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Forbidden activities during the shemitah year

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Forbidden activities during the shemitah year

Overview of the forbidden and permitted melachot during the shemitah year: biblical, rabbinic, and the difference between them. Chapter 1 of the Consumer's Guide to Shemitah.

Rabbi Moshe Bloom

A. Overview

  1. The mitzvah of shemitah includes a negative injunction (lo ta'aseh) to avoid certain actions (melachot, as specified below) and a positive injunction (aseh) of allowing the land [1] to rest from work by people who are obligated in the mitzvot.[2] For this reason, it is forbidden for landowners to work their own fields and likewise forbidden to employ other Jews to work their fields.[3]
  2. These mitzvot apply today miderabanan (as rabbinic injunctions).[4]
  3. There are four melachot written explicitly in the Torah that are prohibited to perform during the shemitah year:[5] sowing (zeri'ah), pruning (zemirah), harvesting grain (ketzirah), and harvesting grapes (betzirah).
  4. The other agricultural melachot are toladot (derivatives or subcategories) of the melachot listed above. Some are prohibited miderabanan while others are permitted. The forbidden melachot are those whose purpose is to increase plant growth (אברויי אילנא), while the permitted melachot are those whose purpose is maintenance (אוקמי אילנא).[6]
  5. It is possible to be lenient with the melachot that are forbidden miderabanan if they are vital to prevent the loss of a tree or the crop. Likewise, it is possible to be lenient when there is an additional reason for leniency: planting a non-fruit tree with its clod of earth and melachot derabanan performed by a non-Jew.[7] The same is true if the act is performed for two reasons—both for maintenance and for increasing the yield.[8]
  6. The melachot that are Torah prohibitions may not be performed by a non-Jew or by a gerama (in an indirect fashion). In borderline cases, when the melachah is permitted only in extenuating circumstances, it is preferable that it is performed by a non-Jew or by a gerama rather than directly (bayadayim, lit. "manually").[9]
  7. Performing a melachah with a tractor or any other machine is considered  bayadayim.[10]

B. Charishah (plowing) and its toladot

The posekim were divided as to whether plowing is a biblical or a rabbinic prohibition.[11] Therefore, any act that improves the soil or prepares it for sowing—whether or not done by tilling the soil—is forbidden during the shemitah year.

C. Zeri'ah (sowing) and its toladot

Besides zeri'ah, which involves burying seeds in the soil so they will sprout, there are other melachot that are forbidden as derivatives of sowing. Some are biblical prohibitions while others are rabbinic:

  1. Planting trees or planting vegetables, whether or not they are bare-rooted or they are already planted in a clod of soil.
  2. Grafting trees.
  3. Propagation through layering (havrachah, bending of a branch of a plant and inserting it into the ground so that it will strike roots and become an independent plant) or any other type of vegetative propagation technique (shoot extensions, etc.).
  4. A fruit tree that was planted in a prohibited fashion during the shemitah year is forbidden to use and must be uprooted.[12] All the more so, it is forbidden to purchase such a tree. We should be stringent about this even after the shemitah year.

D. Zemirah (pruning) and its toladot

  1. Zemirah is the act of pruning grapevine branches so that new branches will grow from them. This act constitutes a Torah prohibition.[13] As for pruning other types of trees, there is a dispute whether it is a biblical or rabbinic prohibition.[14]
  2. Other types of pruning are rabbinic prohibitions.
  3. All actions that spur growth are prohibited miderabanan[15] since they are derivatives of zeriah or zemirah.

E. Ketzirah and betzirah (grain and grape harvest)

It is permissible to harvest grains, grapes, fruit, and collect crops for household needs only and in small quantities. For fruit harvest of trees belonging to the otzar beit din, see Chapter 6 §A.9.

F. Additional laws

  1. Agricultural actions performed for non-agricultural purposes, such as removing soil for construction or clipping branches for sechach are permitted,[16] provided that the goal is clear and the act is performed with shinuy (in a different manner than usual).[17]
  2. Pruning for non-agricultural reasons is permitted only if: (1) done in a different manner than professional pruning and (2) in a way that is not the best for the tree. [18]


[1] Avodah Zara 15b; Rambam (Introduction to Hilchot Shemitah); Rambam, Hilchot Shemitah 1:1; Shabbat Ha'aretz, 1:1, §1–5.

[2] There is a dispute whether a Jew is allowed to lease his fields to a gentile during the shemitah year, who then works the fields. That is: does the prohibition relate to the object (cheftzah)— is it the land belonging to a Jew that needs to rest (and then it is also forbidden for a gentile to work it)? Or is there a personal prohibition (gavra) for Jews to work the land; however, if a gentile works it for his own purposes, it is not forbidden. See Shabbat Ha'aretz, 1:2, §2; 4:30, §4.

