Green Pastures: Every seven years

Now’s the time to prep your garden for ‘shmita’.

The Botanical Gardens on the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus. Work to keep gardens alive may be performed during the ‘shmita’ year (photo credit: WWW.GOISRAEL.COM)
The Botanical Gardens on the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus. Work to keep gardens alive may be performed during the ‘shmita’ year
(photo credit: WWW.GOISRAEL.COM)
Shmita, the sabbatical year for the Land of Israel, starts this coming Rosh Hashana, which falls on the night of September 24. The laws of the biblically commanded year of rest for the earth are straightforward, but rabbinical opinions differ as to the legal loopholes that permit growing fresh produce during shmita and the following year. Each side has its adherents, and I leave it to the reader to choose which path to follow.
For the low-down on Jewish law as it pertains to gardeners, I interviewed Moti Shomron, agronomist at the Institute for Torah and the Land of Israel (Machon Hatorah Veha’aretz) and head of agricultural research and development there. The institute originated in the former Gush Katif region and now operates in Ashkelon.
“There are two kinds of gardens,” explains Shomron. “There are privately owned gardens, and there are public gardens.
Municipal gardens, and gardens planted in kindergartens and schools, fall under the second category, as do gardens of buildings, which are held by many families in common.”
He notes that “people think shmita laws deal exclusively with agriculture.
What would a resident of a 15-floor building have to do with shmita? But there are issues that concern him or her, the first being the common garden and courtyard.
As an apartment-dweller who pays [communal building dues] and taxes, he has a share of the building’s common garden.
It’s up to him as much as any of the other residents to ensure that the laws of shmita are upheld there.”
Of course, he explains, “it can get complicated.
There may be observant and secular families living under the same roof.
Secular families might want to plant and prune, while religious families want to uphold shmita laws. It’s very important that everyone stay in good understanding.
“Let’s say [the building committee] hires a gardener to take care of the grounds,” he continues. “Who will direct the gardener and explain what’s permitted during shmita and what’s forbidden? This has to be decided ahead of time. It’s important to study the laws well before the year starts.”
Some prefer to give up their part of the shared garden’s ownership in a written letter to the building committee, thus avoiding conflict with fellow residents who oppose shmita observance.
“Shmita year is now considered a rabbinical prohibition rather than a Torah prohibition, because not all the Jewish nation lives in the Land of Israel, and also because we no longer have Yovel [the Jubilee year by which the shmita cycle is calculated.
The exact knowledge of when Yovel occurs was lost in the Jewish Diasporas].
But shmita laws are biblically commanded, and we observe them as such,” he says.
“Any work on the ground is forbidden.
It’s forbidden to plant seeds, transplant, or cultivate plants. This applies to private gardens [and] to agriculture [in] exactly the same way. Further, what’s forbidden for Jews to do during shmita is also forbidden to gentiles – that is, I may not hire a gentile to work in my field or garden during shmita year. It’s just like Shabbat: I may not ask a gentile to take my car and drive it to the grocery store on Shabbat.
There are exceptions the Sages have made, but that’s the general rule.”
Shomron explains that plowing the land (or raking a garden), planting seeds and pruning trees and shrubs are forbidden.
Watering, fertilizing, weeding, and spraying are also prohibited. However, some of these activities are permitted in two circumstances: to prevent living plants from dying, and to prevent expensive post-shmita damage.
With regard to fruit trees, he says, “fruit in fields and private gardens becomes hefker – free to all takers. That is, anyone who wants to come and pick may do so.
People must harvest by hand and take within reason, of course, not arrive with a truck and strip the trees. And it’s only polite to ask permission of the owner. This fruit has the holiness of the shmita year [kedushat shvi’it]. We don’t separate tithes from shmita-year fruit, but are obliged to treat it with special respect.”
Each fruit or vegetable must be completely consumed and may not be wasted.
Leftovers and peelings are placed in bags and left for three days before one may throw them away. Shmita produce may not be exported.
“Home gardeners who grow herbs and vegetables may sow and transplant before shmita, but must be aware that their plants have kedusha shvi’it,” says Shomron. ” Container plants come under shmita law if exposed to the open sky, as on a patio. This holds even if the container isn’t connected to the earth. However, containers that stand on a balcony, under a roof and with walls around them may be maintained as during non-shmita years, with watering, fertilizing, etc.
An example is potted plants on a second- floor apartment balcony where the upstairs neighbor’s balcony overhangs and cuts off the view of the sky. However, the plants have kedushat shvi’it. You may not move those plants to a roofless place on the balcony – say, to clear space for a succa. In fact, one may not even move a houseplant out of the apartment, as some do in order to wash the floor.”
Shomron points out “that when cooking a dish that includes ingredients with kedushat shvi’it, the entire dish acquires that holiness and must be treated accordingly; for example, soup flavored with home-grown parsley.”
Foragers may take freely from edible and medicinal plants that grow wild, as those plants are hefker.
Shomron explains that it’s desirable and even a mitzva to seek out fruit from the seventh year and eat it. But time for preparing the garden is running short. Grass, trees, ornamental plants and herbs must be sown or transplanted by Rosh Hashana.
Fruit trees must be transplanted even earlier, by Tu Be’av (August 11 this year), a month and a half before Rosh Hashana.
Shomron’s gardening tips are sensible and brief.
“In order to enjoy a pleasant-looking garden all year long, plant perennials that thrive a year or two, not annuals that die back after a few months and leave bare patches in the garden,” he says. “Use compost and fertilizers that break down slowly and feed your plants over the year. Prune shrubs and trees now; don’t wait until the last few days. Maintenance during shmita is allowed; starting new grass or improving plants in poor condition isn’t, so it’s important to get your grass and hedges in top condition now. When shmita arrives, you’ll be able to maintain them by mowing and cutting back.
“I urge gardeners to plan ahead now and think how they want their gardens to look over the next two years. Take pen and paper and make a list of garden tasks that must be finished before Tu Be’av and Rosh Hashana, then put them on your calendar. It’s exactly like preparing for Shabbat: You can’t wait until candlelighting time to start cooking the cholent.”
Note: this article covers only basic law with regard to gardens. To settle halachic questions, consult your rabbi.
More information online: A comprehensive shmita magazine from Machon Hatorah Veha’aretz (in Hebrew) may be downloaded at the institute’s site,
Links to sites in English include: