Ask the Rabbi: Put the shovels down

The Torah greatly emphasizes the importance of the mitzva of shmita.

tree image 88 224 (photo credit: Ofer Zemach)
tree image 88 224
(photo credit: Ofer Zemach)
I'm organizing youth group activities for Tu Bishvat. Can I plant trees in the shmita year? Also, what is the idea behind shmita in the first place? - L.G., Netanya The Torah greatly emphasizes the importance of the mitzva of shmita, which, along with canceling all debts, obligates Jews to leave the Land of Israel fallow in the sabbatical year. In one passage, the Torah even implies that God will exile the Jews from the land for violating the shmita restrictions (Rashi, Leviticus 26:34). Scholars cite many different reasons for this mitzva. The Torah itself highlights the potential social benefits of granting time for the poor and underprivileged (as well as animals) to rest (Exodus 33:12) and enjoy the fruits of the abandoned fields (Leviticus 25:6-7). Maimonides stresses this factor, noting that this mitzva, as well as the concurrent obligation of debt cancellation, helps restore financial stability to the less fortunate (Guide 3:37). Maimonides adds a more controversial reason, contending that leaving the land fallow helps improve the quality of the land. Indeed, many farmers historically used this strategy to restore productivity, although today crop rotation has become the preferred method. Many medievals, however, scoffed that this reason seems insufficient to justifying the significance the Torah places on the mitzva. R. Abraham Ibn Ezra highlighted a more spiritual benefit, noting that the break from work will allow people to dedicate themselves to Torah study and spiritual pursuits (Deuteronomy 31:10). Universities have adopted this ideal by granting professors a sabbatical year for research and exploration every seven years. The author of the medieval Sefer Hahinuch (whose identity is disputed) takes a more theological approach, offering multiple explanations for the commandment (Mitzva 84). Firstly, the "Sabbath of the land" (Leviticus 25:6), like the weekly day of rest, testifies to God's creation of the world and his subsequent rest. Moreover, it testifies that divine grace, and not human toil, ultimately causes the produce to sprout. This theme strikes a chord in contemporary society, in which technology and industrialization can easily lead one to believe that humans alone control their environment. Sefer Hahinuch also contends that shmita builds up personal character by teaching a person to retreat or relinquish their pursuits, even when we do not know the short-term results or ultimate reward. Along similar lines, he further contends that the work cessation both displays and reinforces trust in God as a supplier of livelihood. The Torah itself testifies to this element of the mitzva. "And should you ask, 'What are we to eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?' I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years" (Leviticus 25:20-21). A tension arose between this last ideal and the other reason when rabbis found that these laws harmed the underprivileged. The threat of debt cancellation caused lenders to stop providing loans to the poor, leading Hillel to famously enact the Prozbul document which allowed people to collect their loans after the shmita year (Gitin 34b). Lack of income combined with foreign-imposed taxes caused the talmudic great R. Yehuda Hanassi to even contemplate abolishing the mitzva. In the 20th century, many rabbinic sages deemed fallow lands as untenable in contemporary Israel. They therefore introduced the heter mechira mechanism that formally sells the land to non-Jews to enable farmers to continue working the land. These sages nonetheless held that we must continue to maintain the spirit of these laws in our lives. Given the seriousness of the shmita year, exceptions are not made to allow Tu Bishvat tree planting. Interesting enough, the entire celebration of Tu Bishvat as a holiday began only in medieval times. In the talmudic and geonic periods, as R. Shlomo Zevin has noted, the date had halachic significance with regard to agricultural laws, but was not given any holiday status. Rabbenu Gershon (10th-11th century, Germany), however, contended that one should not fast on the agricultural new year, giving a more joyful expression to the day. Tu Bishvat only took on greater socio-religious significance in the 17th century, when Safed kabbalists introduced the notion of a Tu Bishvat Seder that includes cosmic prayers and consuming fruits of the land. In 1890, the first Tu Bishvat festive planting took place in Israel, and contemporary Zionists have embraced this practice as a celebration of resettling Eretz Yisrael. Instead of planting trees this year, I recommend using the time to dedicate your youth group's activities to the values of the shmita year. A day of Torah study, social action and helping the needy seems like a most appropriate way to manifest the values of this mitzva. The writer, editor of, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University.