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Shemitah Observance for the Average Joe

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The Shemitah or “year of release” refers to the 7th year in a cycle where God lays out some instructions for a year long Sabbath for an economic reset and remedy for agricultural problems, wealth disparity, and burnout. 

In the Shemitah year, the land gets to rest, the agricultural society (which was all of Israel at the time) gets to rest, debts are forgiven and slaves go free. Private land gets opened up to all, as do perennial crops.

As in nearly all Jewish traditions, there is more rigamarole that’s been added on to what we see God saying in the Bible. This post is an attempt to get back to the basic commands, without all the loopholes and workarounds modern Israel has invented that miss the point of what God is trying to do with our economy, society, and environmental stewardship. For more on environmental stewardship see Tu BiShevat.

There’s also been a bit of a cop-out that the Shemitah doesn’t apply to those of us who are not farmers, financiers, slave owners, or Jews living in Israel. This is not true. We still get to do our part, small as it may be. 

Let’s take it one point at a time.

  1. The Land Rests.

“For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused.” Exodus 23:10-11

“The Lord said to Moses at Mount Sinai, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the Lord.For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest. Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you—for yourself, your male and female servants, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you, as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. Whatever the land produces may be eaten.” Leviticus 25:1-7

It’s a tad confusing at first. Do not reap or harvest, but hey, you can eat. What this means is that you can’t commercially harvest, store up, or take to market. If you or others want to glean for yourselves of whatever comes up on its own for a meal, that is perfectly permissible.  

And if nobody is growing anything, then how does everybody eat? Here is what God said about that. 

“‘Follow my decrees and be careful to obey my laws, and you will live safely in the land. Then the land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and live there in safety.You may ask, ‘What will we eat in the seventh year if we do not plant or harvest our crops?’ I will send you such a blessing in the sixth year that the land will yield enough for three years. While you plant during the eighth year, you will eat from the old crop and will continue to eat from it until the harvest of the ninth year comes in.” Leviticus 20:18-22

We’ve seen this before where God gave the Israelites extra manna on the 6th day so that they would not have to gather or cook on the 7th. He also told them it would not spoil, even though it did every other day if they tried to save any. 

“God said “Observe my Sabbaths and have reverence for my sanctuary. I am the Lord. If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees their fruit.Your threshing will continue until grape harvest and the grape harvest will continue until planting, and you will eat all the food you want and live in safety in your land. I will grant peace in the land, and you will lie down and no one will make you afraid. I will remove wild beasts from the land, and the sword will not pass through your country. You will pursue your enemies, and they will fall by the sword before you. Five of you will chase a hundred, and a hundred of you will chase ten thousand, and your enemies will fall by the sword before you. I will look on you with favor and make you fruitful and increase your numbers, and I will keep my covenant with you. You will still be eating last year’s harvest when you will have to move it out to make room for the new. I will put my dwelling place among you, and I will not abhor you.I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people.I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt so that you would no longer be slaves to the Egyptians; I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with heads held high.” Leviticus 26:2-13

The consequences are as follows: 

But if you will not listen to me and carry out all these commands, and if you reject my decrees and abhor my laws and fail to carry out all my commands and so violate my covenant, then I will do this to you: I will bring on you sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and sap your strength. You will plant seed in vain, because your enemies will eat it. I will set my face against you so that you will be defeated by your enemies; those who hate you will rule over you, and you will flee even when no one is pursuing you.”

“If after all this you will not listen to me, I will punish you for your sins seven times over. I will break down your stubborn pride and make the sky above you like iron and the ground beneath you like bronze. Your strength will be spent in vain, because your soil will not yield its crops, nor will the trees of your land yield their fruit.”

If you remain hostile toward me and refuse to listen to me, I will multiply your afflictions seven times over, as your sins deserve. I will send wild animals against you, and they will rob you of your children, destroy your cattle and make you so few in number that your roads will be deserted. If in spite of these things you do not accept my correction but continue to be hostile toward me, I myself will be hostile toward you and will afflict you for your sins seven times over. And I will bring the sword on you to avenge the breaking of the covenant. When you withdraw into your cities, I will send a plague among you, and you will be given into enemy hands. When I cut off your supply of bread, ten women will be able to bake your bread in one oven, and they will dole out the bread by weight. You will eat, but you will not be satisfied.”

“If in spite of this you still do not listen to me but continue to be hostile toward me, then in my anger I will be hostile toward you, and I myself will punish you for your sins seven times over. You will eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters. I will destroy your high places, cut down your incense altars and pile your dead bodies on the lifeless forms of your idols, and I will abhor you. I will turn your cities into ruins and lay waste your sanctuaries, and I will take no delight in the pleasing aroma of your offerings. I myself will lay waste the land, so that your enemies who live there will be appalled. I will scatter you among the nations and will draw out my sword and pursue you. Your land will be laid waste, and your cities will lie in ruins. Then the land will enjoy its sabbath years all the time that it lies desolate and you are in the country of your enemies; then the land will rest and enjoy its sabbaths.All the time that it lies desolate, the land will have the rest it did not have during the sabbaths you lived in it.”
Leviticus 26:14-35

These are not threats by the way. In the book “The Intelligent Gardener” Steve Solomon whom I doubt has any knowledge of Shemitah principles, tracks civilizations throughout history and details their fall in correlation with soil stewardship. Once the soil could no longer support the people, they became vulnerable to plagues, invading tribes and famine.

