In Parshat Behar (Vayikra 25:4-5) we learn about the forbidden melachot (types of work) of Shmita (the Sabbatical year):
But the seventh year shall be a complete rest for the land, a Shabbat for HaShem; your field you shall not sow and your vineyard you shall not prune. The after growth of your harvest you shall not reap and the grapes you had set aside for yourself you shall not pick; it shall be a year of rest for the land.
The following are the melachot listed in the verses above which are biblically forbidden during the Shmita year and directly impact those with a garden in Israel (and in some cases even house plants):
- Sowing seeds in the soil (zorea)
- Pruning, removal of branches in order to promote superior growth of the tree (zemira)
- Reaping grains and legumes (kotzer)
- Picking grapes (botzer)
Fruit bearing trees without a soil covered root stock need to be planted by Tu B’Av (the 15th of Av). If they have soil covered root stock, they can be planted until the 29th of Av.
Non fruit bearing trees without a soil covered root stock need to be planted by the 15th of Elul and when necessary can be planted until Rosh HaShana (29th of Elul). If they have soil covered root stock, they can be planted until Rosh HaShana.
Vegetables must already sprout before the Shmita year begins so they must be planted before the 26th of Elul so that they are not considered Sfichim (produce that grew during the Shmita year without having been purposely planted).
Seedlings planted with their soil may be planted until Rosh HaShana. They are considered to have already taken root.
There is a dispute if flowers can be planted up until Rosh HaShana or if they need to take root before. If so, they would need to be planted by the 26th of Elul.
One may not trim their trees unless there is a sick branch that needs to be removed. Pruning may involve the Biblical prohibition of Zemira and is therefore problematic.
Reaping and Gathering
Torat Kohanim (Sifra Behar, Parsha 1) ask a question: If reaping and gathering are forbidden, then how are we able to eat the produce of the Shmita year?
According to the Rosh on Mishna Shviit 8:6, the prohibition relates to produce that was guarded (shamur). However, produce that was declared ownerless is permitted.
If you have fruit trees in your garden, you must declare them to be “hefker,” ownerless and you must give the public access to your garden so that they can pick the fruit and then you too can eat from the fruit as well.
Picking fruit for consumption (after your garden has been declared “hefker”) and picking flowers for enjoyment are permitted. According to Rabbeinu Tam, when harvesting, it should be done with a “shinui”, in an altered manner. Harvesting with a “shinui” makes it clear that you are not demonstrating ownership. The Rambam’s interpretation of a “shinui” is a change in the amount of produce that you harvest. You should only take the fruit needed for you and your family for several days.
One is permitted to pick fruit in the usual manner at the beginning of the Shmita year since that fruit does not yet have Shmita sanctity as it took shape during the 6th year. However, keep in mind that during the 8th year, it is still forbidden to reap and harvest produce with Shmita sanctity (fruits that took shape during the 7th year) in the usual manner. There are calendars available which list the dates when each fruit’s Kedushat Shviit (Shmita Sanctity) begins and ends.
According to the Rambam (Hilchot Matanot Aniyim 6:5), Trumot and Maasrot are not set aside during the Shmita year since the produce of the Shmita year is ownerless.
One is permitted to water their garden, but it should be done less frequently than in a regular year.
Weeding should only be done to save a plant and weeds should only be removed by the roots if absolutely necessary, otherwise, they should be cut back. One can also spray before the Shmita year to prevent the weeds from growing.
Mowing should be done regularly as it is done for beauty.
Fertilizing may not be done. However, one may use a slow release fertilizer before the beginning of the Shmita year.
We can treat indoor plants in unperforated pots leniently. Rav Lichtenstein’s view is that if the pot is indoors, it is not in the category of a field since a house is not a field nor is it in the category of land since the pot is detached from the ground.
According to Rav Rimon, on the ground floor, a non clay plate should be placed under the perforated pot and thus the pot is regarded as detached from the ground and the plant can be cared for in the ordinary manner (watering, fertilizing and weeding are permitted). On upper levels of the house, the plant can be cared for in the usual manner, even if it is not sitting on a plate.
Planters with holes in the bottom, on the ground floor of a house which are not sitting on a plate must be treated as if they are outside in the garden.
Tasks that sustain the field in its current condition are permitted. Rabbinic prohibitions (all agricultural work aside from planting, pruning, reaping, gathering and plowing) may be permitted if they save the field from long lasting damage.
We see from here that the laws of Shmita are very much alive in Israel today, even if they are only observed now on a rabbinic level. If a question about observing Shmita in your garden arises, it is best to consult a Halachic authority.