Jason Shurka | 20 September
What is Shmita?
Cycles of time are central to Jewish life. Just as punctuates the week, so too the holidays punctuate the year.
Less known, but no less central in the Jewish cycle of time, is Shmita, the “year of release,” which is more widely known as the sabbatical year. The next Shmita falls in the Jewish year 5782, which begins on Sept. 7, 2021.
Just as the calls for Jews to work six days and rest on the seventh, it calls for them to work the land six days and let it rest in the seventh. After 49 years, seven cycles of seven, the 50th is Yovel – the Jubilee year. However, the Jubilee year has not been marked for centuries.
In the Shmita year, debts are to be forgiven, agricultural lands to lie fallow, private land holdings to become open to the commons, and staples such as food storage and perennial harvests to be freely redistributed and accessible to all.
The Jubilee (Yovel) Year
In ancient times, observing the jubilee year was truly an act of faith. Since the land could not be cultivated for the seventh shmita year that preceded the jubilee year, nor during the jubilee year itself, the produce grown in the 48th year had to suffice for an entire population for three years — the 48th itself, the 49th (shmita), 50th (jubilee). God makes an explicit promise in the Bible that the produce grown in the year prior to shmita and yovel will suffice for all these years. (There is a debate in the Talmud about whether the jubilee year is the 50th year or the 49th, but the majority opinion holds that it’s the 50th.)
The word yovel is also a matter of some dispute. Its Hebrew root — yud, bet, lamed — is phonetically similar to the modern English word jubilee. Many authorities — Rashi chief among them — believe the word refers to the blowing of shofar, since it shares a root with the biblical word for ram, the horns of which are used for shofars. But others — Maimonides perhaps most famously — believe the word means something like “to bring” or “to convey,” a reference to the return of land to its original owners. Still others believe the word means something akin to “mixture” — it is also similar to the Hebrew word for flood, mabul, in which all is mixed up and confused. In this reading, the yovel year is one in which private and public property become intermingled.