The Shmita (Hebrew for 'letting go of') is a series of Biblical laws, mentioned numerous times on Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteromony. The Biblical and the traditional explenations to the Shmita are usually social or ecological.

Shnat HaShmita ('The Year of Letting Go') occurs once every seven years. Every seventh Shnat Shmita leads to a Yovel. Both the Shmita and the Yovel, as they appear in the Bible, are valid only when all the Jews are in the Land of Israel. But due to several reasons I'll not get into here, the Rabbinical Courts of the 5th century BC declared that they will be held in any situation and not just when all the Jews are in the Land of Israel.

The many laws regarding the Shmita are divided into three major groups:

  • The prohibition of working the land in the seventh year.
  • The abandoning of harvest and fruits in the seventh year.
  • The remission of debts in the end of the seventh year.

The Prohobition of Working the Land

"Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath unto the Lord. Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather in the fruit thereof; But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest unto the land, a sabbath for the Lord: thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard." (Leviticus 25:2-4)

The law distinguishes between the fruit of the earth and vegetables that are sawn every year, and trees which yield fruit every year.

The sawing and harvesting of the formers is forbidden as is the picking of the fruits of the latters.

The principle in the prohibition is as follows: all labours aimed at improving the plant and its fruits are forbidden in the seventh year; whereas labours aimed at preventing damage or death to plants are allowed.

One must remember also that with the agricultural means of the time, constant working of the land, without leaving it time to "recuperate" could well have left it barren.

The Abandoning of Fruits

"And the sabbath of the land shall be meat for you; for thee, and for thy servant, and for thy maid, and for thy hired servant, and for thy stranger that sojourneth with thee. And for thy cattle, and for the beast that are in thy land, shall all the increase thereof be meat." (Leviticus 25:6-7)

"And six years thou shalt sow thy land, and shalt gather in the fruits thereof: But the seventh year thou shalt let it rest and lie still; that the poor of thy people may eat: and what they leave the beasts of the field shall eat. In like manner thou shalt deal with thy vineyard, and with thy oliveyard." (Exodus 23:10-11)

The laws state that it is permitted to eat everything that grows in the seventh year, but it is prohibited to buy or sell any of it. All that grows in the fields belongs to everyone and not to the owner of the land.

The owner of the land can of course gather fruit and harvests from his own lands (just like everyone else can), and can even sell them, provided he keeps three rules:

The Remission of Debts

"At the end of every seven years thou shalt make a release. And this is the manner of the release: Every creditor that lendeth ought unto his neighbour shall release it; he shall not exact it of his neighbour, or of his brother; because it is called the Lord's release." (Deuteronomy 15:1-2)

According to this law all debts are automatically remissed on the 29th of Elul, the last day of the Jewish year in Shnat HaShmita, unless the deadline for their payment was set to a time before that day (in order to prevent people from detaining payments in order for them to be remissed). This is meant to aid people to start over without being constantly afraid of their creditors.

Abstaining from loaning to the poor because of this law is considered a sin.

In order to prevent a situation in which 'the rich are sinful and the poor hungry' the Sanhedrin legislated the pruzbul regulation, according to which Rabbinical Courts may allow the collection of debts by creditors in specific situations.

This last group of laws is valid only in transactions between Jews.

As I stated earlier, the Shmita is currently in order due to Rabbinical and not Biblical edicts (due to the fact that not all the Jews live in the Land of Israel ever since 586 BCE).

Some agricultural settelments avoid breaking the Shmita laws by switching on the seventh year to non-land based products (plants that grow on and in water for instance).

However, the vast majority of agricultural settelments rely on a special permission, given by the Rabbis every year since the 1930's, according to which the land could be 'sold' to a non-Jew for a symbolic amount of money, and as the land is not owned now by Jews, it could be worked and harvested. At the end of the year, the land would be 'purchased' again.

The above arrangement was originally set in order to provide the then new and economically fragile settelments a way to observe the Shmita laws without collapsing economically.

This year, however, a group of important ultra-orthodox Rabbis declared that the reasons for the allowing of this custom are not valid anymore, and therefore refused to give Kosher certificates to the products of any settlement which will break the above laws, even if the land was to be fictitiously sold as was customary.

Most of the above is loosely based on the Hebrew book 'Judaism, Theory and Practice' (my translation of the name), by Rabbi Y. M. Lau (currently the official Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel).

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