Shmita and surviving a year in Israel without starving as the land rests

Shmita year in Israel sabbath for the land

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.

RELATED: The shmita year and connection to the environment

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

shmita year in Israel, when the land rests

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.

ripe peppers rotting in a greenhouse during shmita

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.

They are:

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

hydroponics in israel during shmita year

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!

Top two images: ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock.com

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9 thoughts on “Shmita and surviving a year in Israel without starving as the land rests”

  1. Gem says:

    So I am a Christian who loves the Torah… The things that stand out to me about the shemitah is that in ancient days it would have meant green manure and resulted in greater fertility of the land in general. I do think that it is something that all should practice worldwide and will be done: Isaiah 2, Micah 4 (but I understand this is not the rabbinic interpretation). Also, hugely important is that it cares for the needs of the poor. Another interesting thing is that every 7th year, faithful Gentiles (goyim) are commanded in Torah to travel to Jerusalem for Sukkot when the Torah is to be read. Also women and children are to go in the 7th year (Jewish males, every year). So if people were travelling from far and wide as per Zechariah 14, wouldn’t it make the journey easier if you were free to eat from all the fields along the way? 🙂

  2. Alon Eliran says:

    To Chris, the timing of the Shmita year is specific years and the same for all places (in Israel).

    I am curious to check the links given by Mirele. Maybe they clear out some of my skepticism…
    Anyway, referring to the above article, the only ecological aspect I can find here is the incentive to grow food at home, but even that is permitted only in the absence of sunlight which might require electrical lighting — definitely not ecological:
    http://evan-mills.com/energy-associates/Indoor.html
    Import isn’t ecological either.
    It’s also hard for me see an ecological justification to letting crops rot instead of having them eaten, and not using the produce, the land and the rain water means a wast of resources.
    Eating preserved foods (as well as limiting the variety) is disadvantageous to our health and so again — not ecological.
    The idea of letting the land rest implies that we allow it to degrade during six years of cultivation, however, sustainable agricultural practices preserve soil vitality continuously without the need for rest.
    The same is right, in my opinion, to seeing the land as not belonging to me or to anybody — this should be a regular attitude, not one to remember once in seven years.
    I am also bothered by the racist aspect of giving a meaning to the nationality of the farmer, as if the lovely spiritual and ecological ideas lost their meaning in the case of a non-Jew…
    I do see a spiritual-ecological meaning in letting go of the routine and taking time for renewal and unfolding, such as the academic sabbatical, but that is timed personally, not for all professors in the same year.
    I also find positive the current trend of different communities, such as community gardens, finding their own ways of practicing Shmita, such as renouncing the seasonal crops freeing time and energy for larger projects.
    Thanks and Shana Tova, one way or another <~`

    1. It’s not racist. It’s a religious imperative for those who are observant. Anyone may observe shmita if they choose, but a religious Jew has no choice.

    2. Chris Green says:

      I think the idea of having a fallow year is a sound one. Whatever grows that year becomes more ‘green manure’ for succeeding years. Also, where possible, annual planting some kind of green manure crop after harvest, as they do with rye or, better yet, some kind of legume in parts of the world, is a good idea.

      The value of permaculture is totally proven by the Greening The Desert Project in Jordan, shown in this series of 4 videos if you haven’t already seen this documentary:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xzTHjlueqFI

      The entire documentary, 36:33 minutes long, is posted here:
      http://permaculturenews.org/2009/12/11/greening-the-desert-ii-final/

      An up-date from 2013:
      http://permaculturenews.org/2013/04/26/greening-the-desert-the-sequel-site-project-spring-2013-photo-update-jordan/

      A friend and myself kind of accidentally stumbled on some of these permaculture tricks here in the (relatively) dry interior desert in B.C., west of Kamloops, so I can personally testify that the methods of shading the soil, intercropping, and heavy, heavy mulching works very well. It took a few years for the first plantation of fruit trees (Evans cherries, mostly, and some poplar species) to gain some height, but once they did, the shaded soil allowed faster growth of more recent plantings. (mixed food forest species, mostly). Then after we found a source of a huge amount of clean, free sawdust and wood chips, the mulching started this spring. This has cut down watering by at least 50%. Which is good because my friend has to haul water a few miles until we can raise the $ to deepen or move the well on his acreage.

      When the wood and hay/ straw, etc, and livestock manure (where that is spread) starts to decay, we’ll be looking forward to having lots of ‘shrooms, and know that the volume of microbes, fungi, and beneficial insects will be very greatly increased. Growing veggies, etc, between the fruit, nut, and berry trees and bushes should be a breeze in coming years. 🙂

      Species planted so far:
      Poplar(s) (probably hybrid poplars- I didn’t think to ask)
      Evans cherries
      Saskatoon berries
      Birch trees ( he was given a couple of trays of seedlings by a commercial tree nursery down the road, which planted them as an experiment a few years ago)
      Butternuts (an endangered species in North America, due to some introduced fungus or blight that is killing the species off in its’ native range- we stumbled across an isolated old tree and harvest some 1400 nuts from it in Late October, 2013- so far, at least 42 have sprouted. We’re learning as we grow… 🙂
      Soapallalie, a local native medicinal species, known as ‘hooshm’ in our area. This makes a very bitter juice, but with 5x the Vit C of anything else I know of.
      Goji berries. Even more bitter than the hooshm, if you can believe it.
      Gooseberries. (Room for more varieties of this one, for sure.)

      And probably some I’ve forgotten.

      One of our ongoing goals is to collect and reproduce (by cloning) heritage fruit tree species that we can find around the province over the years, especially identifiable apple varieties and Black Walnuts. (butternuts are aka White Walnuts).
      All of this is a legacy project for 2 over-60 year olds, not a commercial orchard project. With luck and pluck, the site will become an 8 or 9-acre food forest in the middle of the desert (hey, if it works by the Dead Sea in Jordan, it will surely work here!)
      NB: it will take something like 20 years for the butternuts to start producing nuts. Hopefully our work will leave an isolated population(s) of these trees that won’t be hit by the blight. Once we suss out how to get more nuts sprouting, we’ll make a point of doing some guerrilla gardening in suitable looking locations here and there… 🙂

      Add: Goji berries were introduced by Chinese railroad workers in the 1880s and have become feral here in spots near the CPR line. The Goji berries from China are often laced with pesticides. Ours won’t be.

      I will be starting a blog about all this later, once we have a name for the food forest and have a clearer set of goals and plans.

  3. Chris Green says:

    If you own two separate gardens or fields, can one be ‘in the sixth year’ when the other one is ‘in the seventh year’?

    1. As far as I’ve learned all fields and gardens are in their 7th year. It is the status of what’s harvested that can be 6th or 7th.

  4. Hi Karin, this is a great article. You might be interested to know there is a movement to find new meaning in the practice of Shmita and apply the values underlying it to contemporary challenges of sustainability. Please take a look at ShmitaProject.org and see how much has been going on. At my Rosh Hashanah dinner I will be celebrating a “shmita seder” created by Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin (see the Sova Blog). In Israel the government has agreed to support several sustainability measures “in the spirit of” shmita. ( Check out Shmita Yisraelit) I, along with many others in Israel, Europe, and the US, have been teaching about shmita for the past couple of years to encourage people to prepare. We have found that the concept really resonates. I’ve also written a song about shmita! Perhaps during this year you can cover some of these exciting developments. Wishing you a shnat shmita tova!

    1. Thanks Mirele. This is a great idea but I really see the idea of shmita as environmental to its core without extra trimmings around it but I am open to learning new things. Perhaps you’d like to share in the comments.

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