HAIFA, Israel — Many Israeli farmers have spent months preparing for a biblically mandated event that comes just once every seven years, in which fields and orchards managed by Jews in the Holy Land must lie fallow for the entire year.
It is known in Hebrew as Shmita, or the sabbatical year, and it begins Wednesday with the start of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year.
One such farmer is Rony Rosenzweig of Kibbutz Lavi, a religious cooperative community near Tiberias in the northern Galilee region.
“Shmita offers us a lot of challenges that we have to face. Our local rabbi guides us as to what we are and aren’t allowed to do,” Rosenzweig told TheBlaze.
Among the rules that present a unique challenge to the work of his community: “Don’t plant crops, don’t lay new grass, just take care of what exists, don’t add anything new.”
The sabbatical year is mentioned several times in the Bible, starting with Exodus 23:10-11 in which the Israelites are told: “For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what is left. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove.”
According to the Bible, Jews in the land of Israel are prohibited from working their fields, including planting, pruning or harvesting crops, nor can they buy or sell the fruits of their labor. Maintenance work like watering and fertilizing is permitted, and whatever the land yields without human intervention during the year may be eaten.
To allay the concerns of those worried the food might run out, God said in Leviticus 25 that he will bless the land and provide enough sustenance in the sixth year to “yield enough for three years.”
For Kibbutz Lavi, like other farming communities, the challenge has been how to abide by the biblical mandate while at the same time support themselves. To do so, the community divides its fields — which grow wheat, corn, barley, chickpeas and hold citrus orchards — into three categories.
“With some of our fields, we leave them as is, that is, full sabbatical to completely free the land. For the entire year, we have fields we won’t touch according to Jewish law,” Rosenzweig said.
For the second set of fields, the kibbutz has been planting wheat vigorously over the past month before the start of the new Jewish year, in order to “plan the land now so we won’t do forbidden tasks during the sabbatical.”
Then, he said, “We wait for the grace of heaven."
The third category of land management over the next 12 months involves temporarily selling the fields to Arabs or letting non-Jewish laborers work certain fields, as is allowed under the provision.
But Shmita means more than just letting the land rest.
“As religious Jews, during the year, we learn more Torah, we free our farmers to learn more about our faith. Our religion says: leave work and work on your spirit. Our decision on the kibbutz is to allow our members to grow their spiritual side, and that’s also a sabbatical,” Rosenzweig said.
Asked if he thinks the religious observance makes a difference to the long-term health of the land, Rosenzweig said: “We believe it helps the land to let the land rest. If we believe, it works.”
The observance has been abided by for generations. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that “both Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar agreed to relieve the Jews of taxes during Shmita years, to allow them to keep their laws.”
According to the Israeli Agriculture Ministry, vegetables grown hydroponically — in water, not soil — or on elevated platforms in greenhouses are considered kosher for cultivation during the sabbatical year.
There’s also a charitable angle to the sabbatical year, as “whatever grows on the land during Shmita is, in theory, supposed to be free for anyone, especially the poor,” the Jewish Telegraphic Agency observed.
[sharequote align="right"]"Our decision on the kibbutz is to allow our members to grow their spiritual side."[/sharequote]
“When Shmita is first mentioned in Exodus, the Torah says the crops should be for ‘the poor of your nation, and the rest for wild animals,’” JTA noted. “But given that almost all farmers in Israel get around Shmita in one way or another, walking onto a farm looking for a free lunch is ill-advised.”
Every seven years, debts are supposed to be canceled, per Deuteronomy 15:1. However, banks in Israel do not implement that provision.
Public service announcements have been running on Israeli radio stations alerting listeners to the upcoming sabbatical year, while the Agriculture Ministry has a webpage dedicated to informing consumers about the rules which apply to different fruits and vegetables.
“Those who observe the laws of a sabbatical year are forbidden from vegetable consumption on the seventh year of vegetable-picking,” the ministry's site states. “The prohibition of fruit consumption, on the other hand, relates to the date of food ripening, and it is therefore only applied during the following year.”
On the other hand, “hard vegetables, such as potatoes, carrots and onions” can be stored during the sixth year for consumption during the sabbatical year.
“Consequently, observant religious people are expected to experience shortage of these types of vegetables as of the first months of 2015,” the Agriculture Ministry warned.
The ministry noted that crops grown in the southern Negev Desert are permitted for consumption “because this region is situated outside the borders of the ancient land of Israel, in accordance with Jewish religious laws.”