This past Rosh Hashanah (6-8 September, 2021) ushered in the Shmita year. Every seventh year, Jews in Israel observe the Biblical commandment to cease working the land and allow it to lie fallow – in other words, a year of rest, or sabbatical, for the land.
KKL-JNF observes this mitzvah (commandment) by limiting its forestry activities accordingly. This means that no trees will be planted [directly in the ground] this year, not even on Tu BiShvat. We set out with KKL-JNF forester Hagay Yavlovich, director of KKL-JNF’s Seeds and Nurseries Department, to learn how the Shmita year will affect the forests.
“During a Shmita year we are forbidden to perform actions intended to improve the trees. We can do only work that prevents damage and ensures their continued survival,” explained Yavlovich, and added: “Pruning and thinning of KKL-JNF forests will continue as normal, as these activities are designed to protect the forests from fires and pests. We can also collect seeds for next year’s germinating activities. Pruning to render trees more attractive is forbidden – but, after all, we are not gardeners and this is not something we would normally do in any case.”
Yavlovich mentions one noteworthy exception to the cessation of planting during the Shmita year: security tree plantings, which are designed to screen Gaza Envelope communities from being shooting targets [for militants] in the Gaza Strip, and protect their residents when they travel on local roads and highways. As these trees could well save human lives, they are exempt, and may be planted even during a Shmita year.
According to Yavlovich, the Shmita year strengthens the connection between humankind and the soil: “Pausing farm work reminds us that the land is not private property. It belongs to no one, and we are duty-bound to conserve and respect nature.”
Can one prepare for a Shmita year ahead of time?“KKL-JNF foresters draw up their work plan with the Shmita year in mind. Planting is carried out the year before or the year after, and this is also the case with projects that involve landscaping. Construction of footpaths and cycle trails, playground equipment, lookout points and a variety of other sites, however, continues as normal throughout a shmita year.”
As a religiously observant Jew, do you attribute religious and spiritual significance to the Shmita year?“After 2000 years of exile, it is a privilege to observe the Shmita year. This commandment is Israel-specific: it is observed only by Jews who live in the Land of Israel. It signifies that God is the Master of all land and it reminds us how good it is to live in the Holy Land.”
Does the Shmita year make things harder for farmers, or does it help them?“The Shmita year is important in that it allows the soil to rest and conserves its fertility. When land is worked constantly, harvests dwindle, the soil becomes less fertile and pests multiply. In the [Israelite] agricultural society of the past, the Shmita year played an important social role, in that it reduced economic inequality. Landowners were required to leave that year’s harvest for the poor, instead of harvesting the fruit and selling it.”
How do KKL-JNF nurseries operate during a Shmita year?“Sowing and germination take place in enclosed spaces secluded from both earth and sky. The soil is paved over or covered with sheeting, and the seedbeds are raised. The plants are covered with shade nets that are more tightly woven than usual. The plants are transported in closed trolleys.
“Irrigation is carefully measured: enough to enable the plants to survive, but not so much as to stimulate growth. This is done by computer, to ensure that quotas are not overstepped. Should hand-watering be necessary during the Shmita year, we try to ensure that it is performed by non-Jewish members of staff [who are not obligated by the laws of Shmita].”
KKL-JNF forests contain a great many fruit trees – olive, pomegranate, fig, carob and grape. Are there special laws for these trees?“In orchards, we try not to prune at all unless doing so is vital to the tree’s survival. In Shmita years we don’t turn over the soil to aerate it, as we do normally. We just mow down the weeds to prevent fires. With regard to use of the fruit, anyone can come along and pick whatever they need during a Shmita year, too [like all other years], but the fruit must not be sold. The fruit is licit – it can be used by anyone who passes by, but it must not be sold commercially.”
It is important to note that in Jewish law [Halacha] it is the timing of the fruit set – when the flower falls and the fruit begins to develop [in its place] - that counts. Fruit that set before Rosh Hashanah will not be affected by the Shmita year; fruit that sets after Rosh Hashanah will be.
As a forester who is also religiously observant, Yavlovich sees no contradiction between caring for the forests and observing the laws of Shmita. “This is an excellent blend of two values. It gives us an opportunity to pause the planting cycle briefly and consider how we want our forests and open spaces to look in the future. [At the same time] the Shmita year reinforces the connection between Man, God, the land, nature and the environment.”