In the 11th century, Maimonides (Rambam) sought to codify and explain Jewish laws on a range of topics, and his master work is known as the Mishna Torah. Within this collection, the Sefer Zera’im (Book of Seeds) deals specifically with all agricultural laws and practices, and it is here where much attention is dedicated to Shmita, both from an agrarian and economic perspective. The sources Maimonides uses in this compilation primarily comes from the biblical Shmita texts, as well as rulings within the Mishna and Talmud. Beyond being a practical list of laws, his clarifications help us to understand the ways in which the Shmita Year might affect a society that observed it.
You can read the texts in the next two sections in two ways:
1. Since the Torah isn’t always thorough or clear, what are the actual rules to observe while keeping Shmita?
2. How might we use Shmita as a lens to examine our contemporary food and economic systems?
Feel free to explore these texts, at either level or both.
PART 1: SABBATICAL FOOD SYSTEMS
Agriculture is at the root of our wider cultural systems. For all our production, consumption, creativity, and growth, it is agriculture that provides the nourishment and the energy for our own physical development. Agriculture is an intimate relationship of delicate giving and receiving. It is the collective process of working with land for production and consumption, using the life of the soil and plant communities to collect for our own needs. While we are not all farmers, we are all consumers of food that has been farmed. The way we develop our food system — the practices, ethics, and values of the way we plant, harvest, and consume foods — has a direct parallel on our own culture. A healthy agricultural system will likely manifest in a healthy societal system, and vice versa. In this section, we explore the food system of the Sabbatical year. How did agriculture change during this year? What foods were eaten at this time? How were foods distributed? And how would these Sabbatical food ethics affect the relationships and practices within the wider society?
1. Agricultural Practices of the Shmita Year
Questions for discussion:
How does this text build on the first two Torah sources from Exodus and Leviticus? (section 1, sources # 1-2)
Why might further restrictions have been added to Shmita agricultural laws?
Why do you think these specific actions have been highlighted as work that should not be done on the Shmita Year? Do you think this is to benefit the land? To give farmers a rest? Another reason?
Are these the types of activities you are personally involved with? If so, how often? Do such Shmita prohibitions feel like they would directly affect you?
According to Talmud Bavli, Avoda Zara 50b, it is permissible to do certain pruning to preserve the life of a tree. Similarly, the Rambam 1:8-10 allows irrigating trees in an orchard so that the soil does not become parched and the trees die. The intention of this year is to cease from agricultural work, but if this will threaten the life of certain plants, it is permissible to do what is necessary to keep them alive.
2. Hefker: Communal Access
Rashi is attempting to clarify the Biblical text (Leviticus 25: 5-6) which, on the one hand, mentions “You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest,” and, on the other hand, offers that “Whatever the land yields, will be food for you.” According to Rashi, harvesting is fine as long as it is without the intention of sole personal ownership.
This understanding of the Shmita harvests and property ownership can be better understood in the wider context of other Jewish agricultural laws, such as Peah and Leket. Peah literally means ‘corner’ and was a space of a farmer’s field that was planted specifically to be harvested by those who were landless peasants. Leket is the practice of allowing gleaners onto your field during harvest periods to collect what drops or is unharvested. The source for these laws come from Leviticus 19: 9-10: “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner.”
Questions for discussion:
How does the Maimonides text build on Rashi’s idea?
Do you agree that a normal ‘harvest’ implies the intention of ownership and possession? Do you consider your garden produce, or even the produce you buy in the market, your own property? Similarly, if we removed fences around our property lines, how might this affect the way we recognize land ownership? (For more on ‘private ownership’ in agricultural systems, see the Kli Yakar in section 4, source #5.)
Today, our agricultural landscapes are quite different than during biblical times, as farms have been consolidated on rural lands, and most populations reside in cities. Beyond the intention of open field access and shared harvests, what are some other ways you might consider expanding fair and healthy food access for all peoples, inspired by Shmita-values? How might we look at Shmita values in relation to urban ‘food-deserts’?
How would you feel if you could only harvest enough for a few meals at a time, and not stock your pantry with cases of food? How might this affect the way you prepare and consume food at home?
