Oct 18, 2021
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As the Hebrew year nears its end, preparations are being made for the shemittah year. 

Rabbi Eliyahu: “It is our moral obligation not to provide an income to Arabs”

Despite the Biblical promise of bounty, Jews in Israel are quite concerned about ensuring a source of food for the shemittah year. Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, the chief rabbi of Tsfat (Safed) and a member of the Chief Rabbinate Council, shut down one of the sources that many religious Jews utilize; produce purchased from Arab farmers in Israel.

“It is our moral obligation not to provide an income to those who wish us ill,” Rabbi Eliyahu was quoted as saying by Hebrew-language media outlets. “It is a religious commandment to buy from Jews and not Arabs.”

His decision was supported by Rabbi Haim Druckman, Rabbi Dov Lior, Rabbi Mordechai Sternberg, Rabbi David Hai Hacohen and other religious-Zionist rabbis who signed a letter to support Rabbi Eliyahu’s decision.

The letter called “to help our brothers and support their livelihood, as the first pioneers who built the land always advocated for Jewish labor,” the letter said. “We consider the purchase of the produce of [those who are] declared enemies a total prohibition,” the rabbis wrote.

Rabbi Eliyahu’s Torah decision was decried by Meretz MK Mossi Raz who called for the attorney-general to investigate Rabbi Eliyahu for incitement to racial hatred.

Guatemala seeks repentance for Inquisition via shemitta

Rabbi Hillel Weiss, the former spokesman for the Sanhedrin, related to Israel365 News another possible solution for the shemittah year. In 2018, Rabbi Weiss was involved in organizing the Creation Concert in Jerusalem. Guatemalan Ambassador Mario Adolfo Bucaro Flores attended the concert as well as several other Temple-oriented events

“The ambassador displayed a deep love of Israel,” Rabbi Weiss told Israel365 News. “He claimed that this was true for many of his countrymen who felt their connection to Israel was more than just politics. He described it in deeply spiritual terms, even mentioning their connection with the Iberian Inquisition.”

“We began to discuss the possibility that some form of agreement could be worked out through which his country could help Israel revive the shemittah as it was observed in Biblical times. This would be a huge act of reconciliation and repentance.”

Rabbi Weiss suggested that a similar approach could be used with the Arabs in Israel. 

“In the end of days, the Children of Israel will certainly repent and embrace Isaac. We just came through a period when not only Hamas in Gaza, but the Arabs inside Israel turned against their Jewish neighbors. Including the Arabs in shemittah could help heal this.”

Bounteous harvest the year before and holy produce during the Shemittah

Produce grown in Israel in the seventh year takes on an elevated level of holiness. This produce should not be traded commercially nor sent outside Israel. It may not be wasted or used in an unusual manner. However, it is permitted to eat it and it should be treated in a respectful way i.e. leftovers should be wrapped prior to throwing it away.

God assures Israel that the year preceding the shemittah will produce a bounteous harvest that will provide all their needs for the year that they do not work the land. 

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.When you sow in the eighth year, you will still be eating old grain of that crop; you will be eating the old until the ninth year, until its crops come in. Leviticus 25:20-22

Other practical methods are used by Jews to access produce during the shemittah such as growing produce in hothouses with raised beds that are technically disconnected from the land of Israel. 

Another technique is referred to as otzar beit din. Under an otzar beit din, a community rabbinical court supervises harvesting by hiring workers to harvest, store, and distribute food to the community. Members of the community pay the beth din, but this payment represents only a contribution for services and not a purchase or sale of the food. Under this approach, land cannot be sown but existing plants can be tended and harvested, the approach is applied to orchards, vineyards, and other perennial crops.

Over 100 years ago, in order to protect the new settlements in the land of Israel, some leading rabbis in Israel devised a method of selling the Land of Israel to non-Jews in order to avoid the restrictions of shemitta.  This technique is referred to as “heter mechira”. Other authorities debated its validity and still others objected to it on the grounds that it transferred ownership of the Holy Land to non-Jews, albeit in only a symbolic manner.

Shemittah: a guide

The Shemitah comes every seven years, making it a form of Sabbath that occurs on a yearly, rather than a weekly, cycle. The Sabbath is generally characterized by a cessation that signifies accepting God’s greater authority in the world. Practically during the weekly Sabbath, this means a cessation of labor, showing that despite spending six days working for the material, we stop on the seventh day to show that God is the true master. The same is true for the Shemitah year. We work the land for six years, and on the seventh, we leave the land fallow and the fields are left open for anyone to come and take of the fruit. 

Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield;but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat. You shall do the same with your vineyards and your olive groves. Exodus 23:10-11

Other cultivation techniques, such as watering, fertilizing, weeding, spraying, trimming, and mowing, may be performed as a preventive measure only, not to improve the growth of trees or other plants. Additionally, any fruits or herbs which grow of their own accord and where no watch is kept over them are deemed ownerless and may be picked by anyone. A variety of laws also apply to the sale, consumption, and disposal of shemittah produce.

Speak to B’nei Yisrael and say to them: When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a Shabbat of Hashem. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a Shabbat of complete rest, a Shabbat of Hashem: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land.But you may eat whatever the land during its Shabbat will produce. Leviticus 25:2-6

All debts, except those of foreigners, were to be remitted. 

There are several other cases of cycles of seven that are related to this, for example the seven year cycle of a Hebrew slave before he is set free, as described in Exodus 21:2. Another aspect of the Shemitah year also has implications for loans, for the same reason.

Shemitah was commanded to Israel at Mount Sinai. After 40 years in the desert, the Jews entered the Land of Israel, but the land must be owned in order for it to be forfeited as the verse specifies. So 14 years later, after they had completed conquering the land, they began counting the seven year cycle. The first Shemitah year was the 21st year after the Jewish nation had entered the land.

The Shemitah is part of a larger framework of seven Shemitah cycles, in which we count 49 years, and then the 50th year is the Jubilee year, as described in Leviticus, chapter 25. The Jubilee year is observed only when all of the Nation of Israel is in the Land of Israel. Therefore, when the Jews returned from Babylonian Exile, since many chose to remain in the Diaspora, the Jubilee was not observed. For the same reason, it is not observed today in modern Israel.

It is interesting to note that despite the initiation of the Shemitah year being determined by the actions of the Jews, it worked out that the first Shemitah year was a multiple of seven since the creation of the world, according to the Jewish calendar. The year after the destruction of the Second Temple, 3829, was also known to be a Shemitah year, 547 seven-year cycles since the creation of the world. Next Rosh Hashanna (New Year) the Hebrew year will be 5782; precisely 826 Shemitah cycles.

Shemittah and the Messiah

Observance of the shemittah is hugely important as the Prophet Jeremiah warned that non-observance led to the exile:

Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel: I made a covenant with your fathers in the day that I brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, saying: “At the end of seven years ye shall let go every man his brother that is a Hebrew, that hath been sold unto thee, and hath served thee six years, thou shalt let him go free from thee”; but your fathers hearkened not unto Me, neither inclined their ear.” Jeremiah 34:13–14

According to Jewish sources, the year after the Shemitah has a special significance relating to the Messiah.  The Babylonian Talmud in the Tractate of Sanhedrin, 97a, brings the verse from Amos:

“On that day, will I raise up the fallen booth (Sukkah) of David.”Amos 9:11

This verse comes in the context of a prophecy about God bringing the nation of Israel back from exile among the nations. Amidst descriptions of the days preceding the Messiah, the Talmud says:

“As it is written, in that day I will raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen. Our Rabbis taught: in the seven year cycle at the end of which the son of David will come-in the first year, this verse will be fulfilled.”

The Talmud is saying explicitly that the Messiah will come in the first year after the Shemitah.  It should be noted that the Talmud describes the days before the Messiah in-depth, and they are especially difficult times.