By Israel Drazin


There are many problems and questions concerning the Shemita and Jubilee years. I will discuss some of them.


Shemita means “release.” It is a biblically required year when financially distressed people are aided, the nation’s economy is toughened, food supplies are secured by strengthening fields, and the population is united in performing a humanitarian act that aids Israel and its people. Exodus 23:10-11 and Leviticus 25:2-7 state that farmers must let their land “rest and lie fallow [every seventh year] so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beast of the field can eat. Do the same with your vineyard and olive yard.” However Deuteronomy 15:2 does not state that the release is of fields but of debts: “every creditor must release what he lent to his neighbor; he mustn’t collect it from his neighbor and brother.”


Because Shemita is a year in which land lays fallow and occurs every seventh year, Shemita is also called “sabbatical year” and “sheviit,” seventh. The next Shemita begins October 14, 2014 and ends September 22, 2015. The rabbis read the Exodus and Leviticus text as confining the Shemita land rule to Israel, but read the Deuteronomy text to apply the debt law everywhere.


Among the many questions that could be asked is why didn’t the rabbis read both the land and debt rules as being restricted to Israel?


Second, why do Exodus and Leviticus only speak about land and Deuteronomy only about debts? Where the different laws developed at different times to address dissimilar economic situations in Israel? Was the land rule the original Shemita law and the debt law instituted later when the Israelite population in Canaan increased including the number of its poor? Some scholars argue that these are laws established at different periods when economic and social needs changed, but there is no consensus as to when each was instituted. Traditional Jews insist that both laws were in effect since the days of Moses.


Third, some ancient countries released debts on occasions to help poor people during distressed economic periods and many farmers rotate crops to increase the fertility of their farms. Is it possible that Shemita laws are based on these more ancient practices and are an attempt to help the poor and the economy in a more organized systematic manner? This is very likely.


Fourth and most problematic, the rabbis determined, as previously stated, that the Shemita land law applies only in Israel. But does it apply today? The rabbis decided that the Jubilee year has been discontinued because it is in effect only when all Jews live in Israel. Why doesn’t the same reasoning apply to Shemita? Furthermore, if the Shemita rules apply today, is the Shemita observance today biblically mandated or only a rabbinical invention?[1] If the Shemita practices today are rabbinical, since the rabbis created it, they can fashion conditions that would allow farmers to work the land. Different Jews answer these and similar questions in ways that fit their ideology. Extremely Orthodox Jews in Israel[2] insist that it is biblically mandated and there is no way to diminish the requirement. But they don’t agree. Some do not eat any Israeli farm products whether produced by Jews and non-Jews. Others allow eating non-Jewish products if the land belongs to them. All extreme Orthodox allow eating foods grown outside of Israel. Many modern Orthodox Jews and Conservative Jews disagree with this severe view. They feel that Shemita today is rabbinical and conditions can be instituted to allow eating foods produced during the Shemita year. Since the nineteenth century, modern Orthodox and Conservative Jews allowed symbolic selling of Jewish land to non-Jews for the Shemita year and eating its produce.[3] However, different opinions developed as to how the sale should be done. As a result, foods sold in Israel during the Shemita year have several different labels so that people with different views can decide whether they are permitted to eat it.


The forgoing raises an important fifth question. Are the people who are taking the more stringent views, including rabbis, focusing on the letter of the law rather than its purpose and ignoring the fact that Torah laws should be understood as rules that promote good will and help improve people and society? Are they harming Judaism when they create this contention?[4]


Another problem, not as serious as the former, is whether foods produced in Israel during Shemita that can be eaten are holy. Some Jews think that these foods are holy, even though there is no hint that this is so in the Bible. Since they think that the foods are holy, they feel they cannot trash uneaten Shemita-year foods. These foods, they insist must be buried or burned as required for “holy books” such as the Bible. Other Jews feel that nothing is holy per se. “Holiness” means that an item or day can help a person rise to a higher level if the person uses the item properly.[5]


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The Jubilee year, generally understood as the year following seven sabbatical years, is mentioned in Leviticus 25:8-16. It mandates that during the Jubilee year sold land is returned to prior owners and slaves are freed. Also, as with the Shemita year, land must remain fallow. The biblical name of the year is Yovel, whose meaning is obscure and has been variously translated. The Greek translation of the Bible, called Septuagint, renders it “a trumpet-blast of liberty” because the year was announced on the tenth day of the seventh month by means of a blast of a shofar, a ram’s horn.[6] The name Jubilee is a Latin corruption of Yovel. The next Jubilee year begins September 23, 2015 and ends October 12, 2016.


While the consensus today is that the Jubilee year is the year after the seventh Shemita, the fiftieth year, some ancient rabbis and some present-day scholars feel that it was the forty-ninth year.[7] Support for the fiftieth year is that the Jubilee year would parallel the Shavuot holiday that occurs on the fiftieth day after the count of seven weeks begins.[8] Support for the forty-ninth year is that the land is required to remain fallow during both the Shemita and Sabbatical years, when land is not planted and harvested for two consecutive years, and this could result in people starving. Additionally, we know that the Samaritans who retained many ancient Jewish practices observed the Jubilee year in the forty-ninth year until they stopped observing it all-together.

[1] Arguably, the Shemita is like the Jubilee year and ceased when all Jews were no longer living in Israel but the rabbis decided its reestablishment as a rabbinical law. Many rabbis and scholars believe that the Jubilee year was not observed after the Judeans went into Babylonian exile in 586 BCE. If the rabbis reinstituted the Shemita year, why did they do so and why didn’t they do the same for the Jubilee year?

[2] Who generally focus on strict observance of the letter of the law and ignore its purpose. Most say that Jews must never question why God ordered a particular law.

[3] A similar leniency was developed during the first century by the sage Hillel in regard to Shemita debts called prozbul. A debt could remain unreleased if it was assigned to a court. Why was Hillel’s prozbul accepted while modifications of the Shemita land rules were not? Furthermore, why is the sale of leavened foods allowed to be sold to non-Jews during the Passover holiday but extreme Orthodox do not allow the sale of land during the Shemita year?

[4] The Talmud states and scholars agree that the second temple was destroyed in 70 CE because of internal arguments and ideological fights among Jews.

[5] Some of those Jews who think that the Shemita year foods are holy also think that items such as the lulav and essrog used on the holiday of Sukkot are holy and they refuse to trash them.

[6] This is similar to the practice in many Israeli cities of announcing the beginning of the Shabbat each week with a siren.

[7] Meaning the forty-ninth year was both a Shemita and Jubilee year.

[8] Shavuot and the Jubilee year as well as dozens of Jewish practices are related to the number seven probably to remind Jews of the three-fold lesson of the Shabbat: there is a God, God created the world in six days and ceased creating on the seventh (He created the laws of nature), and God proclaimed laws such as the Sabbath that people should observe.