3. Wild & Perennial: Harvests of the Shmita Year
What do you think the benefits may have been—for the body and the land—in consuming such foods for a year?
Do you think you would be able to sustain yourself for a full year on a diet of perennial, wild or uncultivated foods? What would your diet look like?
Think about what you ate recently. Can you identify which foods were perennials and which were annuals? Are such foods balanced in your own eating preferences and habits? Note that five of the Shivat Minim (Deuteronomy 8:8) were perennials. This is a list of seven species mentioned in the Torah, celebrating the abundance of the land of Israel. The perennials in this list include: figs, grapes, dates, olives, and pomegranates. The annuals in this list are wheat and barley.
Consider how the primary fruit and vegetable varieties we eat today have been domesticated from their original, wild form. How do you see the difference between a wild strawberry or apple and a cultivated one? Have you ever harvested foods from the wild? What was this experience like for you?
Do you think the rabbis made a fair call by prohibiting all Sfichim from public consumption?
- Plant Life Cycles & Shmita
The laws of the Shmita Year apply specifically to plants which need their seeds to be sown, and the soil they’ll be planted in to be tilled. These are generally plants that are considered ‘Annuals.’ They are called Annuals because they complete their life cycle in one season (once they produce the next generation of seeds, the plant dies). Hence, they must begin their life cycle anew each season, which generally requires soil preparation (tilling) and sowing. Most vegetables are annuals.
Perennials, on the other hand, live for many years (while they may produce seed each season, the plant body still lives). Trees, and most vines and herbs are perennial plants. These plants do not need their seed to be sown each season (as their new annual growth comes from their long-living wood and root structure), nor do they need the soil to be continually tilled (the soil is tilled once, for planting…and then that plant settles in for the years ahead).
Wild plants are also not affected by Shmita laws, as these plants (whether they are annual or perennial) are not ‘farmed’ and grow naturally without human intervention.
Lastly, there is a plant category for the Shmita Year known as Sfichim. These are common garden annuals that may become wild from seeds which dropped in the previous season and grew again, or from roots which continue to produce a stem/leaf body after an initial harvest (Biennials may also fall into this category. These are annuals plants which do not produce their seed until the second season of growth). Sfichim is the area of contention the Rambam is discussing.
See Appendix A for ‘Shmita Food’ ideas.
4. Eat Fresh & Ripe
The ‘tithes’ mentioned by the Rambam is the portion of the harvest that is called ‘ma’aser,’ literally, ‘a tenth.’ This portion was a percentage of the harvest, dedicated towards the Levites (a landless tribe, whose members served in the Temple and in spiritual leadership for the larger society) and the poor.
The separating of ma’aser would not happen until the crop was ripe enough to be eaten.
Questions for discussion:
Do you agree with the Rambam’s classification that until a fruit is fully ripe, it is not actually considered as produce? Compare the sensory impression and flavor of biting into a fresh, ripe peach versus an unripe, greenish peach. Consider the nutrient richness of a ripe food, as well. How might this be different than the nutrients before ripeness?
What are the challenges of allowing fruit to ripen on the plant? In our modern industrial agricultural system, why do you think there might be a preference to harvest produce before full ripeness?
5. Biur: Seasonal Diet
Besides for the focus on seasonal eating, Biur adds another dimension to the Sabbatical food system, in regards to food security. Once the time of Biur has passed (meaning a specific food is no longer found in the wild), this specific food could not be held in private storage. Instead, this food must be made available to the public until it was fully consumed. If you happened to have a large amount of this food in storage, you would be guided to ‘distribute a quantity sufficient for three meals’ to as many people as you can (Rambam 7.3). How would your sense of food security shift if this was dependent upon community sharing rather than personal storage?
Questions for discussion:
Note that the Hebrew word for animal that the Rambam chooses is very specific: “chay’a,” translated as “beast.” This is not a domesticated animal, such as a cow, goat or sheep. This is in reference to wild animals. What do you think of this comparison the Rambam is making, from the Torah verse, between the eating patterns of humans and wild animals, in regards to seasonality?
Is seasonal eating something that is a priority for you? How challenging or easy would this be in the climate you live in?
