What is the Shemitah?
Question: "What is the Shemitah?"
Answer: The Shemitah (sometimes spelled Shemittah or Shmita) is the final year in a seven-year cycle of debt forgiveness and land use prescribed for Israel in the Old Testament. The term Shemitah has been popularized lately with the publication of the book The Mystery of the Shemitah by Rabbi Jonathan Cahn. According to Cahn, the Shemitah year culminates in the Day of Remission, Ehul 29.
Every seventh year, the people of Israel were instructed to forgive debts owed by fellow Israelites, refrain from direct cultivation, and permit people and animals to harvest the free-growing crops that remained. The instructions concerning the Shemitah are mentioned in passages such as Exodus 21:2; 23:10–11; Leviticus 25:1–7; Deuteronomy 15:1–6; and 31:10–13.
The purpose of the Shemitah was to allow the land to recover from agriculture, as well as to provide sustenance for the poor. The Shemitah was also meant to break the cycle of perpetual debt and poverty in which many people found themselves trapped (Deuteronomy 15:4, 11). This Sabbath year reflected God’s decision to rest on the seventh day of creation (Genesis 2:1–3). As with many religious concepts, there are different interpretations of the Sabbath year within each of the various sects of Judaism.
Historically, the Shemitah seems to have been all but ignored by Judaism, even in the days of the Old Testament. Today, the only aspect of the Sabbath year that seems to be upheld is a prohibition on certain kinds of food exports for crops actually grown within the boundaries of Israel during the seventh year of the cycle. Modern reasons for rejecting this law involve claims that agricultural laws only apply within the boundaries of Israel and that they are generally no longer in effect, thereby cancelling the associated laws on debt forgiveness.
Even for those inclined to consider the Shemitah binding, Talmudic scholars developed a mechanism known as a pruzbul to effectively negate the loan-forgiveness aspects of Shemitah. This process hinges on the scriptural command to forgive the debts of a “friend or brother” (Deuteronomy 15:2), which Talmudic scholars chose to interpret as implying that only private debts are cancelled. Making a pruzbul transfers the debt to a public religious court, a beit din, so the debt is theoretically no longer between friends, brothers, or neighbors. According to this interpretation, the once-private debt is fully recoverable, and nothing is forgiven (see Mark 7:8–9).
Likewise, those interested in maintaining farms during a Shemitah Sabbath year have turned to a rabbinic interpretation, which effectively nullifies the law. By hiring non-Jewish hands to work the land, the landowner can claim to be following the Shemitah by not (himself) cultivating the land—others are doing it for him, and he is not laboring personally.
In his book The Mystery of the Shemitah, Jonathan Cahn makes the case that nations who do not follow the principles of the Shemitah will be judged by God. He applies this warning specifically to America, showing how Ehul 29, the Day of Remission on the Jewish calendar, has coincided with drastic drops in the stock market, credit crises, oil shocks, recessions, sell-offs, and the Great Depression in America. Cahn figures that we just finished a Shemitah year, which ended on September 13, 2015. After that is a possible Year of Jubilee, a “super Shemitah,” according to Cahn, if it is the year following seven Shemitah years (7 sets of 7 years). In Cahn’s book, the Year of Jubilee could bring even more of God’s judgment on rebellious nations such as America. Adding to the portents of doom, according to Cahn, are the four blood moons and two solar eclipses in the current Shemitah year.
In The Mystery of the Shemitah, Cahn relates many events concerning the World Trade Center to a Shemitah year: The WTC was conceived in 1945. Groundbreaking occurred in 1966. The twin towers opened in 1973. Terrorists bombed the north tower in 1993. Both towers were destroyed in 2001. The new tower, One World Trade Center, or the Freedom Tower, opened in 2014. Cahn points out that all of these years are Shemitah years.
Author Cahn was careful not to be dogmatic about his predictions of divine judgment on the United States. He did not attempt to predict what, if anything, would happen during the next Shemitah or on the next Day of Remission, September 13. His assertion that America has a covenant relationship with God, much like Israel has, is questionable. His teaching of a seven-year pattern of calamity could be dismissed as mere coincidence. But his call to America to repent and seek salvation in Christ is definitely biblical.
Recommended Resource: The Mystery of the Shemitah: The 3,000-Year-Old Mystery That Holds the Secret of America's Future by Jonathan Cahn
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What is the Shemitah?