By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, November 27, 2008

Shmittah is the sabbatical year for the land of Israel. It happens once every seven years and the most recent has just finished. According to the Torah, during the shmittah year, farmers are to take a break from actively cultivating their land. Whatever grows on the land without cultivation is open to everyone, especially to the poor, to come and take. (Leviticus 25). In a parallel to the weekly Shabbat, shmittah is a septennial Shabbat for the land and those who work on it.

The word shmittah comes from the verb shamat, meaning to loosen or detach. During the shmittah year we loosen our hold on the land and acknowledge that "the Earth and all that is in it are God's" (Psalms 24:1). Another aspect of this detachment is shmittat kesafim, the general remission of debts that takes place in the shmitttah year. Hillel famously introduced the prozbul as a device to permit lending and borrowing to continue during and after shmittah.

It may seem odd to talk of shmittah so soon after the end of one. In Israel one of the things we're not so great at is advanced planning. Many have written about how shmittah is a remarkable model for a society based on economic justice and ecological sustainability, but when shmittah comes around every seven years, it's as if it takes us by surprise, with all the fine plans for actualising these values through shmittah still on the drawing board.

The American Jewish environmental organisation Hazon set up a website at the close of this last shmittah to plan for the next one. We have six and a half years to get it right.

Last updated: 11:52am, November 27 2008