In this Halacha and the next, we shall discuss the basic laws of tending to a garden during Shevi’it. We shall not discuss all of the details of these laws, for these laws do not apply to those residing outside of Israel.
Works Forbidden by Torah Law and Rabbinic Enactment
Some works forbidden during Shevi’it are Torah prohibitions while others are rabbinic enactments.
Works forbidden by Torah law during Shevi’it are: Sowing, planting, pruning, harvesting crops grown in the field, picking fruits grown on trees, and ploughing.
Works forbidden by rabbinic enactment during Shevi’it are: Watering, fertilizing, removing rocks, disinfestation, and any other regular works performed in the field.
Maintaining vs. Improving
There are two forms of work performed when working the ground. The first category is works meant to maintain the trees and crops so that they are not lost or destroyed. The second category is works meant to improve the growth of the crops so they grow better and nicer.
The Law Regarding Works Forbidden by Rabbinic Enactment
Our Sages permitted performing work forbidden only by rabbinic enactment during Shevi’it in order to maintain. Thus, it is permissible to water or spray pesticides during Shevi’it when this is necessary in order to maintain the tree, grass, and the like. Nevertheless, when the work is being performed to maintain the crops and not merely to save them from loss, it is forbidden to perform even this kind of work. Thus, it is generally forbidden to fertilize trees during Shevi’it since not doing so for one year will usually not kill or cause much harm to the tree.
The Law Regarding Works Forbidden by Torah Law
The Rishonim disagree whether or not works forbidden by Torah law may be performed during Shevi’it for maintenance purposes. According to the Rambam, such works may not be performed at all during Shevi’it. According to Rashi, however, such works are permitted during Shevi’it as long as they are necessary to save the tree from death or damage.
Halachically speaking, although according to the letter of the law there is room to act leniently in accordance with Rashi’s opinion, it is nevertheless preferable to have a non-Jew perform these works or for a Jew to do so himself in an unusual manner. (Yalkut Yosef-Shevi’it, page 329)
Practically speaking, it is usually unnecessary to perform any work forbidden by Torah law on household gardens. Almost all other works can be postponed besides for watering (and mowing the lawn which is necessary during Shevi’it for the lawn not to die; some advise fertilizing one’s lawn before the onset of Shevi’it with slow-release fertilizer, however, it is not quite so simple to act leniently if there is not pressing need to do so, for the fertilizer is released through watering which is done during Shemitta itself).
If one’s garden produces fruits or vegetables during Shevi’it, one must render them ownerless so that whoever wishes may come and take this produce. At the very least, one must hang a sign at the entrance of the garden or building notifying the public that there are Shevi’it fruits in the garden and that whoever wants may request permission to enter and take fruits.
Summary: One may water one’s garden during Shevi’it. Regarding other necessary works, if they are only forbidden by rabbinic enactment, one may perform them so that the tree does not incur damage. If the works are forbidden by Torah law, it is preferable to have these works done by a non-Jew or to perform them in an unusual manner. Works meant to improve the trees and their crops, whether forbidden by Torah or rabbinic law, may not be performed during Shevi’it.