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Shmita (Hebrew שְׁמִטָּה, Sabbatical Year) is a biblical law according to which land in Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel, is allowed to lay fallow every seventh year. The current shmita began on Rosh Hashanah of the Hebrew year (5768). A second aspect of shmita applies to debts and loans. When the shmita year starts, personal debts are considered nullified and forgiven. The rabbis of the Talmud and later times have interpreted the laws in various ways to ease the burden they create for farmers and agricultural industry. The appropriate manner of observing these laws has become a source of controversy in Israel.

Shmita is mentioned several times in the Bible:

  • Book of Exodus: "You may plant your land for six years and gather its crops. But during the seventh year, you must leave it alone and withdraw from it. The needy among you will then be able to eat just as you do, and whatever is left over can be eaten by wild animals. This also applies to your vineyard and your olive grove" (Exodus 23:10-11).

  • Book of Leviticus: "God spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai, telling him to speak to the Israelites and say to them: When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land must be given a rest period, a Sabbath to God. For six years you may plant your fields, prune your vineyards, and harvest your crops, but the seventh year is a Sabbath of Sabbaths for the land. It is God's Sabbath during which you may not plant your fields, nor prune your vineyards. Do not harvest crops that grow on their own and do not gather the grapes on your unpruned vines, since it is a year of rest for the land. [What grows while] the land is resting may be eaten by you, by your male and female slaves, and by the employees and resident hands who live with you. All the crops shall be eaten by the domestic and wild animals that are in your land" (Leviticus 25:1-7).

  • Book of Deuteronomy: "At the end of every seven years, you shall celebrate the remission year. The idea of the remission year is that every creditor shall remit any debt owed by his neighbour and brother when God's remission year comes around. You may collect from the alien, but if you have any claim against your brother for a debt, you must relinquish it..." (Deuteronomy 15:1-6) and "Moses then gave them the following commandment: 'At the end of each seven years, at a fixed time on the festival of Sukkoth, after the year of release, when all Israel comes to present themselves before God your Lord, in the place that He will choose, you must read this Torah before all Israel, so that they will be able to hear it. 'You must gather together the people, the men, women, children and proselytes from your settlements, and let them hear it. They will thus learn to be in awe of God your Lord, carefully keeping all the words of this Torah. Their children, who do not know, will listen and learn to be in awe of God your Lord, as long as you live in the land which you are crossing the Jordan to occupy'." (Deuteronomy 31:10-13).

  • Book of Jeremiah: "Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel: I made a covenant with your fathers in the day that I brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, saying: "At the end of seven years ye shall let go every man his brother that is a Hebrew, that hath been sold unto thee, and hath served thee six years, thou shalt let him go free from thee"; but your fathers hearkened not unto Me, neither inclined their ear" (Jeremiah 34:13-14).

  • Book of Nehemiah: "and if the peoples of the land bring ware or any victuals on the Sabbath day to sell, that we would not buy of them on the Sabbath, or on a holy day; and that we would forego the seventh year, and the exaction of every debt" (Nehemiah 10:31).

  • Books of Chronicles: "... And them that had escaped from the sword carried he away to Babylon; and they were servants to him and his sons until the reign of the kingdom of Persia; to fulfil the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had been paid her Sabbaths; for as long as she lay desolate she kept Sabbath, to fulfil threescore and ten years" (2 Chronicles 36:20-21).

According to the laws of shmita, land owned by Jews in the Land of Israel is left unfarmed. The law does not apply to land in the Diaspora. In Biblical times any naturally growing produce was left to be taken by poor people, passing strangers, and beasts of the field. While naturally growing produce such as grapes growing on existing vines can be harvested, it cannot be sold or used for commercial purposes; it must be given away or consumed.

The laws of Shmita do not apply to plants inside a house or greenhouse, which may be tended as usual.

On a shmita year, personal debts are considered forgiven at sunset on the 29th of Elul. Since this aspect of shmita is not dependent on the land, it applies to Jews both in Israel and elsewhere.