The wisdom of letting go

Shmitah - The Wisdom of Letting Go

Kids look out at the Beit Zayit Reservoir near Jerusalem. Photo: Gidi Bashan
The seven-year cycle has come round again, and since Rosh Hashana 5782 (September 2021), Israel has been observing the Shmita; a year of letting go (from the Hebrew verb LiShmot) and desisting from working the land.

Fundamentals of the Shmita Year

Shmita is a biblical injunction pertinent to the Land of Israel. The precept of leaving to the land to lie fallow and allowing it to rest derives from Leviticus, 25:4:

"But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land,
a sabbath unto the LORD; thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard."

More references to shmita can be found in the Bible, and further Jewish sources are devoted to the ecological injunction, with extensive deliberation as to its applicability in the realm of the humanly possible.
Pomegranates growing in the Gan Yavne Food Forest. Photo: Bonnie Scheinman

A social, spiritual and ecological commandment

Underlying the commandment of the sabbatical year are social concepts, such as equal distribution and reducing gaps between the rich and the poor. Money lenders are commanded to forgive debts, and land owners are commanded to allow all people and livestock free access to their lands and all its yields, as specified in Exodus 23:10-11:

"And six years thou shalt sow they land, and gather in the increase thereof;
but the seventh year thou shalt let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of thy people may eat; and what they leave the beast of the field shall eat.
In like manner thou shalt deal wit they vineyard, and with thy oliveyard."

There are also important spiritual concepts to Shmita, such as trusting in God and His ability to provide, and devoting extra time for prayer, Torah study, spiritual enrichment, and good deeds. Shmita is also humbling, in the way that it reminds us that all land ultimately belongs to God, and our job is to take care of it.

Letting the land lie fallow also strongly resonates with today's growing environmental awareness of the importance of treating natural resources responsibly and not over-farming the soil.
Almond trees blossom on the ancient agricultural terraces of Sataf. Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive

Shmita in ancient Israel

While the Torah promises blessings to those who keep the sabbatical year, keeping this commandment presented the Israelites with a number of practical challenges.

One famous example was the reluctance of money-lenders to grant loans to the poor, out of fear that these sums would never be returned after the Shmita year.
In response, Hillel the Elder, who presided over the Sanhedrin (the Great Rabbinical Assembly) at the end of the 1st century CE, legislated the Prozbul, an ammendment that technically transferred the legal status of private loans to public administration during the Shmita year, providing individuals with a loophole againt cancelling debts. This allowed the poor to receive interest-free loans towards the Sabbatical year and at the same time, protected lenders' investments.

Following the destruction of the Second Temple, when most of the Israelites went into exile, the commandment of the Shmita lost its relevance.
Young ultra-orthodox boys enjoy a class picnic in Swiss Forest. By Rami HaHama, KKL-JNF Photo Archive

Shmita in the modern State of Israel

With the Jews' return to the Land of Israel, the Shmita needed to be addressed once again, and, as is typical of Jewish Law, there were many differences of opinion.

In 2008, the Knesset passed a law concerning the Sabbatical year, according to which a National Shmita Commission would refer questions concerning the laws of Shmita to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. The committee would be headed by the Chief Rabbi presiding over the Chief Rabbinate Council. The term of the Shmita Commission is seven years, in accordance with the Shmita cycle.

These are the Chief Rabbinate Guidelines for KKL-JNF forest, parks and sites.


“The sabbatical year is based on two fundamental concepts, two principles from which most of the laws of the sabbatical year are derived—the prohibition of cultivating the land and the requirement of dispossessing its produce. In situations where the products of the land of Israel are the only source of income for Jews in Israel, disconnecting from the source of income for an entire year is a very difficult demand and a big challenge that requires self-sacrifice and great faith.

“This difficult commandment was not meant to disconnect us from the land or from cultivation of the land. On the contrary, it was meant to connect us deeply to the land of Israel. The sabbatical year teaches us that we are living in a special land where there is holiness in the land and in its produce. The sabbatical year was meant to plant within us the knowledge that this land belongs to the Creator of the World, Who gave us the great and demanding privilege of living on His land. Living in this special palace of the Creator obliges us and has to enlighten our behavior not only during the sabbatical year but always, as long as we have the privilege of living in the land of Israel, ‘For the land is Mine; for you are sojourning with Me’ "

Rabbi Zev Whitman