present with the stillness and the lack of control.” (Fans of regenerative agriculture will notice resonance with the “first principle” of permaculture: to observe the land for a full year before placing any permanent features on it.)
For American Jews who have no land to let lie fallow, there are other ways to practice shmita. M², the Institute for Experiential Jewish Education, gave its staff the entire month of September off.
Focusing on the practice of forgiving debt, the Jewish Education Loan Fund is creating a shmita-specific loan forgiveness program. Shmita has also informed Jewish calls to alleviate student and medical debt on a national scale. Kol Tzedek, a synagogue in West Philadelphia, is working to eliminate $250,000 in unpaid bills for low-income Philadelphians. In fact, possible applications of shmita are endless, and can help raise awareness about and combat food waste, overconsumption, greenhouse gas emissions, land degradation and more. “Shmita is one of the things from the history of Jewish ideas that make sense,” says Aharon Lavi. “It’s a connection to nature. It’s a connection to each other. It’s a connection to culture, to ritual, to something that makes sense of this reality. It takes a cycle of seven years and gives it a name.”