Parshat Behar-Bechukotei: Leviticus 25:1-27:34; Jeremiah 16:19-17:14.
The Jewish people are commanded to observe a day of rest every seven days. While many know about Shabbat, fewer are aware that the land is supposed to have a Shabbat as well. What exactly is a Shabbat for the fields?
In Israel, every seven years is known as a shemita year, or sabbatical year, when the land of Israel must lay fallow with no Jews allowed to work the fields. In Behar, we learn about the shemita laws. Our ancestors were forbidden from cultivating their fields or vineyards. The land was allowed to rest, but the people in Israel were able to gather and eat whatever the land produced on its own.
My first visit to Israel was in 1994, which was a shemita year. Unlike many of my friends who planted their own trees in the Jewish homeland, my group of teens were told that we would be unable to plant trees because of the sabbatical year. While we were disappointed that we couldn’t physically plant a tree, we were fascinated by this ancient law that was still followed religiously in the modern period. We were told how it is forbidden to perform any agricultural activity, including plowing, planting, pruning or harvesting; and this was a biblical law that had become a political law in modern Israel. The sabbatical year law we teens found most intriguing was that whatever grew on the land during shemita was free for anyone, but especially the poor who could use that free food.
There are some interesting nuances to the laws of shemita, most notably that Jews can eat produce that is grown on land in Israel owned by non-Jewish farmers. This means that Arab farmers can harvest their crops and sell their fresh produce to Jews in Israel. Jews are also allowed to eat produce that was grown in greenhouses, which has led to a rise in the building of greenhouses to grow vegetables during the sabbatical year. Additionally, produce that was cultivated on land outside of Israel can be consumed during the sabbatical year.
The sabbatical year also causes Jews in Israel to perform some legal acrobatics sort of like what we’re familiar with before Passover when we arrange for our chametz (forbidden leavened products) to be sold to a non-Jew. Prior to the shemita year, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate allows every Israeli farm to register for a sale permit and the Rabbinate “sells” all the land to a non-Jew. At the end of the sabbatical year, the Rabbinate buys back the land on the farmers’ behalf for a similar amount.
The laws of the sabbatical year may seem like ancient agricultural rules from the Torah, but they continue to be a very real part of the religious, agricultural and economic reality in 21st- century Israel. Almost 24 years after my first trip to Israel, I still think back to the agricultural lesson I learned on that teen tour. The sabbatical year forces me to consider the importance of the land to our survival. The words of the Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals) are not about food, but rather about the source of our food. We praise God for the land because we understand that without a fertile land, the farmers have no crops and then we have no sustenance.
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We joke that the overarching theme of all the Jewish holidays is food. While it’s true that our people spend a lot of time focused on the culinary aspects of our faith tradition, placing importance on the land is one of Judaism’s central ethics. The next time you sit down to a big, delicious meal, take a few moments to consider the role of the land, the farmer and, of course, God.