The seventh year, during which the fields were to be left fallow (Leviticus 25:1-7) and debts released (Deuteronomy 15:1-11) [is called in] Hebrew Shemitah (“Release”). The seven years are counted in the cycle of fifty culminating in the Jubilee [see below] and are known by tradition. The year 2000/1, for instance, [was] a Sabbatical year. In order to avoid the cancellation of all debts, a serious hardship in our commercial society, the device was introduced even in Talmudic times of handing the debts over before the end of the Sabbatical year, to a temporary court consisting of three persons, the debts then being considered to have been paid to the court beforehand.
The problem of agricultural work in the Sabbatical year did not arise in modem times until, under the impact of Zionism, colonies were established in Palestine; it is a severe difficulty now that the State of Israel has been established. The more Orthodox do observe the laws of the Sabbatical year, using only agricultural products bought from Arabs [or imported].
But other Orthodox Rabbis have tried to find a dispensation by noting that according to many authorities the Sabbatical year is, like the jubilee year, binding by biblical law only when the majority of Jews live in the land of Israel. (These laws do not apply to Jewish owned farms outside Israel.) The laws are now rabbinic [i.e., bearing only the authority of rabbinic legislation, not biblical law], so that it is easier to find a dispensation. Moreover, there is considerable doubt whether the present identification of Sabbatical years is correct and whether the count begins again on the jubilee year, the fiftieth, or on the next year, the fifty-first after the previous cycle.
Because of all this and the great difficulty in keeping the law, the official Rabbinate in Israel adopts the legal fiction of selling the land to a Gentile on the analogy of the sale of leaven before Passover. Many have felt, however, that, while legal fictions have their place in Jewish law, it seems more than a little absurd to effect a merely formal sale of all Jewish land to a Gentile. Some religious kibbutzim resort to the new scientific method of hydroponics to avoid the prohibition and they donate a share of their proceeds during the Sabbatical year to charity. In any event, nonagricultural work is allowed in the Sabbatical year, which is called “the Sabbath of the land.”
[Jubilee is] the institution described in the book of Leviticus (25:8-24) where it is stated that a series of forty-nine years [was] to be counted (there is considerable uncertainty as to the date from when the counting is to begin, but traditionally it is from the creation of the world) and every fiftieth year declared a special year during which there was to be no agricultural work; all landed property was to revert to its original owner; and slaves were to be set free. The name Jubilee is from the Hebrew word yovel, “ram’s horn,” the year being so called because a ram’s horn was sounded when it was proclaimed (Leviticus 25:9). Since this verse says: “[Proclaim liberty] throughout the land for all its inhabitants,” the Talmudic view is that the Jubilee was not observed during the Second Temple period because the majority of Jews no longer lived in the land of Israel.
Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.