What Is Shmita and Where Did It Come From?

Every seven years the land is supposed to rest. As this tended to be onerous, the rabbis came up with inventive ways to circumvent the command.

Itzik Ben-Malki

Every seven days, on Shabbat, man and beast are supposed to rest. A similar principle applies to the land: according to Torah, it must be allowed to rest every seventh year.

This sabbatical year for the land is called shnat shmita. Whatever the intentions of its inventors, in latter-day Israel this year brings many Israelis a great deal of conflict and stress, and gives the land itself no real rest at all.

On Rosh Hashana, that is the evening of Wednesday, September 24, the Land of Israel will start another sabbatical year ordained by the Bible. In Hebrew, shnat shmita literally means “a year let go." This is no lip-service concept for observant Jews, farmers, grocers and the rabbis who regulate the laws of kashrut. Shmita is a serious matter.

It bears elaborating at this stage that shmita only applies to agriculture in the Land of Israel, nowhere else.

According to the Bible (e.g. Exodus 23:10-11) every seventh year is to be a shnat shmita. The land may not be worked, and the produce of the land may not be bought or sold. Rather, the land is to be left alone, though people may pick what grows naturally in the fields and orchards as they need. Maintenance work, such as watering and fertilizing to prevent the plants from dying, is permitted.

The rationale is that the earth needs a rest and that God will give plentiful bounty in the other six years if the rules of shmita are kept. (Leviticus 25:1-7, 18-22). In addition, in this year, debts are supposedly to be abrogated (Deuteronomy 15:1-11), though it is unclear who would give a loan under these circumstances. (Later a way was found around that, though.)

It is not clear when shmita as a concept first arose. There is no evidence in the Bible or elsewhere that the practice was observed during the First Temple period, beyond the fact it appears in the Torah’s lists of laws – but it doesn't come up in any of the narrative stories.

On the other hand, come the Second Temple period, we have ample evidence that Jews adhered to shmita while the Temple was around, and to a declining extent, after its destruction. The Mishnah (redacted in 220 CE) deals extensively with laws dealing with shmita in Tractate Shevi’it and elsewhere in the Mishnah and in the corresponding tractate in the Tosefta.

At the end of the Second Temple period, the abrogation of debts during shnat shmita was eliminated by a legal loophole called "prozbul", instituted by Hillel the Elder. According to Hillel, one’s debts could be transferred to a rabbinic council, which did not have to forgive debts owed to it in shmita years. At the end of the year the council would return the debt to the original creditor.

The agricultural constraints of shmita, on the other hand, were not as easily overcome (yet).

Caesar heeds shmita

According to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus’ 20-volume work "Antiquities of the Jews," both Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar agreed to relieve the Jews of taxes during shmita years, to allow them to keep their laws. After the Bar Kokhba Revolt, Jews were no longer exempt from tax during shmita years, and the taxation grew heavier too.

From the Talmud, we learn that many Jews threw in the towel and began to trade in, and consume, produce grown by Jews during shmita years. Those who kept shmita despite these hardships were seen as extremely pious and deserving of praise (e.g. Sukkah 44b).

Over the years, the number of Jewish farmers in the Land of Israel shrank to practically zero, so the issue was no longer a problem (as shmita only applies to Israel). This continued until the 19th century, when the Zionist movement arose and the Land of Israel was settled anew by Jewish farmers. These farmers were barely able to sustain themselves in ordinary years: it would be have been outright impossible to survive the shmita without working the land for a whole year. A halakhic solution was needed.

Shmita goy?

The Hebrew year 5649 (1888-9) was a shmita year. As it drew near - Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor, the chief rabbi of Kaunas (now in Lithuania) decreed that the Jewish farmland in Palestine could be temporarily sold to Arabs for that period, which would circumvent the problem - as long as the land was tilled by Arabs as well.

Other influential rabbis agreed, including the Zionist rabbi Samuel Mohilever. But the Ashkenazi rabbis of Jerusalem, led by Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin and Rabbi Shmuel Salant, opposed the proposed loophole.

This conflict was a harbinger of things to come.

As the Jewish presence in Palestine and the number of Jewish farmers grew, the problem became more pronounced, and in shmita year 5670 (1909-10) the argument reignited. The leading rabbis at this point were Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, one of the most important leaders of religious Zionism: he sided with the "virtual" sale of the land to Muslims. The opposition was led by Rabbi Yaakov Dovid Wilovsky of Safed.

Yet when the State of Israel was founded in 1948, the Chief Rabbinate accepted the loophole and formalized it.

In 2007, the last shmita year, this status quo was suddenly imperiled by democracy. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel decided that each local rabbinic council could decide for itself whether to apply the dodge in the area under its control. But the Ministry of Agriculture was appalled, and appealed to the Israeli High Court which decreed that the status quo must be kept.

In addition to this solution, another loophole called Otsar Beit Din was invented. This involves a rabbinic council paying farmers to pick the fruit and vegetables and transport them – but they pay nothing for the produce itself. They're only paying for the labor.

Observant Jews may then pay for “membership” in these religious co-ops, which may seem like they're simply buying the produce - but that is absolutely not the case!

For those who seek a different way to avoid the problem (mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews) some other techniques were developed, which (nearly) all agree are kosher: Jewish farmers may grow and sell produce grown in hydroponic or other detached substrate greenhouses and it may be bought and sold. But this can only take care of a small part of the problem.

The main solution for pious Jews is to buy produce grown by non-Jewish farmers, namely Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. Indeed, many retailers catering to ultra-Orthodox Jews have prearranged to buy Palestinian produce so that they may sell it throughout the year.

Of course not everyone agrees that buying from Arabs is a solution. Arutz Sheva reported in January 2014 that Ramat Gan’s rabbi Rabbi Ya’akov Ariel said that the buying from Palestinians was not allowed because of a halakhic law called “Lo Takhunam” which prohibits some forms of contact with gentiles. He urges Jews to use the “Otsar Beit Din” solution to deal with the shmita.