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What Are Shmittah and Yovel?

Dear Jew in the City-

What are shmittah and yovel?

Thank you,
Shira

Dear Shira-

Thanks for your question, which I assume was inspired by the fact that this year (Hebrew year 5782) is a shmittah year. Shmittah is a rest for the land of Israel once every seven years, just as Shabbos is a rest for the individual once every seven days. Leviticus 25:3-6 tells us: 

“For six years you may plant your field, and for six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in its produce. In the seventh year, the land must have a complete rest, a Sabbath to Hashem. You may not plant your field, you may not prune your vineyard, you may not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest and you may not pick the grapes you put aside. It will be a year of rest for the land. The Sabbath of the land will be yours for you to eat, for your servant men and women, for your hired worker and the resident who live with you.”

“Shmittah,” commonly translated as “the Sabbatical year,” would be more literally translated as “the release.” During the shmittah year, residents of Israel must refrain from cultivating their fields. Plowing, planting, pruning and other such agricultural activities are prohibited. The land must be left ownerless and any crop that grows on its own is free for anyone to take. Such produce is imbued with a kind of sanctity called kedushas sheviis (holiness of the seventh year), which restricts the ways in which it may be bought and sold, and requires that it be treated carefully and not wasted in any way.

The seven-year shmittah cycle started as soon as the Jews settled in Israel in Biblical times. Despite our relative lack of familiarity with shmittah (especially outside of Israel), and the limited way we’re able to observe it (even in Israel), shmittah is actually an extremely important mitzvah. In fact, the first exile was largely because the Jews ignored 70 Sabbatical cycles. This was foretold by the prophet Yirmiyahu and acknowledged after the return in II Chronicles 36:21: “To fulfill the word of Hashem through Yirmiyahu, until the land was appeased for its Sabbaths; all the days of its desolation it rested until the completion of 70 years.”

The laws of shmittah are incredibly intricate so we’re only going to make a few broad strokes here. While shmittah primarily addresses agriculture in Israel, it is also relevant to consumers throughout the world, as produce imported from Israel (including esrogim and wine from Sabbatical years) is subject to special rules. 

Back in the day, Jews who lived in Israel would simply walk into a nearby field and take produce as needed. Nowadays, such a system would prove untenable (given that most people live in cities) so a more practical means of distribution is called for. Several methods were devised to address this need. One of these is the heter mechira.

Heter mechira – literally “the permissibility of sale” – is a controversial workaround that involves selling land to non-Jews for the year. Many (though not all) opinions maintain that the laws of shmittah don’t apply to land owned by non-Jews. Not only must the land be sold to a non-Jew, all of the prohibited activities must be performed by non-Jewish workers. Additionally, selling land in Israel to non-Jews is itself not permitted under most circumstances. The bottom line is that heter mechira is not without its challenges so many prefer not to rely on it except in the most pressing of circumstances.

Another approach is the “otzar beis din” (“storehouse of the court”). In this approach, the landowner assigns his land to the beis din (court). The beis din then hires workers – even including the landowner himself –as its agents to harvest and distribute the produce. The beis din is allowed to set a price that will cover their expenses, including paying the workers for their services (though they’re not allowed to turn a profit).

Sabbatical produce is subject to a number of special rules. One of these is the law of biur (removal). This requires a person who has more than three meals’ worth of shmittah produce to again declare it ownerless at a time when this particular species is no longer found in the fields. Failure to perform biur can render the produce prohibited. 

As noted earlier, shmittah produce is imbued with a type of sanctity so it must be treated properly and can’t be wasted. For example, edible leftovers may not be thrown out until they have rotted. Similarly, shmittah wine can’t be used to douse a havdalah candle (since Sabbatical produce is only permitted for eating). Shmittah produce should not be bought and sold but if it is, the money used to purchase it achieves a degree of sanctity and may not be used for other purchases. Similarly, shmittah produce shouldn’t leave Israel (though if it does, it may still be eaten).

While shmittah is mostly about agriculture, it’s not exclusively about agriculture. There is also shmittas kesafim – “the release of money” – in which private debts between Jewish borrowers and lenders are canceled (Deuteronomy 15:1–2). [There is a workaround called a pruzbol, which transfers a private debt to the courts. This workaround was instituted not for the benefit of the lenders but for the borrowers, since no one would lend money as the shmittah year approached.]

Shmittah also has a spiritual aspect, particularly as originally observed. The Torah tells us (Leviticus 25:20-22):

“If you should say, ‘What will we eat in the seventh year? We may not plant and we may not gather in our produce!’ I will command My blessing for you in the sixth year, and it will yield produce for three years. You will plant in the eighth year, while still eating from the old crops. Until the ninth year, until the arrival of its crop, you will eat the old crop.”

In addition to teaching the Jews a lesson about faith, this literal sabbatical enabled members of an agrarian society to spend some time engaged in spiritual matters.

Yovel is a completely different thing.

Shmittah is part of a seven-year cycle. After seven of these seven-year cycles, there’s a special 50th year; this is yovel (the Jubilee, from which the English term “diamond Jubilee” is derived). Agriculturally, it’s just like shmittah but it has some special laws all its own.

One special law is that all indentured servants were released in yovel. This includes those whose terms of service had expired and who chose to remain with their employers “forever”; “forever” only means “until yovel.” The verse in the Torah that tells us to release servants – Leviticus 25:10 – is inscribed on the Liberty Bell as “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”

Another special law of yovel is that land in Israel wasn’t sold in perpetuity; as with indentured servants, such sales only lasted until yovel. In the Jubilee year, most property reverted to its ancestral owners.

Unlike shmittah, which is observed today (perhaps under Biblical law, perhaps under Rabbinic law, but observed nonetheless), yovel is not currently observed. The verse on the Liberty Bell references “all the inhabitants.” The Talmud (Erchin 32b) derives from this verse that yovel is only observed when all the Tribes reside in the land. Accordingly, yovel was suspended when the Tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe were exiled (to be followed later by others) and it will be restored after the exiles are returned.

Remember – the laws of shmittah are extremely intricate! If you’re in Israel, or dealing with Israeli produce, this article is no substitute for a thorough study of the relevant laws.

Sincerely,

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
Educational Correspondent
Follow Ask Rabbi Jack on YouTube

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