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What Is Shemittah?

What Is Shemittah?

The Sabbatical Year basics: absolution of loans, desisting from all field work, and the spiritual objective of all the above.

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As soon as the Jews settled in the Holy Land,1 they began to count and observe seven-year cycles. Every cycle would culminate in a Sabbatical year,2 known as Shemittah,3 literally: “to release.”

The year following the destruction of the second Holy Temple was the first year of a seven-year Sabbatical cycle. In the Jewish calendar, counting from Creation, this was the year 3829, 68–69 CE on the secular calendar. By counting sevens from then, we see that the next Shemittah year will be the year 5775 after Creation, which runs from Sept. 25, 2014, through Sept. 13, 2015.

The The Shemittah year waives all outstanding debtsobservance of Shemittah has several dimensions. In the following paragraphs we will outline the basics of Shemittah 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 Shemittah 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 Shemittah observance is known as shemittat 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 L‑rd; 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 Shemittah 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 Shemittah year is known as shemittat karka, “release of the land.”

Refocus

In The nation collectively took a breather and focused on higher, more spiritual pursuitsthe ancient Israeli agrarian culture, the Shemittah 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 year-long 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 Shemittah 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.

FOOTNOTES
1.

The first cycle started after the years of conquering and dividing the land, in the fifteenth year after they crossed the Jordan River (1258 BCE).

2.

While the Torah ordinarily counts months starting from Nissan (in the spring), the years of this cycle—and the Shemittah, too—begin with Rosh Hashanah, at the start of the autumn month of Tishrei.

3.

When all the twelve tribes lived in Israel, in their ancestral estates, the year following seven complete Shemittah cycles—the fiftieth year—was observed as Yovel, the Jubilee year. During Yovel, too, the land was not worked, as during Shemittah. In addition, during the Yovel year all slaves were freed, and all fields and houses sold during the past fifty years were returned to their original owners. Unlike Shemittah, however, the Yovel year is no longer observed. See When is the next Jubilee year?

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Discussion (42)
August 23, 2015
I appreciate this website! Always learning more!
Anonymous
August 20, 2015
Errors creep in if you don't compute right
As I read it, the yovel (jubilee) is to count as a separate year, call it the 50th in a full yovel cycle. There may be a human tradition to skip the yovel but we are trying to figure out what G-d might do, so we should stick to what is documented. Thus, the cycle is not 49 years, but 50. So if you determine each shemitta year by adding sevens, you will be off after the first yovel and the error will increase with each cycle. Instead, try adding fifties to the 69-70 starting year and you will come up with 2019-2020 as the shemitta, and 2020-2021 as the yovel. It might be a year earlier, if we say that the destruction of the temple was so great an event that it must be the yovel year. I'm sure there are traditional rejoinders to that last bit, and I admit I am speaking from ignorance. Regardless, may G-d act sooner rather than later.
EzraO'Brien
Fauquier, VA
August 20, 2015
L‑rd?
Why is Lord spelled L‑rd?
Anonymous
Fort Wayne
August 14, 2015
Re
The Shemita is only applicable in the land of Israel. It is specifically associated with the sanctity of our Holy Land.
Yisroel Cotlar
Cary, NC
August 12, 2015
how does the Shemittah involve gentiles in a gentile land, and jewish people living in a gentile land.
Jeff Guenther
Grunthall
July 20, 2015
Having just read the book "The Shimittah", I have become very interested in Jewish law. How does the the year of Jubilee's debt forgiveness differ from the year of Shimittah debt forgiveness? I understand the difference in 7 year cycle & 7 periods of 7 year cycles.
Betsy Mallory
Nashville, TN
June 9, 2015
Thank you Albert. That is what made sense to me. Glad it made sense in Israel also. :)
Linda Rice
Brownsville
June 9, 2015
Rabbi Jacobs made jubilee calculations, not shmittah years as far as I know. Since a long time ago, shmittah years are no longer correlated to jubilees cycles (once we counted 7x7+1, and since the destruction of the Temple, only the 7 years). But he did predict that the Ottoman rule (which took over Jerusalem in 1517) will last 400 years (8 jubilee cycles of 60 years). Then Jews took control in the 9th jubilee (1967). Jubilee or not, by all means, the year 2017 ought to be very very special for Jews and Israel (year 5777 of our calendar), To start with, ISIS will be destroyed according to some...
Albert Benhamou
Tel Aviv
June 8, 2015
Shemitah
There should have been a recalibration, not sure if it was done. At least Rabbi Samuel Jacobs from the 12-13 century seems to have had it right as he correctly predicted when Israel would be declared a nation again and when Jerusalem would go back to Jewish hands. Based on that the Shemitah wont be till 2017.
Shoshana
June 8, 2015
Re: When shmittah begins
First shmittah year assumed from the Creation of Israel was year 1952, because the yovel counting stopped in 69 CE, so there are 269 shmittah cycles from 69 until 1952. The yovel was no longer taken into account after 69, because there was galut (so there is no longer any 50th year to add, in the absence of temple). This year, 2015, is shmittah because the 9th cycle since 1952.
Albert Benhamou
Tel Aviv, Israel
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