The new year that began last week on Rosh Hashanah (year 5775 by Jewish reckoning) is a biblically-mandated shmita year in which all farmland is to lie fallow.
While the weekly Shabbat (Sabbath) is a day of rest for man, the shmita is to be a year of rest for the land every seventh year. It is commanded in Exodus 23:10–11, which reads:
You may plant your land for six years and gather its crops. But during the seventh year, you must leave it alone and withdraw from it. The needy among you will then be able to eat just as you do, and whatever is left over can be eaten by wild animals. This also applies to your vineyard and your olive grove.
It is estimated that some 5,000 Israeli farmers obey the above commandment, and the state sets aside around USD $28.5 million to support them during a year without crops to sell.
The largest and oldest Israeli environmental organization, the Jewish National Fund, also strictly adheres to the shmita, and will not prepare any land for new forestation efforts during the fallow year.
At the same time, many Israeli Jewish farmers fearing a significant loss of income circumvent the rules of the shmita, which are encoded in Israeli religious law, by “selling” their land to a non-Jew for a token amount of money. Once the land is in non-Jewish hands, the farmer is free to work it as usual.
Many also believe there is increasing reason to violate the shmita due to a downturn in Israeli agriculture over the past 30 years. Whereas Israel could once boast some 40,000 farms in its tiny corner of the Middle East, today there are only around 13,000 farms in the Jewish state.