Shmita: A Jewish agricultural rule with personal, social implications

Although the sabbatical year comes with a list of rules and regulations set by rabbinic authorities, there is a joyous and spiritual side to shmita.

 ELIEZER WORKS in the field. (photo credit: Sapir family)
ELIEZER WORKS in the field.
(photo credit: Sapir family)

The number seven reoccurs many times in Jewish tradition. One beautiful example is the shmita year, which marks every seven years during which the Land of Israel has a year to rest.

Like the seventh day of the week, the Sabbath, when man has the opportunity to rest, rejuvenate and reset his personal “batteries,” Torah law mandates that every seven years we must pay attention to the physical needs of the Land of Israel and give it time to refresh and renew itself.

“We are also renewed [during the shmita year],” says Tal Ben Nun, a member of Kibbutz Sha’alvim, a religious kibbutz founded in the summer of 1951 (just before the 5712 shmita year), and located near the exit to Latrun on Highway 1.

Ben Nun explains that the shmita year is a year of change and is not easy for him. “Nevertheless,” he says, “it helps remind me that the Land of Israel belongs to God, and it is He who rules the land.”

Although the sabbatical year comes with a list of rules and regulations set by rabbinic authorities, there is a joyous and spiritual side to shmita, and the people of Sha’alvim celebrate it.

 SIGN FROM Kibbutz Sha’alvim field proclaims, ‘Here we observe shmita.’ The verse underneath reads: ‘I will ordain my blessing for you.’ (credit: Kibbutz Sha’alvim) SIGN FROM Kibbutz Sha’alvim field proclaims, ‘Here we observe shmita.’ The verse underneath reads: ‘I will ordain my blessing for you.’ (credit: Kibbutz Sha’alvim)

Approximately, four hours before the start of the shmita year, which began on Rosh Hashanah of this year, the members of the kibbutz and friends went out to the fields in order to say “goodbye” to the land with music and dance, thereby giving back the land to God in song. They posted their inauguration of shmita on social media, and it was seen around the world. In essence, this is a happy time, and Ben Nun points out it is also a time for personal growth and making social change.

It is a time for showing compassion, concern for those less fortunate and empathy for your fellow man. It requires the owner of the fields to give up his possession and let the land lie fallow. Therefore, there are fields on Kibbutz Sha’alvim and throughout Israel that are deemed ownerless. According to Arutz Sheva, over 51% of the farmers on agricultural lands in Israel comply with shmita.

The fields marked “ownerless” (hefker) allow a person in need to take whatever is growing during the seventh year for free. Interestingly, there is a stipulation that the person wanting to take must be a mensch. He must be considerate, and first speak to the owner of the fields and get permission. The fields are still the owner’s responsibility, and he will explain how and what to take, in order not to damage the fields or trees. Even though the owner gives up possession of the fields, he still has a responsibility to protect them.

On Sha’alvim, certain fields are marked ownerless, and others are marked “owned by the Otzar Beit Din,” a communal arrangement whereby a Jewish court accepts the responsibility for the fields, and, through prescribed rules, the produce can be marketed and sold.

Another possibility for the buyer is to purchase vegetables from non-Jews, termed gidulei nochri or gidulei hutz la’aretz. The third option is a process called heter mechira, similar to selling hametz on Passover, which is a halachic sale of the Land of Israel. Kibbutz Sha’alvim complies with the Otzar Beit Din option.

Ben Nun is responsible for the trees on the kibbutz. He points out that, during shmita, it is permissible to do anything to prevent damage to the fields or the trees. However, caution must be exerted not to improve them for future benefit. The fields may be weeded, and irrigation pipes may be covered with dirt (so that animals do not make holes in the pipes to drink the water). “However,” remarks Ben Tal, “the trees are different and need constant treatment, such as trimming, watering and fertilizing, to keep them healthy.”

Performing tree upkeep is an issue of balance. Ben Nun needs to assess just how much water and fertilizer is needed so the trees remain healthy and undamaged. On the other hand, he cannot improve their productivity with an eye to the coming year, and is not allowed to fertilize or water them beyond a certain point. During the shmita year, he has to show consideration for how hard the land works during the six years previous.

Likewise, the kibbutz members who work in agriculture have the opportunity to rest and reset. There are 40 families who are members of the kibbutz as well as 115 families who live on the kibbutz but are not members. The kibbutz is privatized and pays those who work in agriculture a steady salary and bonuses according to the profits from the fields. Shmita marks a change in the kibbutz revenues, and Ben Nun stresses it is time for a great deal of faith in God.

