Today is the last day of the sabbatical year, during which the Bible prohibits sowing, reaping, harvesting, or otherwise working the land. During shmitah (as the seventh year is known in Hebrew), the land is not meant to be barren; rather, both the owners and paupers are permitted to take whatever grows of its own accord and eat it, so long as they do not systematically gather the produce. David and Naama Rue reflect on what this practice means in modern Israel, and its religious significance:
Jewish farmers in the historical Land of Israel have two broad options regarding shmitah: observing it by circumventing it and observing it directly. The latter requires farmers to let the land lie fallow; the former entails moving their practice above ground in the form of hydroponic cultivation, or by going through a process of selling their land to a non-Jew for the year (this with the assistance of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel).
From these options, only produce grown on Jewish-owned land and according to the laws of the shmitah has what is called the sanctity of the shmitah (k’dushat shvi’it). . . . For consumers, the primary choice is whether to procure food with or without the sanctity of the shmitah. For those who choose the former, the main avenue is to do their shopping through the Otzar Beit Din, a rabbinical court organized for this purpose. This organization hires workers (usually the farmers themselves) to harvest the food left fallow in the fields, given that most people cannot easily go out into the country to pick their fruits and vegetables themselves. The workers also bring the produce to the city, where the rabbinical court appoints agents to distribute it and recover the costs of the harvest and distribution. . . .
Moses Maimonides argues that the purpose of shmitah is to teach compassion and grace to all mankind. Whenever we eat something during shmitah, it offers us an opportunity to remember to help the poor and downtrodden, prompting us to emulate God’s grace and compassion.
Rabbi Aaron HaLevi [of 14th-century Spain] claims that the purpose of shmitah is to emphasize the limits of man’s power. As farmers, it might be easy to think that the creative power of the world comes from man. But ultimately, it comes from God. . . . The command of shmitah is given so that a man remembers that God created and sustains the world, and that humans are merely tenants here for a short time.