New revelations on the Heter Mechira dilemma

The real dilemma is based on a fundamental disagreement about what faith is – relying on miracles, or the calculated and planned fulfillment of mitzvoth.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

Judaism Har Bracha yeshiva
Har Bracha yeshiva
פלאש 90

A New Book – ‘U’be’Shana Ha’Shevi’it’ (‘And in the Seventh Year’)

Recently, the first volume of the study of Rabbi Dr. Boaz Hutterer, rabbi in the Yeshiva of Har Bracha, was published as part of the Har Bracha Institute. The title of the book is ‘U’be’Shana Ha’Shevi’it’, and deals with Jewish agricultural settlement in the Land of Israel and the attitude towards Shmittah (Sabbatical year), focusing on the great controversies regarding the heter mechirah (the sale of Israeli farmland to a non-Jew to avoid the prohibition of working the land in Israel during the Shmittah year). The first volume is devoted to the period from the time of the Ottoman conquest until late 1888 (the beginning of the period of the First Aliya).

The Question of the Research: How Distressful were the Times?

In the year 2014, while I was writing ‘Peninei Halakha’ on the subject of Shmittah, I learned about the great controversy regarding the heter ha’mechira, which is one of the central halakhic controversies of our time. I felt a great lack of knowledge about the economic-agricultural situation of the settlements, since the crux of the dispute is about the reality of the situation at the time – how distressful was it? This is because according to halakhic rules, Shmittah in our times is of Divrei Chachamim (rabbinical ordinance) or minhag (custom), and since there is some doubt as to when the Shmittah year actually is, in times of great distress it is possible to allow all types of agricultural work in the Shmittah year. But if the poskim were of the opinion that the distress was not so great, it is possible to be a little more stringent, and permit work in the Shmittah year by way of selling the land to a non-Jew. And if they thought that the distress was not great, it would be appropriate to be more stringent, and permit work of the land by means of mechira, while work whose foundation stems from the Torah would be done by non-Jews, as they permitted in practice in the heter mechira. If there is no distress, all work must be ceased.

The Comprehensive Study of Rabbi Dr. Boaz Hutterer

I turned to Rabbi Boaz Hutterer, who for many years studied and taught at the Har Bracha Yeshiva and at the same time also completed his doctorate in history, asking him to clarify to the best of his ability the economic situation of the early settlements of Eretz Yisrael – how successful they were economically, and how dependent they were on donations. What was the ratio between the donations received by the urban settlement in Jerusalem, which was called the “Old Yishuv”, and the donations received by the agricultural settlement in the moshavot? How much of the tension around the donations was at the root of the controversy in its early stages? And who was right in assessment of the economic reality in the settlement?

Rabbi Boaz engrossed himself in all the issues. His research reaches the level of detail of the cost of maintaining one family in the moshavotand Jerusalem, the cost of establishing and maintaining an agricultural settlement, the cost of buying the land, and the cost of legal dealings with the Ottoman regime and hostile Arabs. His research presents the economic plans of the founders of the various moshavot and their supporters, their dreams, their numerous failures and their limited successes, as written in those days in letters, personal diaries, and newspaper articles. For almost four years he spent a great amount of time researching this book, and now the first volume of a series of at least three volumes has been published, where in the third volume he will reach the Shmittot where Rav Kook was the Chief Rabbi of Jaffa and the moshavot.

After reading his book, I realized how much the research of a professional historian who is also a Torah scholar can contribute to the understanding of reality in general, and to the understanding of the halakhic questions in particular.

The Controversy about the Goal

My first conclusion from studying the book is that reality as a whole was complex, and since everything was new and unfamiliar, it made reality even more complex. Consequently, it is possible to understand both sides, since each side had in fact found support for its position. The root of the dispute stems from a deeper disagreement in understanding the mitzvoth of yishuv ha’aretz (the commandment to settle the Land), and the question what is the belief in God and His Torah, which influenced the analysis of reality as well.

Everyone agreed that the situation of the settlers was distressful, but in the opinion of the opponents of the heter mechirah, they should be helped with tzedakah, and to prohibit work in the Shmittah year, since the result of their work was a loss in any case. In other words, the cost of the seeds, the seedlings, animals for labor, and work tools was higher than the profit in the meager crop that grew in their fields. So that in any case the settlers needed donations, and since the cost of maintaining them while they ceased working would be cheaper than maintaining them in work that leads to losses, why shouldn’t the donors contribute to the stoppage of work in the Shmittah year? Moreover, we learned in the Torah that because of the violation of the Shmittah we were exiled from our Land, and therefore precisely thanks to the observance of Shmittah we would merit to settle in it.

On the other hand, the supporters of the heter mechira believed that the settlers must find the way to make a living from their own labor, and not to rely on donations. And even if in the meanwhile they fail and need donations, they must learn lessons and continue to work diligently in order to reach a state where they could stand on their own, so that the donations were actually a long-term investment, which with the right work would yield handsome profits. And it should not be claimed that in the merit of the mitzvah to cease working they would receive a blessing, for Shmittah at this time is a rabbinical ordinance, and the blessings of the Torah do not apply. Besides that, it is forbidden to rely upon miracles, and since in reality one can see that the settlers are unable to make a living, the requirement for a heter mechira is necessary – both until the stage where they learn how to make a living, and also until the stage where they are able to earn a living. But if they were to cease work for one year out of seven, they would return to a state of distress, and require charity. In addition, the need for charity is seen by many as a more serious sin.