He is married, the father of six, and points out that he has responsibilities to provide for them. During the shmita year, he is strengthened by the thought that Kibbutz Sha’alvim has been able to keep paying salaries throughout the year.

“Time and time again,” says Ben Nun, “we have seen the sixth year (the year preceding the shmita year) blessed, and this surplus (in crops and revenues) helps pay salaries for the shmita year.”

Even though it is a year off for the land and its workers, the kibbutz wants its agricultural members to utilize this year and assists members in planning to do so. Some people find other jobs, even part-time. Some travel overseas, and others enroll in courses to improve their knowledge and agricultural skills. Others enroll in studies in preventive medicine for plants, courses dealing with the animals on the kibbutz, or technical courses such as how to build a marketing system. In addition, members are encouraged to set aside more hours to study Torah, because this, too, is another opportunity for growth.

Ben Nun speaks about a certain holiness in connection to this year. It is a traditional thought that a person in fact fulfills a special mitzvah every time he eats fruits and vegetables endowed with kedushat shmita (the holiness of shmita), and should rejoice in it.

JUST AS excited about the shmita year are Avigail and Eliezer Sapir, who live on Moshav Bnei Re’em.

They made aliyah from the US 10 years ago. Eliezer grew up in Michigan, has a degree in biology from Roosevelt University in Chicago, and studied permaculture at Hava & Adam Eco-Educational Farm in Modi’in. Avigail has a degree in fine arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with a double major in painting and ceramics. She also studied at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem.

“My husband and I met in while studying in Israel and returned to the States. There we married, finished our degrees and then came back to Israel. Our dream is to be pioneers and reconnect with our Jewish agricultural roots,” says Avigail.

“After trying out several different locations, we landed in this lovely moshav and rented a place with a yard big enough to grow our own food. A year and half ago, we decided to expand our family garden into a small local farm, rented 10 dunams [1 hectare], and started planting and distributing supergreens (nutritious leafy greens) and medicinal herbs.

“Our focus is twofold: Supergreens are important to our health, and we want to share that knowledge with others. The connections between healthy foods, diet, plant medicine and a person’s overall well-being are immensely important. God blessed this earth to grow nourishment and provide healing for us. Our goal is to revitalize this influence.

“Our farm is called Havat Iyar, after the month of Iyar on the Hebrew calendar. The name Iyar is also an acronym for Ani Hashem Rofecha, (I am God your healer). It does not rain often during this month, but rains that fall in this month are especially healing. Rebbe Nahman (of Breslov) teaches about medicinal plants and how they reach peak potency during this month,” she says. “For the past year, we have been growing and marketing our produce to the surrounding communities.

“And now comes the shmita year, and we have to stop and change direction.

“Even though farming is who we are, as well as our business, now we have to put all of that on hold. We completely believe it is the right thing to do. ‘Why?’ you may ask. Our answer is: because God commanded us to do it. It is a mitzvah that keeps giving.

“We are surrendering control and practicing faith. For us, agriculture is a spiritual practice, as Reb Shlomo [Carlebach] said, ‘When you walk into a forest and everything is untouched, it reminds one of the Creation, before we changed anything.’ We believe this is the essence of shmita.

“Therefore, we are getting out of the way, fine-tuning and listening to the land. This is a time for learning more about permaculture, the natural interactions between animals, plants and the ecosystem. We are not working the land nor distributing produce but are redefining our connections.

“We have declared our land ownerless this year, and invited community members to come and take for free any produce or herbs that are still growing. Observing shmita is a mitzvah that can be observed only in Israel, and we are grateful for the opportunity.

“This is a year to further build our website and refine and focus on our personal goals and family of three children (twins plus one) under the age of five. In addition, I am continuing to paint, from my studio at home, produce works in my original series, ketubot, and commissions.

“Currently, I teach an art course to Anglo women in the area, tapping into the creative and intuitive wellspring that is within all of us. I am planning on expanding to an online course to make myself available to more people who are looking to connect personally on a deeper spiritual level through art.”

Sapir also designs and sells paintings and ketubot through her website.

“My art is colorful, transcendent and connected to nature. In addition, we are happy to have the background of being spiritual people and are experienced in conducting workshops and hosting retreats.”

Rabbi David Marcus of Efrat concurs with the spiritual aspect of shmita in his concise and comprehensive book, Shmita 5782: A practical guide. He addresses not only the rules governing the shmita year but also the question whether this year of shmita is a complicated headache or an opportunity to fulfill a very special mitzvah with spiritual and social implications.

Pointing to the features of spiritual renewal, he writes: “The fruit (produce) of the land is holy, and you must appreciate its holiness in every bite you take.” ■

For more on Havat Iyar farm: