Preparations are well under way for the special once in seven year event that is set to take place beginning in October, at the Jewish New Year – the Shemitta year, the seventh year of the Jewish agricultural cycle.
According to Jewish law, farmers are bidden to leave their fields and take the year off. Growing crops is not permitted, and commercial harvesting is also not allowed. Fruits, vegetables and grains are allowed to grow unfettered and without the application of commercial farming techniques (except for limited weeding and minimal watering, depending on what is growing). Thus, those working in the agricultural economy take a sabbatical year, turning away from material pursuits to take care of spiritual ones.
That, at least, was how things worked during Biblical and Talmudic times, when the economy of the Land of Israel was agrarian-based. In the modern, urbanized environment, the Shemitta year has lost some of its meaning, said Rabbi Michael Melchior, former government minister and currently the head of the Shemitta Israel project. “Today, very few people among the Jewish people and even in Israel appreciate the Shemitta year, and many people don't even know what it is. In preparation for Shemitta we have developed contacts with a lot of individuals, businesses, farmers, schools and others to educate them on what it is all about and make it a part of Israeli life.”
According to Melchior, that would mean figuring out ways to impart the main theme of Shemitta – letting go of the material and backing a bit away from the “rat race.” One way to make the year relevant, he said, was to apply the rules of “monetary Shemitta,” a process where debts are forgiven or renegotiated. Such a process, he said, could greatly benefit poor families burdened with debt.
Melchior said that he had discussed the matter with leaders of the economy, including bankers, start-up executives, and government officials. “We developed several practical ways to institute the monetary Shemitta procedures. For example, bank loans taken out by the needy will be transferred to non-profit organizations, and banks will forgive interest payments due them.
“Some companies have said that they will let workers take off time so they can learn Torah, which would be very much in the spirit of Shemitta,” he said, as the Talmud says that farmers who took the year off would spend their time learning Torah. “Once every seven years it's a good idea to re-evaluate life, to stop the race after the material and return to a type of Paradise, where man did not have to work to support himself,” Melchior added.
Shemitta still applies to the agricultural sector, and over the years, there has been a sharp difference of opinion in how to apply it in a practical manner. Among many hareidi religious Israelis, for example, the practice has been to prefer buying fruits and vegetables from abroad where possible (generally, the importation of fruits and vegetables grown in Israel is prohibited by the Agricultural Ministry) or purchasing fruits and vegetables from Palestinian Authority Arabs; according to several opinions, the laws of Shemitta do not apply to crops grown by non-Jews, even if they are grown in the Land of Israel.
The most practical and popular solution over the years has been the “Heter Hamechira” - a process where Jewish farmers sell the rights to their farms to non-Jews, and do limited agricultural work. The process has been endorsed throughout the years by the Chief Rabbinate; among its biggest proponents has been the late former Chief Rabbi and Shas leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
However, many hareidi religious leaders and rabbis have not seen eye-to-eye with the Rabbinate on this matter, and the question of how to handle the Shemitta in the agricultural sphere has been a matter of great debate in religious circles.
Melchior said he hoped that those differences could be resolved, or at least minimized, during the upcoming Shemitta year. “We have an opportunity to spread the positive message of Shemitta, with its benefits for values, families, and society,” he said. “Let us overcome our differences on the best way to implement Jewish law on this matter and work together for the benefit of everyone.”