[3] Ibid., 1:1, §3–4. See (ibid.) the dispute on whether a Jew is permitted to lease his field to another Jew whom he suspects will work the soil: does the prohibition relate only to the lease/worker, or also to the field owner?

[4] According to Mo'ed Katan 2b: "Abaye said: The Sabbatical year today is rabbinic"; for a comprehensive overview of the various approaches, see the introduction to Shabbat Ha'aretz, chap. 1–9 and Shabbat Ha'aretz 4:25 §2.

[5] Rambam, 1:2.

[6] See chapters below, specifying the various melachot.

The melachot derabanan that are prohibited are listed in the Mishnah (Shevi'it 2) and Gemara (Mo'ed Katan 3b) and summarized by the Rambam 1:5. The Chazon Ish (Shevi'it 17:19) lists 22 prohibited melachot derabanan. We brought these melachot in the order they appear in Shabbat Ha'aretz I 5:2–25: ייבול, פירוק, נטילת עלה מהאשכול, איבוק, עישון, זיהום להרחקת מזיקים, סיכת שמן לגיזום, השקיה, זיבול, כריכה, קטימה, פיסוג, ניכוש, עשיית בתים, כיוון, צידוד, סיתות, ויתור, שימוט, זיהום, גיזום, האבקה, סיכת פגים, קינוח שרף בעיקר, קיווץ, קיבוץ, קיטום. There are several others as well; at times there are disputes on the definition of the actions mentioned by Chazal (this is why we are not translating them here in this note). In modern agriculture, farmers perform most of the above acts in one way or another. Since this guide is meant for the layman, however, we will only delve into relevant melachot. For additional information on the various melachot, see the Encyclopedia of Agriculture and Halachah (Hebrew), by Torah VeHa'aretz Institute:אנציקלופדיה-הלכתית-חקלאית/.     

[7] As it is with every safek miderabanan; see Tosafot, Pesachim 30a, s.v. leshahinehu.

[8] According to Rabbi A.I.H. Kook, it is possible to permit acts that are performed both for maintenance and for increasing plant growth. See Shabbat Ha'aretz, 1:5 §27-2.

[9] For more on commissioning non-Jews to perform certain actions during shemitah, see Shabbat Ha'aretz 1:1, §2 and 4:30 §4. About gerama, see ibid., 1:1, §6.

[10] Rabbi Ben Zion Uziel, HaTorah Vehamedinah IV 5712-1952, p. 141; Chazon Ish, Shevi'it25:38, §27:1 (note: unless noted otherwise, references to Chazon Ish are from Shevi'it—SR).

[11] See Shabbat Ha'aretz 1:2, §2: according to the Rash (Shevi'it 1:4, 2:2), plowing is a Torah prohibition. According to Rambam, 1:2–4, 10 and Kiyrat Sefer, chap. 1, plowing is a rabbinic prohibition.

[12] Rambam, 1:12, 3:11.

[13] See Shabbat Ha'aretz 1:20, §1.

[14] While Chazon Ish (21:15) maintains that this is rabbinic while Rabbi Kook believes it is a biblical prohibition. See Shabbat Ha'aretz 1:15, §5 and Betzet Hashanah, p. 31 §5 and n. 5, p. 47 and n. 8.

[15] Such as menakesh (weeding, i.e. uprooting weeds) and mechapeh (covering the seed with soil), oder (hoeing), mikase'ach (cutting weeds), and mezabel (fertilizing). See Mo'ed Katan 2b–3a; Rambam, ibid., 1:3,5, 10. For the parameters of an av melachah and a toladah (primary and derivative, respectively), see Shabbat Ha'aretz 1:3 §1.

[16] According to Rambam, 1:15–21; 2: 2–8; Shabbat Ha'aretz 1:18, §5; 1:20, §3-3. See also Rabbi Yoel Friedemann, "Non-agricultural acts performed during shemitah, HaTorah VeHa'aretz VI (5761), pp. 143–148.  

[17] Rambam, 2:7; Shabbat Ha'aretz 1:18, n. 22; 20, n. 35; 25, §1 and n. 5. See also Kuntres Acharon (end of Shabbat Ha'aretz II) §9. However, it is possible to be lenient when the nature of the act is obvious to others present who are familiar with such actions (while those unfamiliar with agriculture would probably not notice a difference).

[18]  See below, Chapter 22, §I.1.