Shmita is a Jewish way to let the land rest once every 7 years. For Jewish Israelis it’s a deeply spiritual practice. Some may be surprised to know that the significance of this commandment is deeply ecological too.
The biblically ordained shmita or Sabbath for the land is about to happen following the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah (or Jewish New Year) tomorrow. In other words shmita is the 7-year agricultural cycle mandated by the Torah for the Land of Israel.
I first started Green Prophet in 2007 during a Sabbatical year, and coming full circle the shmita year starts again. Shmita means “release”.
An academic Sabbatical, when professors take off to San Francisco for a year abroad, comes from the Jewish concept of the Sabbatical year when the land rests.
But when we talk about a rest for the land, the ecological points to this tradition are significant – mind-blowing, even, knowing that sages were proscribing and following the shmita tradition hundreds, and thousands of years ago.
In ancient times we can look to biblical text for the source of the shmita tradition, which is considered a mitzva or commandment to religious Jews: “Six years shall you sow your land and gather in its produce. But in the seventh year, you shall let it go and abandon it, and the needy of your people shall eat, and the wildlife of the field shall eat what is left; so shall you do to your vineyard and your olive grove.” (Exodus 23:10,11)
“>Maimonides, in his, “The Book of the Mitzvos,” discusses the above mitzvah, and writes: “By this injunction, we are given a mandate to renounce as ownerless all produce of the land in the Shmittah Year, and to permit anybody to take what grows in our fields.” (Mitzvah 134)
When the land belongs to no one
An outshoot of this mitzvah is to desist from cultivating the land during the seventh year.
Practically speaking, Jews living in the land of Israel sill practice shmita. According to the late Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen as his writings appear in the Hazon Archives: “During the Shmittah Year, the produce that grows naturally in the fields is considered to be ownerless. According to our tradition, the rabbinical courts can hire workers to gather this produce and distribute it to the public.
“For example, there are rabbinical courts in Israel today which hire workers – the farmers themselves – to gather the produce, and it is then distributed to the public for a low fee which covers the costs of the gathering and distribution.”
Laws for observing shmita are complicated and since I am not a rabbi I will not go into them in detail. But essentially there are some kinds of allowances for fruit and produce that may be consumed while the land owned by the Jewish farmers is left to go fallow.
I understand that new seeds may not be planted, but trees can be cared for so the orchard or vineyard is not lost. We’ll go into more detail later.
Ripe peppers rotting in a greenhouse during shmita year in Israel are seen below.
But what will people eat during shmita?
In our world where tomatoes routinely take transatlantic flights it is not hard for Israelis to obtain food from elsewhere. And I should note that this particular mitzvah applies only to the land of Israel. Jews living in other countries do not observe this commandment.
When it’s too late to freeze ahead for the year and when you can’t rely on preserves, fruits and vegetables sold in a shmita year however may be derived from five sources, according to Wikipedia.
1. Produce grown during the sixth year, to which the laws of the seventh year do not apply.
2. Produce grown on land owned by non-Jewish (typically, Arab) farmers in Israel.
3. Produce grown on land outside the halakhic boundaries of Israel (chutz la’aretz). A large number of greenhouses have been set up in Jordan this year to grow produce for Israel’s observant folks.
4. Produce (mainly fruits) distributed through the otzar beit din (I have no idea what this means)
5. Produce grown in greenhouses.
This last way of growing (#5) resonates with eco-minded folks. I know of religious Jews in Israel who have started buying hydroponic and aquaponic systems to fulfil this year’s mitzvah of shmita, while allowing them to grow their own food at home.
Hydroponics, which I am trying at home is a great way to maintain a steady supply of greens like lettuce, and organic herbs. My na’ana (or mint) plants are growing like weeds laying down roots throughout my whole system.
Hydroponics is acceptable shmita practice according to orthodox rabbis
According to the Torah scholar Mordechai Schon in Israel hydroponics is acceptable, but there may be some conditions that apply. He tells Green Prophet:
“Growing vegetables using systems like hydroponics for shmita were introduced many years ago. There is a book that was published in 1950 named Hydroponics in Israel by Dr. Meir Schwartz הידרופוניקס – גידולי חצץ. בהוצאת המכון לחקר החקלאות ע”פ התורה on this subject.
“M Swartz did extensive research to test the viability of it; to be able to grow vegetables in the shmita year; and was guided by the Chazon Ish [Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz – left] who also helped him raise funds for his research,” says Schon.
“There are authorities that permitted hydroponics even growing outside; but the Chazon Ish (left) permitted only if growing indoors [if there is a roof or covering which prevents rain and sunlight it is considered indoors].”
Food tips during shmita
Practically speaking and for people observing the mitzvah of shmita, I asked Schon how people truly classify and source their food, according to Jewish law. Let’s say what happens if you have a small food garden at home?
Schon writes: “Fruits, shishis, fruits from sixth year which includes all fruit that started growing before shmita as it is not considered shmita fruit. If it started growing after Rosh Hashanah it has kadushas shviis and may be eaten. It could be sold through otzar beis din.
“The other option is import.”
Schon continues: “Vegetables that were picked after Rosh Hashanah but started growing before Rosh Hashannah may be eaten but have kdushat shviis and could be sold through otzar beis din. [There are more stringent opinions that prohibit vegetables that were picked after Rosh Hashanah as that is the opinion of the Rambam; but the Chazon Ish was lenient on this].
“Vegetables that started growing after Rosh Hashanah is prohibited. Vegetables that were grown by non-Jews on their land is permitted [there are different opinions if there is kdushas shviis] the other option is import or from crops that were grown in many parts of the south in the Aravah where shmita does not apply, since it is considered halachically chutz laaretz (or outside the land of Israel).
“Also some vegetables [mainly potatoes are stored from the sixth year],” Schon concludes.
If you are observant and have more questions add them to the comments here and I will ask Schon, willing to help, to reply in this article.
So to sum up, the shmita is a way to let the land rest for a year. It sure sounds a little complicated for the Jewish consumer looking to make a salad, but there is sound ecological reasons for shmita so the land can be replenished. But also, there are spiritual ones that I see as well. Whenever we remind ourselves that this land, any land on earth, does not really belong to us, but is borrowed, we give it more reverence and respect.
If in doubt about shmita, ask your rabbi. Peace out everyone observing shmita and peace out planet earth!