If you are not growing your own food, how do you generally find out if food is in season? What foods do you associate with a specific season, if any?
How much of your diet is based on food preservation?
6. Eat Local
What is Suria?
The territory of Suria is comprised of what would be considered modern day Syria. This land was annexed to the land of Israel during the reign of King David, but it was not fully recognized within the borders that marked the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael. As for Shmita observance, the land of Suria had a unique status, in which some restrictions of the year applied, and some did not. For further discussion on this land and its role during the Shmita year, see Talmud Yerushalmi, Shvi’it, 47b-48a.
Is importing produce allowed?
While the Rambam speaks specifically about the prohibition of exporting produce outside of Israel, it is understood that importing produce was not allowed either, and it was only once the Shmita year ended that these vegetables from outside Israel would available for sale in the marketplace, to supplement the domestic supply of produce. For a deeper discussion on the role of imported produce after Shmita, see Talmud Yerushalmi, Shvi’it, 50b.
Questions for discussion:
“Even to Suria” suggests that exports between Israel and Suria were common enough to be taken for granted and potentially not seen as ‘transporting’. How do you define ‘local’ as it relates to food production and consumption? How close should a food be grown for you to consider it ‘local’?
What is the most local food you’ve ever eaten? The least local? In either case, was there an appreciation of how far or short that food traveled to get to your mouth?
What type of agricultural and economic systems would need to be in place to ensure a vibrant local ‘foodshed’ (total geographic area where your food is grown)? What would be the benefits and challenges in relying on local food production?
What is your own most local food source? If you were creating a local diet for the Shmita Year, what would you have to sacrifice? Where would you be willing to make a compromise? How would you seek creative alternatives for the foods you would be missing out on?
7. Kedushat Shvi’it
Building upon the essence of this verse (Leviticus 25.6), the Rabbis determined that all produce of the Shmita Year — whatever is fit and intended for human consumption — should specifically be used in such manner. Such produce must be eaten and enjoyed to their full potential as food. None of it should be left to turn into garbage, and none of it should be prepared or used in a wasteful manner. This general intention is called Kedushat Shvi’it, literally ‘The Sanctity of the Seventh [Year Harvest].’
Questions for discussion:
Have you considered how much food is wasted by the agricultural industry, restaurants and the marketplace? Have you ever attempted to measure how much food is wasted in your own kitchen?
What might you or your family do on a Shmita Year (or in your daily practice) to help minimize your own food waste?
The contemporary world involves many instances of food substances being turned into non-food substances: products as different as ethanol, cars running on used vegetable oil, and compostable utensils and dishes are three obvious examples.
The text, on the face of it, would seem to suggest rabbinic disapprobation of such products, for the Shmita Year. What is your view? Do you think transforming food into useful non-edible substances would be considered a waste of food?
8. Shmita & Animals
Questions for discussion:
Just as we have learned that the produce of the Shmita Year can be harvested when it is treated as ownerless (and fences blocking such open access is removed), how can we expand this towards animals? How would removing all fences and cages around our domesticated animals, allowing them free access to wild pasture and food, affect our systems of animal husbandry and crop farming?
What does the second source imply about the relationship between domesticated animals and wild animals, based on their food needs and Biur?
How do you think our relationships with animals are directly connected to the wider paradigm of Shmita values and ideals?
Closing questions for discussion:
What do you think the significance was for all farmers to create a fallow, non-agricultural year all at once, rather than ensure individual fallow periods for each farm’s own particular schedule and need?
What is your relationship to your local foodshed: growing, harvesting, distributing, processing, consuming? How directly would you be affected by such a year as Shmita?
How might anticipation of the Shmita Year affect the design of our food systems during the first six years of the cycle so that we can ensure local food systems based in perennial and wild plants, and shared diets based on seasonal and ripe foods?
If eating perennial, local, seasonal, and fresh food is already something that’s important to you, how does knowing that these are key components of the Shmita ideal affect your relationship to your food choices? To Jewish tradition? If these aren’t food habits you’ve taken on in your life, how does reading about them in the context of Shmita change their value to you? Take a moment to fully consider the benefits and challenges of eating in such a way.