During Shmita, the land is left to lay fallow and all agricultural activity—including plowing, planting, pruning and harvesting—is forbidden by Torah law. Other cultivation techniques—such as watering, fertilizing, weeding, spraying, trimming and mowing—may be performed as a preventative measure only, not to improve the growth of trees or plants. Additionally, any fruits which grow of their own accord are deemed hefker (ownerless) and may be picked by anyone. A variety of laws also apply to the sale, consumption and disposal of Shmita produce.
A second aspect of Shmita concerns debts and loans. When the Shmita year ends, personal debts are considered nullified and forgiven.
The Book of Leviticus promises bountiful harvests to those who observe the shmita and makes observance a test of religious faith.
The rabbis of the Talmud and later times interpreted the Shmita laws in various ways to ease the burden they created for farmers and the agricultural industry. The Heter Mechirah (leniency of sale), developed for the Shmita year of 1888-1889, permitted Jewish farmers to sell their land to non-Jews so that they could continue to work the land as usual during Shmita. This temporary solution to the impoverishment of the Jewish settlement in those days was later adopted by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel as a permanent edict, generating ongoing controversy between Zionist and Hareidi leaders to this day.
The current Shmita year began on Rosh Hashanah of the Hebrew year 5768, and extends until 29 Elul 5768 (September 13, 2007–September 29, 2008). (However, fruits which are harvested in the spring and summer of 2008 have the status of Shmita produce well into the first year of the new agricultural cycle.)
Additional note: Here Isaiah is informing King Hezekiah that if he will agree to observe the sabbath year that coming fall (701 BCE), and the Jubilee [Yovel] the year after (700 BCE), and then resume planting and harvesting in the following year (699 BCE) then God will act against Sennacherib's seige of Jerusalem. There is no other occasion on the Hebrew calendar when two years of scheduled non-planting occur back-to-back. Hezekiah apparently agrees, as the siege is diverted. Since the date of Sennacherib's invasion of Judah and siege against Jerusalem is known to archaeologists as the spring and summer of 701 BCE, this is evidence that the dates the Rabbinate considers to be the sabbath years and Jubilee years are incorrect - the last Jubilee would have been 2001 (because there was no year "0" between 1 BCE and 1 CE, and the most recent Sabbath year therefore began on Rosh Chodesh Tishri in September of 2008.
Shevi'it produce has sanctity requiring special rules for its use:
By Biblical law, Jews who own land are required to make their land available during the Shmita to anyone who wishes to come in and harvest. If the land is fenced etc., gates must be left open to enable entrance. These rules apply to all outdoor agriculture, including private gardens and even outdoor potted plants. Plants inside a building are exempt. However, the Rabbis of the Mishna and Jerusalem Talmud imposed rabbinic ordinances on harvesters to ensure an orderly and equitable process and to prevent a few individuals from taking everything. Harvesters on others' land are permitted to take only enough to feed themselves and their families.
Nonetheless, Rabbinic Judaism has developed Halakhic (religious-law) devices to be able to maintain a modern agricultural and commercial system while giving heed to the Biblical injunctions. Such devices represent examples of flexibility within the Halakhic system
Hillel the Elder, in the first century BCE, used the rule that remittance of debts applies only to debts between Jews, to develop a device known as Prosbul in which the debt is transferred to a Beit Din (religious court). When owed to the court rather than to an individual, the debt survives the sabbatical year. This device, formulated early in the era of Rabbinic Judaism when the Temple in Jerusalem was still standing, became a prototype of how Judaism was later to adapt to the destruction of the Second Temple and maintain a system based on Biblical law under very different conditions.
The rabbis of the Jerusalem Talmud created rules to impose order on the harvesting process including a rule limiting harvester on others' land to taking only enough to feed themselves and their families. They also devised a system, called otzar beit din, under which a rabbinical court supervised a communal harvesting process by hiring workers who harvested the fields, stored it in communal storage facilities, and distributed it to the community.
Wrestling with the problems of developing a modern agricultural and commercial economy in the context of the requirements of Shmittah observance has been an important application of contemporary rabbinic approaches within Orthodox Judaism.