Who was Right?

There are different levels of ‘times of distress’, and the greatest distress is one that does not allow a person to exist, to the point where he is forced to move to another location, or in the case of yishuv ha’aretz – prevents him from immigrating to Israel because he cannot exist there. And who determines whether it is possible to exist? Those who choose to live there.

The conclusion that emerges from the book is that the position of ‘Chovevei Tzion‘ and all the people who worked to encourage Jews to immigrate to Israel, was that if the masses of the Jewish world heard that they were ceasing to work in the Shmittah year, and relying on help from Heaven, or the collection of tzedakah, many Jews would refrain from immigrating to Israel. And no less serious, the big donators to the purchase of land and yishuv ha’aretz, headed by Baron Rothschild, would not continue to contribute, since their position was that settlement must be based on productive work (see p. 149, p. 235).

On page 106, an editorial is presented by a Jewish newspaper in London, which rejected immigration to Israel on the grounds that the obligations imposed by the commandments do not allow economic existence in Israel. Even Karl Netter, one of the founders of the ‘Mikveh Yisrael’ agricultural school, who was a key activist in the ‘Kol Yisrael Chaverim‘ organization for the benefit of Jewish immigrants, also wrote an influential article in 1882, in which he claimed that it was difficult to settle many Jews in Israel, partly due to the limitations of the mitzvoth of ma’aser (tithes) and Shmittah. Therefore, in practice, on behalf of the strong organization ‘Kol Yisrael Chaverim‘, he helped the emigration of Jewish refugees to the United States (ibid., P. 107).

Similarly, it is told (ibid., Pp. 115-113) that in the wake of the riots in Russia and the waves of emigration from there, Yechiel Brill, the editor of the newspaper ‘Ha’Levanon’, sought to encourage aliyah to Israel and not to America, for fear that they would lose their faith there. But when they turned to Dr. Levison, the representative of the London Committee which helped refugees emigrate to America and Western Europe, Dr. Levison replied that he did not encourage immigration to Israel because of the halachic obligation to observe the commandments there. This position influenced Brill, to the point where he began supporting the settlement of Jews outside the borders of ‘olei Bavel‘ in order to free themselves of the mitzvot dependent on the Land.

Rabbis who realized this difficulty felt that all the types of work should be permitted in the Shmittah year without any mechira. Thus, for example, was the opinion of two of the greatest Torah scholars, Rabbi Lapidot from Reisen and Rabbi Eliashberg from Bausk (ibid., Pg. 117). However, in practice, they permitted heterim that were not as lenient, which many of the members of Chovevei Tzion did not believe were sufficient.

Jewish Immigration

During the period of the First and Second Aliyah, from 1880 to 1914, as a result of the growing difficulties in Eastern Europe where 80% of the world’s Jews lived – most of them in poverty – there was a large migration of two million Jews to Western countries. The United States had 1,700,000 Jews, Argentina – 100,000, France – 80,000, Canada – 60,000, and South Africa – 50,000. To our homeland, the place to which we are commanded to immigrate, only 60,000 made aliyah (ibid., P. 104).

The main reason for this was because the land was desolate, the government controlling it was hostile, corrupt and cruel, and existing in the land was difficult. But the easier it was to earn a living, the more immigration increased; however, the harder it became, the fewer Jews immigrated.

Baron Hirsch and Baron Rothschild

In those years (1882-1888), Baron Rothschild’s contributions stood at £ 1.5 million, and he was prepared to contribute only in order for the settlement to stabilize economically. Due to this position, he was considered a dreamer and a radical believer among his wealthy friends, because they did not believe that the settlements in the Land of Israel could stand on their own feet, and consequently, they directed their tremendous donations to purposes which in their opinion were more useful, such as the absorption of Jews in Western countries. It can be assumed that if they had believed in the chances of settlement in Israel to exist and even grow, the aid to the building of the Land would have been tenfold, since at least ten Jews at the time could have contributed sums similar to, and even greater than, that of Baron Rothschild.

For example, Baron Hirsch, who was the richest man in Europe, sought to save the Jewish refugees from Russia by resettling them in droves as farmers in countries of the New World. To this end, he gave the Jewish Colonization Association, the Jewish settlement company he founded, eight million pounds Sterling. To understand the size of the sum, it should be noted that at less than £ 5 million, England bought its share in the Suez Canal at the time.

What is Emunah

If we delve further, we find that the dispute concerns the nature of emunah (faith). Opponents of the mechira believed that emunah is to rely on the belief that if work was ceased in the Shmittah year, God would help, but in the meantime, it was possible to exist on donations. The proponents of the mechira believed that it was possible to devise a rational plan to fulfill the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz without relying on miracles or donations.

This is a dispute between the Torah of Chutz l’aretz, revealed only in heaven and resting on a miracle such as the manna and quail that descended to our forefathers in the desert from heaven, and the Torah of the Land of Israel that reveals that Hashem is the God in Heaven and Earth, and that all nature and His wisdom rooted in man are God’s creation, and the mitzvoth are meant to be fulfilled according to the exact rules of halakha which require that we take into consideration reality, according to the facts before us. Only this path is the true way of Torah, and only in this manner are blessings, revelation of the Shekhina, and Redemption merited.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.