There is a law recorded in the Bible which states that every seventh year, the fields should be left fallow and allowed to rest. This is known in Hebrew as ‘Shmittah.’ This year, 5775 according to the Jewish calendar, is a Shmittah year. It is part of the Jewish calendar and affects produce grown only in the Eretz Yisrael – the Land of Israel.
When Baron Edmond de Rothschild planted vineyards and supported the new Jewish farming villages of the late 19th century, he reintroduced a wine industry in the Holy Land for the first time in 2,000 years. There were great debates between those strictly religious who chose to observe the Shmittah year exactly as written in the Bible, and those who were less religious who looked for practical ways to circumvent the ruling fearing the economic consequences. The debates and arguments continue until today.
Students of kosher wine will know that observing the Sabbatical year is one of the necessities of kosher wine production. It is probably the most difficult to explain because of all the ambiguities. Those who are religious should seek an explanation from their Rabbi, as there as many opinions as there are Rabbis on the matter. However for lay people, and everyone else, this is an explanation.
The custom of a ‘day of rest’ or a ‘year off’ was given to the world by the Jewish faith. The Sabbath and ‘Sabbatical year’ that are well known in the western world, are the results of this.
Like most of the Jewish agricultural laws, this makes good agricultural sense. Farmers have always implemented crop rotation or nitrogen cycles to put the goodness back into the soil. However adherence to this as far the Jewish religion is concerned has become more symbolic due to economic realities. For instance it is simply not viable to practice crop rotation when growing vines.
From a moral point of view, the Shmittah year gives a strong message of social justice and egalitarianism. The concept of giving the land and its workers a one year sabbatical and reserving part of the harvest for the poor or disadvantaged, was a socially progressive idea in Biblical times. These practices address the profoundest issues of spirituality v.’s materialism.
From the religious viewpoint, the Rabbis have come up with their own solutions. The flexibility stems from economic concerns. A year without wine would cripple wineries and vineyard owners. Therefore a special dispensation is given to relieve farmers of this requirement and the land is symbolically sold to a non Jew for the duration of the seventh year. This is known as the ‘Heter Mehira’.
An alternative is to put the winery under the supervision of a Rabbinical board who are known as an Otzar Beit Din. This is part symbolic but also gives a semblance of control allowing many religious Jews flexibility to be able to enjoy an Israeli wine made in the Shmittah year.
To generalize, a strictly ultra-orthodox Jew will not drink a wine produced in ‘The Land of Israel’ during the Shmittah year. An orthodox Jew may drink a wine from Shmittah year, if it has a Heter Mehira or if it made under the auspices of an Otzar Beit Din. A regular, secular Jew, by far the majority of the Jewish population, will drink any wine from this particular year.
Shmittah occurs every seven years. For instance 2001 – 2008 – 2015 are all Shmittah years. It only applies to kosher wine produced in Israel. Kosher wine produced abroad is not under any kind of restriction.
From a wine point of view, the same winemaking practices apply. The winemaker’s task is to make the best wine he can from this particular vintage and wine professionals will not notice anything different about the quality and style of the finished wine.
In the end, the policy is that everyone’s interests are looked after. The religious Jew, Rabbi, winemaker and vineyard owner are each loyal to their own beliefs and do enough to satisfy the other, without giving way on their core beliefs. The information a religious Jew needs to make his decision is written in small lettering on the back label. However in a Shmittah year wine is made, as in every year. Those ‘not permitted’ to drink it will buy a non Israeli kosher wine or will choose an Israeli wine but not from the 2008 vintage. Others will taste and enjoy their wines as though it was a regular vintage.
So strictly observed by some, purely symbolic to others, it remains a classic example of a Jewish compromise whereby everyone follows their own truths. Still confused? No-one will attempt to say it is not confusing!