As soon as the Jews settled in the Holy Land, they began to count and observe seven-year cycles. Every cycle would culminate in a Sabbatical year, known as "Shemitah," literally: to release.
The year following the destruction of the second Holy Temple was the first year of the seven-year Sabbatical cycle. In the Jewish calendar, counting from Creation, this was year 3829, 68-69 CE in the secular calendar. By counting sevens from then, we see that the next shemitah year will be the year 5775 after Creation, which runs from Sept. 25, 2014 through Sept. 13, 2015.
The Shemitah year waives all outstanding debtsThe observance of Shemitah has several dimensions. In the following paragraphs we will outline the basics of Shemitah observance. For more detailed information, please see our Loan Amnesty and Deserting the Farms sections.
Give Your Friend a Break
At the end of seven years you will make a release. And this is the manner of the release: to release the hand of every creditor from what he lent his friend; he shall not exact from his friend or his brother, because the time of the release for the L-rd has arrived -- Deuteronomy 15:1-2
The Shemitah year waives all outstanding debts between Jewish debtors and creditors.
[Nowadays, a halachic mechanism called pruzbul circumvents this loan amnesty. See Loan Amnesty for more information on the pruzbul.]
This aspect of Shemitah observance is known as shmitat kesafim, "release of money [debts]."
Take a Break from Farming
For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in its produce, but in the seventh year, the land shall have a complete rest, a Sabbath to the Lord; you shall not sow your field, you shall not prune your vineyard, nor shall you reap the aftergrowth of your harvest . . . And [the produce of] the Sabbath of the land shall be yours to eat for you, for your male and female servants, and for your hired worker and resident who live with you... -- Leviticus 25:3-6.
During the Shemitah year, the residents of the Land of Israel must completely desist from cultivating their fields. They also relinquish personal ownership of their fields; whatever produce grows on its own is considered communal property, free for anyone to take.
This aspect of the Shemitah year is known as shmitat karka, "release of the land."
The nation collectively took a breather and focused on higher, more spiritual pursuitsIn the ancient Israeli agrarian-based culture, the Shemitah year proved to be a difficult challenge for the people's collective trust in the Creator, the One who bequeathed them the Land of Milk and Honey.
And if you should say, "What will we eat in the seventh year? We will not sow, and we will not gather in our produce!" -- Leviticus 25:20
Yet, those who put their trust in G‑d were richly rewarded:
I, [G‑d,] will command My blessing for you in the sixth year, and it will yield produce for three years. And you will sow in the eighth year, while still eating from the old crops. Until the ninth year, until the arrival of its crop, you will eat the old crop! -- Leviticus 25:21-22.
As well as giving the people an opportunity to put their faith in G-d and see it fulfilled, the yearlong abstention from farming also allowed them to collectively take a breather and focus on higher, more spiritual pursuits -- as the people packed the synagogues and study halls. Even today, when the vast majority of Jews are not involved in the farming industry, the lessons of Shemitah are very germane. During this holy year we are expected to concentrate more on our spiritual mission in life, and a little less on our material pursuits. More on why we are needed, less on what we need. More on faith in G‑d, less on faith in our own talents and wiles.