God instructed Israel to let the fields lie fallow every seventh year, and give the land its sabbath rest. This is called the “shmita” year in Hebrew, which means a year of “release”.
Not only is it a massive test of faith to not work the land for an entire year, but it also has blessings for those in poverty and debt: the poor are free to glean all the naturally growing crops they want for no charge, and all debts among the people of Israel are cancelled. They are released. That can only be good, right?
The 24th September signalled the Jewish New Year, at least in the eyes of the Rabbis, and the beginning of the Shmita year.
WHAT DOES THIS REALLY MEAN IN ISRAEL TODAY?
When we look at the history of the shmita year and how it was viewed in Jewish literature, both ancient and modern, it’s easy to think that there’s a lot of cheating going on! All kinds of ways have been invented to circumvent actually foregoing the year’s produce, so that things could continue without technically breaking the commandment. For example, things grown in greenhouses are technically exempt from the shmita law, according to rabbinic rulings. Some people leave the gate of their field gates open as a signal that it no longer “belongs” to them and others can come and help themselves. But when you stop to think about what it would actually mean to properly and fully obey that commandment, it would take a gigantic leap of faith to stop all agriculture for an entire year. Terrifying, in fact. How will they eat? Without supernatural help and provision it looks pretty alarming.
God, predictably, had thought of that. Here’s what He says in Leviticus 25:20-22 –
“‘And if you say, “What shall we eat in the seventh year, since we shall not sow nor gather in our produce?” Then I will command My blessing on you in the sixth year, and it will bring forth produce enough for three years. And you shall sow in the eighth year, and eat old produce until the ninth year; until its produce comes in, you shall eat of the old harvest.”
He promises to provide.
But He also wants the inhabitants of the Land to remember who it really belongs to. The very next verses say,
“‘The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with Me. And in all the land of your possession you shall grant redemption of the land.”
Like a fast, or a weekly shabbat rest, holding back from the temptation to work in the shmita year allows God’s people more opportunity to lift their eyes above the chores of everyday life, up to heaven and eternal matters.
It takes faith and discipline, but we can look to God for provision and for fruitfulness as we obey Him even when it costs us.
However, this was not an optional extra in God’s book. Failing to keep the weekly Sabbath and also the Sabbath year of rest for the fields had serious consequences for the people of Israel. In fact, the Bible tells us that the reason for the 70 year exile in Babylon was to let the land catch up on the 70 sabbath years’ rest that it should have had… and did not get. 2 Chronicles 36:21 says that the exile was,
“To fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its Sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years.”
God really wants us to release, to let go, and to trust Him by following his ways even when it is scary. We need to let go of control and admit that not only the Holy Land is His, but our lives and indeed all the world is His. He made it, He owns it, and if He says put your tools down and rest, we need to obey. We can trust Him to look after us when we walk in obedience.
Here is the instruction for us in Psalm 46:10,
“Be still [or let be, let go, release] and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!”