Shmita – The Land’s Sabbatical

Well, the year is almost over, and I’ve never blogged about Shmita (pronounced shmee-tah’).  I remember that just after Rosh Hashana, I wanted to write about it, but it didn’t end up happening.  So, what is Shmita?

The background: Every seventh year, we are required to let the land “rest”.  No farming, and no gardening, either.  In addition, everything is “hefker,” free for all.  This means that nothing belongs to anyone, and everyone can come take.  The idea is threefold:

1. Practically speaking, it is good for the land to rest a year, so that the soil does not get depleted.

2. Spiritually, it allows for everybody, once in seven years, to devote a year to spiritual and personal growth, as well as learning, instead of being focused and worried about their livelihood.

3. Perspective: It allows you to remember that what you have is not yours because you deserve it, but because you happen to have it.  By making everything free for everyone, people gain different perspective, and, I would like to think, become more friendly and more accepting towards others.  Also, poor people can take what they want and “stock up” for the next year.

This ideal works, but it is not perfectly fitted to today’s modern world, but rather to the farming society that we used to be.  Today, it’s more complicated, and many of the purposes are not realized, at least not on a national level.

So, what does Shmita mean today?

The short answer: A headache.  The long answer: A lot of things.  First of all, Shmita fruits are holy, and therefore not to be disposed of in the regular fashion.  Second of all, they are not allowed to be taken out of Israel.

If everything is holy, and you’re not allowed to farm, what do Israelis eat the entire year?  And so, there are several solutions:

1. The simplest, but not necessarily the most practical, is to import.

2. “Heter mechira”: A “loophole” in the law that says that if a Jew sells his land to a non-Jew for the duration of the year, the land is not Jewish-owned and can therefore be farmed.  This solves the problem very nicely, and in addition, the fruits are not considered holy.  Hoewver, the non-Jew is usually an Arab, and so these vegetables, as Yitzchak and I sometimes say, have blood on them.

3. “Yevul Nochri”: This is similar to heter mechira, except that the land wasn’t Jewish-owned to begin with.  In other words, instead of a Jew selling his land to an Arab for the duration of the year (kind of like we sell chametz for the week of Pesach), you are buying straight from the Arab.  This kind of vegetable is usually dirty, not good quality, and in general, not something you’d want to eat if you have a choice.  However, among many groups, it is considered the best option, and the most “mehadrin”.  These vegetables have lots of blood on them, but though we prefer not to buy them, we sometimes get stuck.  These are not considered holy and therefore no precautions need to be taken.

otzar beit din, shmita, israel, vegetables, fields, farming, kedushat shvi'it

A sign that says, “This field has been given over to Otzar Beit Din.”

4. “Otzar Beit Din”: Our favorite option.  Kind of complicated, and not available throughout the entire year, but the best you can get while it lasts (though there are some who disagree).  It works like this: Even if you don’t farm the land, many of the plants will continue to grow.  In addition, the farmers who own the land need to eat, and pay for their electricity, during Shmita, and while in the past, they could make do on their crops or others’ , today’s world is different.  The Beit Din makes a deal with the farmers: They pay each farmer a set stipend, and collect all the produce, selling it at a price that covers distribution costs.  This produce is considered holy, and therefore care must be taken not to waste it, not to do unreasonable things with it (like throwing, stepping on, making inedible experiments), and the peelings and other waste either get thrown in a special Shmita bin, or double-wrapped and placed gently into the regular garbage.

5. “Matza Menutak”: Plants that are not connected directly to the ground.  Examples are a greenhouse with a tarp on the floor, flowerpots, etc. “Gush Katif” is a specific type of matza menutak, and during Shmita, they export it less because there is a greater need for the products in Israel itself.

6. Produce grown in areas of Israel that were not settled, and therefore not made holy, during any of the relevant time periods.  Included in this is the Arava, Eilat, and other areas.  Vegetables grown in these areas are considered halachically, to have been grown outside Israel, and therefore can be planted, harvested, and sold as usual.  They are not considered holy.  For instance, the tomatoes that we now have are “Olei Mitzrayim,” grown in a place that those who left Egypt settled, but was not settled when the Jews came back from Bavel (Babylon).  It’s complicated.  But the tomatoes are beautiful, much nicer than the ones we had to make do with when they were Yevul Nochri.  Our sweet potatoes last week were Yevul Nochri, they were disgusting and had mold on the outsides (that disappeared after peeling), but they were all that was available.

7. “Shishit”: Produce leftover from the sixth year.

One of the problems with Shmita is that these issues continue not only during the Shmita year itself, but also during the year afterwards.  The Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana, is in the fall.  Therefore, what grew last summer and is eaten now, is “Shishit,” which, obviously, is practically gone, except maybe for the potatoes and onions.  However, the flip side is that what is growing now is “Shvi’it,” and we will still be eating it until the middle of next year (around January).  In addition, fruits are only Shvi’it if they ripen during the Shmita year.  So, as long as we are eating last year’s fruits, we are fine.  But now we are starting to see this year’s fruits, and we will continue to eat this year’s fruits well into next year.  So, we deal with Shmita issues for about a year and a half – all of the seventh year and half of the eighth.

One thing that you do not have to worry about during Shmita is t’rumot and ma’asrot: the tithes that are separated from the fruits and vegetables in Israel.  Usually, you need to check if these tithes have been taken off.  You can buy produce that was not tithed, and tithe it yourself, but it’s slightly complicated.  However, during Shmita you do not have to worry about this; all you have to worry about is that your produce has been purchased using one of the solutions mentioned above (and there are farmers who choose to ignore the commandment and keep selling as usual, just like there are farmers who choose not to tithe; although the Chief Rabbinate usually tithes everything under its supervision, there is always the option not to get supervision).  In a way it’s easier, in a way it’s harder.

Another issue with Shmita is that because there’s less to go around, the prices go up.  Oh, well.

I know I have put in a lot of Hebrew words that are not on my dictionary page; I will try to update the dictionary sometime soon.

One thing that I forgot to mention was “Shmitat Kesafim,” a monetary Shmita.  During the Shmita year, all debts are canceled, unless a document called a “pruzbul,” is signed, that allows the person to collect his debts during the Shmita year.  This document was instituted so that people would not stop lending money in the years just prior to Shmita, because they were worried that they would not be able to get it back.

Honestly, as a kid, I always thought it would be cool to live in Israel during a Shmita year.  I remember that we used to buy Gush Katif lettuce, and it was hard to get, and expensive, during Shmita.  Then, I thought it was because they weren’t supposed to be selling it; now, I realize it’s because the market for it here grows during Shmita, so they choose not to export.  I’m not sure why I thought it was cool as a kid (or a young college student; during my first Shmita here I still thought it was cool), because now it’s just a headache. Hey, I’ve been living in Israel for seven years!  I think I made aliya during the last Shmita.  Wow, that’s a looong time.

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