Halakhic Shmitta
Halakhic ShmittaKnesset spokesperson

Almost all of Parashat Behar deals with the Shmitta Year and the Yovel (Jubilee) Year.

The Shmitta year is the Remission Year: the word שְׁמִטָּה is from the root שמט, meaning approximately “release” or “remove” or “erase”. The Radak (Sefer ha-Shorashim, entry שמט) explains the root to connote “abandon”; Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-1888) relates the root שמט to the root שמד (“destroy”).

The Torah commands us that every seventh year in the Land of Israel is the Shmitta Year, and that the year following every seventh Shmitta Year is the Yovel.

Parashat Behar opens with the words, “Hashem spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel, saying to them: When you come to the Land which I give you, the Land shall keep Hashem’s Shabbat…” (Leviticus 25:1-2).

Rabbi Dr Joseph Hertz (Chief Rabbi of the British Empire 1913-1946) opens his commentary to this Parashah: “The cycle of sacred seasons begun in Leviticus Chapter 23 is here continued, and the system of sabbaths – the Sabbath at the end of the week; Pentecost at the end of seven weeks; the Seventh month, as the sacred month studded with Festivals – is here completed by the Sabbatical year and by the Jubilee, which came after a ‘week’ of Sabbatical years”.

One characteristic of the Shmitta Year is that we are forbidden to work the Land throughout the year: the Land is “released” from human cultivation. As Rabbi Hertz continues, “The land is not the absolute possession of man; it belongs to G-d, and is to be held in trust for His purposes”.

On the words “the Land shall keep Hashem’s Shabbat”, Rabbi Hertz comments: “The land is personified. It should rest in the seventh year, as man rests on the seventh day. The Israelite may not during that year till it himself or allow anyone to do so on his behalf”.

And then he cites Rabbi Baruch Asher Felix Perles (Germany, 1874-1933): “Just as the freedom of the individual was a fundamental principle of the Torah, so was the freedom of the land from the absolute ownership of man”.

The second main characteristic of the Shmitta Year is that at the end of the year, all personal monetary loans are cancelled.

And the third main characteristic of the Shmitta Year is that all Jewish slaves are freed from their bondage (Exodus 21:2). The slave does, however, have the option of remaining with his master if he so desires.

The Yovel (Jubilee) Year, which follows every seventh Shmitta Year, follows the same paradigm as the Shmitta Year, with two additional aspects:

The first is that all land outside of walled cities which has been sold during the previous half-century since the previous Yovel Year reverts to its original owner.

The second is that any slave who remained with his master in the Shmitta Year when he was supposed to have been released, is released in the Yovel Year.

The Torah’s commandment is, “If you buy a Jewish slave, he will serve for six years, and in the seventh [i.e. Shmitta Year] he will go out free… But if he says: I love my master…I will not out free… – he will serve him forever” (Exodus 21:2-6).

In this case, “forever” means until the Yovel Year (see Targum Yonatan, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Ramban ad loc.; Kiddushin 21b; Rambam, Laws of Shmitta and Yovel 10:16).

So Shmitta and Yovel between them have four aspects:

  • Monetary loans are cancelled;
  • Slaves are released;
  • We are forbidden to work the land;
  • Land which has been sold returns to its former owner.

Just as the weekly Shabbat testifies that the world belongs to G-d, He decides what we may do with it and when, so too the seven-yearly Shabbat of Shmitta, and the 50-year Yovel, testify that the Land of Israel belongs to G-d, that our money belongs to G-d, and that our servitude is to G-d.

This year 5782 is of course a Shmitta Year, and this prompts the question: How do we know which is the seventh year? How do we know which year to sanctify as the Shmitta?

– We derive this from the opening words of our Parashah: “When you come to the Land which I give you, then the Land will rest a Shabbat-rest to Hashem...” (Leviticus 25:1-2).

That is to say, the seven-year cycle begins when we come into the Land of Israel.

The Rambam specifies:

“From when did they start to count [the 7-year cycle]? – From 14 years after they entered the Land [of Israel], as it says ‘for six years you will sow your field, and for six years you will tend your vineyard’ (Leviticus 25:3), until each person knows his piece of land. It took them seven years to conquer the Land and another seven to apportion it [among the Tribes]; consequently in the year 2503 from Creation [1257 B.C.E.] on Rosh Hashanah…they began to count [the 7-year cycle], and they made the year 2510 from Creation [1250 B.C.E.], which was the 21st year since they entered the Land of Israel, the Shmitta” (Laws of Shmitta and Yovel 10:2).

From then on, the Shmitta-years continued in unbroken 7-year cycles, until the exile to Babylon. When the Land of Israel was bereft of its sons and daughters the Shmitta was suspended, and when exiles returned, they began the cycle anew:

“In the seventh year of the Building [of the Second Temple] Ezra ascended [to Israel with his multitudes], and this was the second entry [into the Land of Israel]; it was from that year that they began to count [the 7-year cycle], so they made the 13th year of the Building of the Second Temple the Shmitta” (ibid. 3).

It was this second calibration of the Shmitta Year cycle which remains in force until today.

Now there is an incredibly powerful motif here: G-d has given us a mitzvah, a commandment to sanctify every seventh year – and the timing of this seventh year depends upon us! Unlike the weekly Shabbat, which G-d fixed from Creation itself and which can never be altered or shifted, the “Shabbat of the Land”, the Shmitta, depends upon us!

We, by our actions, decide when the Shmitta Year falls! That is to say, G-d has given us the power to decide which is to be the sacred year, when the Shabbat of the Land occurs.

It goes further:

The Talmud (Mo’ed Katan 2b, Gittin 36a-b) records a dispute among the Sages: According to Rabbi Yehudah the Nasi, the Torah only commands the Shmitta Year when the majority of Jews live in Israel; it was a Rabbinic decree which extended the Shmitta Year even to times when the majority of Jews are in exile.

The Rabbis, however, held that Shmitta is a Torah-obligation at all times.

The Rambam agrees with Rabbi Yehudah:

“The Shmitta-remission of debts applies by Torah-injunction only at a time when the Yovel applies, when the Shmitta-obligation to leave the Land to lie fallow applies… But the Soferim [the Torah-authorities of the Talmudic generations] decreed that the Shmitta-remission of debts still applies in this time, in all places [not only in Israel, as the obligation to leave the Land fallow does]” (Laws of Shmitta and Yovel 9:2-3).

The Yovel Year does not apply when the majority of Jews are in exile, even by Rabbinic decree; which is why the Yovel did not apply in the days of the Second Temple (Laws of Shmitta and Yovel 10:3).

Today, only little less than half of all the world’s Jews live in the Land of Israel, more than at any time since the First Temple – both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of all the Jews in the world.

If the demographic trends of the last three or four generations continue, then at some time in the next decade or two the majority of all the world’s Jews will be living in Israel.

And when that day comes, Shmitta and Yovel will once again apply, as a Torah-obligation, for the first time since the First Temple.

And when that day comes also depends upon us, the Jews world-wide. G-d has given us, His people, the power to restore a Torah-commandment.

And so both the Shmitta and the Yovel are almost tangible demonstrations of how we mortals become G-d’s partners in sanctifying both time and the Land of Israel.