THE LAND SABBATH IN MODERN ISRAEL

by Doug Ward

Rest can be hard to come by in twenty-first century Western societies. With so much to do, it is all too easy for us to become enslaved to our busy schedules.

The Bible gives indications that our Creator did not intend for us to live such restless and hurried lives. In Genesis 2:1-3 we read that God rested on the seventh day of the creation week, setting an example for mankind. Later, in proclaiming the Decalogue from Mt. Sinai, God reminded the children of Israel of that example (Exod. 20:8-11).

The weekly Sabbath is one of the foundations of the Torah, God's wise and loving instruction for his people. The Torah also makes provision for the land of Israel to "rest" every seven years (see Exod. 23:10-11; Lev. 25:1-7). In a sabbatical year (known in Jewish tradition as a "shemittah year," from a Hebrew word in Exod. 23:11 that means "let drop"), farmers are not to plant seed, prune their trees, or harvest crops. For that year the land becomes public property, and people may take what grows by itself according to their needs. The seventh year is also a time for cancellation of debts (Deut. 15:1-2) and release of indentured servants (Deut. 15:12-18).

The sabbatical commandments of the Torah are designed to maintain and strengthen the relationship between God and his people. They provide time for fellowship with God. They teach the lesson that God is the source of all blessings and can be relied upon to provide human needs. They promote compassion for the poor and responsible stewardship of the land.

Can the application of these ancient principles bring rest to today's stressed-out world? One man who hopes so is Dr. Don Stanley, a Christian who holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Studies from the University of Melbourne. With the help of a grant from an Australian Jewish organization, Dr. Stanley spent five months in Israel (July-November 2004) investigating the experiences of Israeli farmers who have observed the shemitta year. On the Sabbath of April 2, 2005, Stanley reported on the results of his research at a worship service of the Church of the Messiah in Dayton, Ohio.

Land Sabbaths Ancient and Modern


By way of introduction, Dr. Stanley summarized the history of the land sabbath. The shemittah year was kept during both the First and Second Temple periods, though not always consistently. In fact, even before the Israelites reached the Promised Land, Moses prophesied that neglect of the land sabbath would be a factor in Israel's eventual exile (Lev. 26:34-35). 2 Chron. 36:21 indicates that Moses' prophecy was fulfilled in the Babylonian captivity of the sixth century B.C.

One example of land sabbath observance in the Second Temple period is recorded in the book of I Maccabees. I Macc. 6:48-54 reports that in about 162 B.C., the Jews faced a disadvantage in their war with the Seleucid empire because of a famine resulting from the sabbatical year. They were soon blessed for their obedience, however. Power struggles among the Seleucid leaders caused the enemy general to depart, giving the Jews a welcome reprieve (I Macc. 6:55-63).

After the destruction of the Second Temple and the failure of the two Jewish revolts, observance of the land sabbath became a moot point-there were very few Jewish farmers left in the land of Israel. During the Talmudic period, the shemittah year had only a theoretical existence as a topic for rabbinic discussion.

Things changed in the late nineteenth century, when there began to be enough Jewish farmers in Israel to make the land sabbath a real issue again. But because these Jewish farmers were very poor, rabbinic authorities feared that they could not survive a sabbatical year. Therefore it was decided that in each shemittah year, the agricultural land in Israel would be temporarily deeded to a trustworthy Gentile, allowing the poor farmers to continue working their land without technically being in violation of the commandment.

This practice continues today in the modern state of Israel. In the last sabbatical year, which began on Rosh Hashanah in A.D. 2000, the temporary owner of Israel's land was Hussein Ismael Jabar. Jabar, who also owns all the leavening in Israel each year during the Passover celebration, is a resident of Abu Ghosh, a town about eight miles west of Jerusalem. In trusting Jabar with this responsibility, Israel remembers the fact that Abu Ghosh did not oppose the Jewish cause during Israel's struggle for independence in 1948.

Dr. Stanley's Findings

When Dr. Stanley arrived in Israel in July 2004, he found that Israelis have some creative ways of circumventing the spirit of the land sabbath commandment. For example, since trees housed indoors are exempt from the sabbatical prohibition on pruning, one nursery has a portable canopy that it places over a tree as it being tended during a shemittah year. The tree technically counts as being indoors while it is under the canopy.

On the other hand, since 1972 there has been a growing trend in actual sabbatical observance among Israeli farmers. Some farmers simply let their land go untended. Others harvest a crop but donate it to a central storehouse that sells the food to the poor at reduced prices. Participating farmers are reimbursed for their labor but not for their produce.

During his visit to Israel, Dr. Stanley interviewed a number of shemittah-observing farmers to learn something about their experiences. A number of farmers spoke of the sacrifices they willingly made in keeping the land sabbath. A wheat farmer mentioned that wheat is planted in the late autumn during an ordinary year, shortly before anticipated winter rains. But since the shemittah year begins at Rosh Hoshanah, farmers plant the wheat a couple of months early in those years and hope for the best. This farmer, who participates in the food storehouse program, estimated that his farm loses about 2-2.5 million shekels by observing the sabbatical year.

Some of the interviewed farmers spoke of miracles and blessings that occurred during a shemittah year. A fruit grower recalled that in one sabbatical year, an unusually warm March had been followed by a late freeze in April, causing damage to that year's fruit crop. Farmers who had pruned their trees had very little fruit that year, while those who had left their trees unpruned had a nearly normal crop. In another shemittah year, heavy winds had caused damage to the fruit crop, but again those who had left their trees unpruned sustained far less damage.

Other farmers mentioned the value of the extra time available for family activities and Torah study during a shemittah year. For these farmers, the sabbatical year had been a life-changing experience, strengthening relationships with God and family.

The next shemittah year will begin at Rosh Hoshanah in 2007. Stanley noted that there is already much discussion of this upcoming event in the Israeli press.

In Jewish tradition (based on Deut. 11:8-11), the land Sabbath is only applicable in the land of Israel. According to this tradition, God has a special relationship with the Promised Land. However, one rabbi told Dr. Stanley that such a relationship might extend to the entire world during the time of the Messianic Kingdom. Stanley wonders if communities of Christian farmers might also benefit from the adoption of some form of sabbatical observance. Sabbatical principles should be of benefit to all followers of the God of Israel by allowing them to periodically rest from their labors and find rest in their Creator.


File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.66.
On 06 Apr 2005, 12:07.