All rabbinic opinions agree that produce grown on land in Israel which is owned by Jewish farmers cannot be sold or consumed, as it violates the Shmita prohibitions of working the land and selling the harvest for profit. The fruits and vegetables that are for sale during Shmita come from five sources:
There exists a major difference of opinion between two Acharonim, the Beit Yosef and the Mabit, as to whether produce grown on land in Israel which is owned by non-Jews also has sanctity. According to the Beit Yosef, such produce has no sanctity and may be used and/or discarded in the same way as any produce grown outside of Israel. According to the Mabit, the fact that this produce was grown in Israel, even by non-Jews, gives it sanctity, and it must be treated in the special ways detailed above.
The Chazon Ish, a noted Hareidi halachic authority who issued key rulings on Jewish agricultural law (mitzvos tlu'os ba'aretz)in the 1930s and 1940's, ruled like the Mabit, holding that produce grown on land in Israel owned by non-Jews has sanctity. The Chazon Ish's ruling was adopted first by the religious families of Bnei Brak and is popularly called Minhag Chazon Ish (the custom of the Chazon Ish).
The rabbis of Jerusalem, on the other hand, embraced the opinion of the Beit Yosef that produce farmed on land owned by non-Jews has no sanctity. This opinion is now called Minhag Yerushalayim (the custom of Jerusalem), and was adopted by many Haredi families, by British Mandate Palestine, and by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.
These respective opinions are reflected in the way the various kashrut certifying organizations publicize their Shmita and non-Shmita produce. The Edah HaChareidis, which follows Minhag Yerushalayim, buys produce from non-Jewish farms in Israel and sells it as "non-Shmita produce." The Shearit Yisrael certifying organization, which subscribes to Minhag Chazon Ish, also buys from non-Jewish farmers in Israel, but labels the produce as such so that customers who keep Minhag Chazon Ish will treat these fruits and vegetables with appropriate sanctity.
The heter mechira was accepted by Modern Orthodox Judaism and is one of the classic examples of the Modern Orthodox approach toward adapting classical Jewish law to the modern world. However, this approach has not been universally accepted in the Orthodox community and has met with opposition, particularly from Haredi poskim (authorities of Jewish law).
In contemporary religious circles these rabbinic leniencies have received wide but by no means universal acceptance. In Israel, the Chief Rabbinate obtains permission from all farmers who wish to have their land sold. The land is then symbolically sold to a non-Jew for a large sum of money. The payment is made by a cheque post-dated to after the end of the sabbatical year. When the cheque is returned or not honoured at the end of the year the land reverts to its original owners. Thus, the fields can be farmed with certain restrictions.
Although the Orthodox Union's Kashrut Division accepts Minhag Yerushalayim and hence regards the produce of land owned by non-Jews as ordinary produce, it does not currently rely on the heter mechira because of doubts about whether the trust arrangement involved effects a valid transfer of ownership.
Many Haredi farmers also do not avail themselves of this leniency and seek other pursuits during the Shmita year.
An otzar beit din is an ancient device, mentioned in the Tosefta (Sheviit). Under an otzar beit din, a community rabbinical court supervises harvesting by hiring workers to harvest, store, and distribute food to the community. Members of the community pay the beit din, but this payment represents only a contribution for services, and not a purchase or sale of the food.
The Talmudic device was revived in modern times as an alternative to the heter mechira for observant Jews wishing to utilize an approach which regards the produce of the Land of Israel as sacred and which undertakes to respect the special rules associated with its sanctity.
Because under this approach land cannot be sown but existing plants can be tended and harvested, the approach is applied to orchards, vineyards, and other perennial crops. Under the approach, a Beit din, or rabbinical court supervising the process, hires farmers as its agents to tend and harvest the crops, and appoints the usual distributors and shopkeepers as its agents to distribute them. Individual consumers appoint the court and its designees as their agents and pay monies to court-appointed designees as agents of the court. Thus, under this approach, a legal arrangement is created whereby the crops themselves are never bought or sold, but rather people are merely paid for their labor and expenses in providing certain services. In Israel, the Badatz is notable for adapting and supervising such arrangements.
The Orthodox Union notes that
The Orthodox Union describes the contemporary application of the rules of biur as follows:
Thus, while the obligation of making ones produce available to the public and permitted to all takers can be performed in such a way as to minimize the risk that this availability will actually be utilized, this risk cannot be entirely eliminated. The community at large, including members of the poor, must be afforded some opportunity to take the produce.
