The nation that made the desert bloom like a rose is about to let its farmland have a year off, as the Bible commands … sort of.
Following Rosh Hashanah in September – the beginning of the Jewish new year – the agricultural sabbath year, or Shemitah, begins.
Rooted in God’s command given to Moses at Sinai, agricultural fields, vineyards and orchards are to be worked and harvested for six years, but in the seventh year they are to be allowed to “rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave, the beasts of the field may eat.”
While the Bible reveals little about how the agricultural sabbath year worked in practice, it’s clear the command was given great weight, with the writer of 2 Chronicles linking it to the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah in 586 B.C. The people were exiled to Babylon for 70 years, he wrote, so the land could enjoy the 70 sabbath rests it had been denied for centuries.
The difficulty of implementing the practice in modern times is reflected by the government of Israel’s announcement last month it would allocate an additional $29 million to the Religious Affairs Ministry to assist in the effort. The monies will be used to educate farmers who wish to participate and to “support farmers who need assistance in fulfilling Shemitah properly,” reported Israel National News.
So, will next year’s visitors to Israel see fields abandoned to nature, unplanted and unharvested? Not likely.
First of all, the sabbath year is not enforceable by civil law. For most secular Jews and Arab Israelis, it is of no consequence. There is also division of thought as to whether the command remains in force today and whether or not it applies only to land in Israel owned by Jews.
But always there are the economic realities.
For a modern export-agricultural economy like Israel’s, simply shutting down for a year is unthinkable. Foreign markets abandoned and left to competitors for a year could be lost forever. Two cycles ago, in 2000, Jordanian farmers put 12,500 new acres in the Jordan Valley into production in anticipation of serving the market created by that year’s sabbath. According to one rabbi who has written extensively on the topic, those farms continue to exert competitive pressure on Jewish farms in Israel.
Among those who believe Shemitah is still to be observed, there are passionate disagreements about how to do so and complicated interpretations of religious law that, to the outsider, can appear to be mere gimmicks that allow obedience in name only. The interpretations don’t affect only the production side of the equation – because the biblical mandate forbids selling what the land produces, the observant consumer must determine what is proper to eat.
For religious Zionists, a common approach is to “sell” their land to a non-Jew for a year. As the biblical command refers to “your land,” the paper transfer of ownership exempts both the land and the food grown on it, allowing agricultural operations to continue largely unhindered and unchanged. While the practice began as a temporary necessity in the last century, it has become institutionalized – and much criticized.
For haredi or ultra-orthodox Jews, all agricultural produce grown in Israel, regardless of whether or not the land is Jewish-owned, is included in the biblical mandate, making exemption impossible. In those communities, produce imported from Jordan is a common option for consumers. Another practice making inroads is the “Public Treasury” that addresses the ban on selling food that may be freely eaten. In this case, land is placed under the authority of a public body that hires outsiders to do the agricultural work and distributes the harvest to the community. Recipients pay for the cost of the service but not for the produce itself; farmers are compensated for their costs but receive no profit.
As the sabbath year approaches, Israel’s Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau has asked all sides to let their differences take a rest as well.
“I suggest that instead of rabbis talking against each other and presenting a dispute in their positions on Shemitah every seven years, each one should act according to their rabbis and respect each other,” he said.