To observe, we would let our home gardens or commercial fields rest. For me, I’m canning, freezing and dehydrating in full swing right now. (August) I will stock up on (buy) all the veggies, flour, and plant-based foods that I need for our household. I’ll probably prune my blackberry vines before the Shemitah year, and grapes as well, but then let them go. They’ll wander over the fence, where the neighbor will pick, and the deer too. In the spring, rhubarb will come up and I’ll make pie, but won’t freeze any. Any carrots that I left in the ground to harvest throughout the winter will go to seed, and might self sow unless I mulch the entire area to keep weeds down. I’m not going to count on a volunteer crop of carrots, but that would technically be permissible to eat as are wild foragable crops. 

Meat, seafood, dairy and eggs are still things we can acquire throughout the year. 

And there’s the grocery store… This is me adding to what God said, but it seems to me, if you’re paying someone else to void the Shemitah, you’re not really keeping it either. God’s plan was for ALL the land to rest. If you’re a Christian, you’re not under the law, but this still contributes to the condition we’re in. You are also missing out on this process and faith walk of God’s provision and healing for the land, yet this cycle takes some planning. God didn’t spring this on them in year six, so if this is new to you, figure out what you can do, or catch it next round. We’re currently in year six or 5781, which my word for the year of 5781 was quite focused on the harvest.

2. Let the Poor Glean From Your Land.

“For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what is left. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove.” Exodus 23:10-11

Some people take down their fences. For most of us, that’s not practical, but we could take our extra produce to the food bank, and put some apples over the fence for the deer.  

3. Forgive Debts

“At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the Lord’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your fellow Israelite owes you. However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. For the Lord your God will bless you as he has promised, and you will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. You will rule over many nations but none will rule over you.”

“If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need. Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: ‘The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,’ so that you do not show ill will toward the needy among your fellow Israelites and give them nothing. They may then appeal to the Lord against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” Deuteronomy 15:1-11

The average Joe is in debt rather than one who is in a position to forgive them right? Not exactly. In Matthew 18, The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, a parallel was drawn about unforgiveness in our heart and a debt owed. 

I like what Mike Parsons had to say about this. “We encourage people to make an invoice to settle the accounts as in the parable. We use a 3 column record: in column one, the offense: what was done or said (words have just as much power as actions, if not more) or what was not done or said. In column two, list what effects or consequences it has had on your life, for example in your relationships, image, or identity. Then column three is how this is affecting you now, today. Once we have made the invoice and recognized the full extent of the debt owed to us, we forgive and release the person from our heart and tear up the invoice (or even burn it) as a practical expression of what we are choosing to do.”

4. Free Slaves

“If any of your people—Hebrew men or women—sell themselves to you and serve you six years, in the seventh year you must let them go free. And when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed. Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you.Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today.” Deuteronomy 15:12-15

Slavery is much less common in today’s world, but we can enslave people through unforgiveness by making them jump through never-ending hoops in efforts to reconcile or make things right. When what they do can never make up for the debt, there are only two options. Forgive and bless them on the way out the door, or forgive and move forward together with a clean slate. Either way sets both of you free. 

5. Gather and Teach

Then Moses commanded them: “At the end of every seven years, in the year for canceling debts, during the Festival of Tabernacles, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God at the place he will choose, you shall read this law before them in their hearing. Assemble the people—men, women and children, and the foreigners residing in your towns—so they can listen and learn to fear the Lord your God and follow carefully all the words of this law. Their children, who do not know this law, must hear it and learn to fear the Lord your God as long as you live in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess.” Deuteronomy 31:10-13

If you do not understand the Shemitah, you will not reap the benefits, and you’ll wind up with the consequences. A modern example of this is Juneteenth. They had officially outlawed slavery in the United States, but slaves in Texas didn’t know about this for another two-and-a-half years. General Granger had the job of gathering and teaching. US slavery had zero in common with any sort of a biblical model, so this is not surprising, but public announcements like Moses said, were effective. As in any laws, we need to know our rights. 

I haven’t seen any such town assembly during Festival of Tabernacles to attend, but we can listen to the Bible via audio. We can have Bible studies. We can teach children and others. We can write blog posts. 🙂 

Feeling challenged? You’re not alone. Some of this is pretty tough to swallow, but look at the reasons God put this in place. Look at where we are in the world today from not doing this. Whatever steps we can take to move in the right direction are worth the effort. My book Shemitah for Christians: Living in Rhythms of Rest can help you figure out what those steps look like for you.

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