Biur only applies to produce that has shevi'it sanctity. For this reason, it does not apply to produce grown under the heter mechirah for those who accept it. (Under the reasoning of the heter mechirah the shmita does not apply to land owned by non-Jews, so its produce does not have shevi'it sanctity.)
Authorities who prohibit farming in Israel generally permit hydroponics farming in greenhouses structured so that the plants are not connected to the soil. As a result, hydroponics use has been increasing in Haredi farming communities.
Halakhic authorities prohibit removing produce with sabbatical sanctity (shevi'it produce) from the Land of Israel or purchasing such produce outside the land of Israel. Some authorities hold that tourists should be careful not to carry any such produce on an airplane leaving Israel even for consumption mid-air.
There is a requirement that shevi'it produce be consumed for personal use and cannot be sold or put in trash. For this reason, there are a variety of special rules regarding the religious use of products that are normally made from agricultural produce. Some authorities hold that Hannukah candles cannot be made from shevi'it oils because the light of Channukah candles is not supposed to be used for personal use, while Shabbat candles can be because their light can be used for personal use. For similar reasons, some authorities hold that if the Havdalah ceremony is performed using wine made from shevi'it grapes, the cup should be drunk completely and the candle should not be dipped into the wine to extinguish the flame as is normally done.
The otzar beit din system is structured in such a way that biur remains the responsibility of members of individual households and hence warehoused produce does not have to be moved to a public place or reclaimed at the biur time. Households only have to perform biur on produce they receive before the biur time, not on produce they receive after it.
Because the Orthodox rules of Kashrut have strictures requiring certain products, such as wine, to be produced by Jews, the leniency of selling one's land to non-Jews is unavailable for these products, since these strictures would render the wine non-Kosher. Accordingly, wine made from grapes grown in the land of Israel during the Shmita year is subject to the full strictures of Shmita. New vines cannot be planted. Although grapes from existing vines can be harvested, they and their products cannot be sold.
Israeli wineries often address this issue by making separate batches of Shmita wine, labeled as such, and giving away bottles of Shmita wine as a free bonus to purchasers of non-Shmita wine.
While obligatory to the Orthodox as a matter of religious observance, observance of the rules of Shmita is voluntary so far as the civil government is concerned in the contemporary State of Israel. Civil courts do not enforce the rules. A debt would be transferred to a religious court for a document of prosbul only if both parties voluntarily agreed to do so. Many non-religious Israeli Jews do not observe these rules, although some non-religious farmers participate in the symbolic sale of land to non-Jews to permit their produce to be considered kosher and sellable to Orthodox Jews who permit the leniency. Despite this, during Shmita, crop yields in Israel fall short of requirements so importation is employed from abroad.
The 50th year of the land, which is also a Shabbat of the land, is called "Yovel" in Hebrew, which is the origin of the Latin term "Jubilee", also meaning 50th. The Jubilee Year is not observed in modern times because its correct date is unknown.
The Sma, who holds that Shmitta nowadays is only a Rabbinic obligation, holds that the Biblical promise of bounty for those who observe the Shmitta (Leviticus 25:20-22) only applies when the Biblical obligation is in effect, and hence that the Biblical promise of bounty is not in effect today. However, the Chazon Ish, who holds that the Biblical obligation of Shmitta observance remains in effect today, holds that the Biblical promise of bounty follows it and Divine bounty is promised to Jews living in the Land of Israel today, just as it was promised in ancient times. However, he holds that Jews should generally not demand miracles from Heaven and hence that one should not rely on this promise for ones sustenance, but should instead make appropriate arrangements and rely on permissible leniencies.
Haredi Jews tell stories of groups of Israeli Jews who kept the Shmitta and experienced remarkable agricultural events which they describe as representative of miracles in fulfillment of the Biblical promise of bounty. One famous story is told about the then-two-year-old village of Komemiyut during the 1952 Shmittah. The village was one of the few who refrained from working the land that year. At the end of the Shmittah, farmers searching for seed to plant found only wormy, inferior seed that had been rotting for years in an abandoned shed. Rabbi Binyamin Mendelson advised them to sow this seed anyway, saying "The Almighty who causes wheat to sprout from good seed will bless your inferior seed as well," even though it was three months after neighboring villages had planted their fields. They did. That year the fall rains came late, the day after the Komemiyut seed was sown. As a result, the neighboring villages had a meager harvest, while the village of Komemiyut, who sowed from the old store, had a bumper crop.