Chief Rabbinate to Reduce Use of Special 7th-Year Dispensation

The Chief Rabbinate plans to reduce its reliance on the controversial "land sale dispensation" for the upcoming Shemittah "year of fallow."

Hillel Fendel, | updated: 11:45

Following a special session of the Chief Rabbinate Council on the topic, the Rabbinate decided to make "great efforts to reduce the reliance on the dispensation to a minimum."

Every seventh year, the Land of Israel must lie fallow, forbidden to be worked to produce its fruits. The year is known as Shemittah, from the root meaning to "drop" or "abandon." In the Shemittah of 1889, rabbis of the Land of Israel agreed to temporarily sell parts of the Land to non-Jews, so that certain agricultural activities could be carried out. As the national economy grew and the potential losses - including the very destruction of the fledgling Jewish community - became more threatening, the dispensation became more widespread and institutionalized.

The dispensation, called the heter mechirah, was never universally accepted, and continues to be a matter of controversy even now. Among the scholars who accepted it were Rabbis Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor, Avraham I. Kook, Tzvi Pesach Frank, Yechiel Michel Tukachinsky and Shlomo Yosef Zevin, while Rabbis Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, Yechiel Michel Epstein and the Chazon Ish opposed it. Among living rabbis, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef supports it, explaining that Shemittah applies nowadays only by Rabbinic dictum, while Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv opposes it.

The Chief Rabbinate's announcement states, "Only in cases where it becomes clear that the national kashrut system could be harmed [by the introduction of agricultural produce resulting from overt violations of the Shemittah], or in cases where the sustenance of farmers would be dealt a severe blow, or where it is feared that Jewish farmers will abandon agriculture altogether, will the dispensation be implemented."

"The sale of the land will only be carried out," the Rabbinate resolved, "on behalf of one who can prove that he is the true owner of the land, and when it can be guaranteed that Jews will not carry out Biblically-forbidden activities [such as planting and harvesting] on the land."

The Chief Rabbinate has appointed Rabbi Ze'ev Vitman to coordinate its Shemittah activities. The rabbi of Tnuvah, Israel's semi-official dairy cooperative, Rabbi Vitman has written a book on the topic entitled, "Public Shemittah," in which he describes how Shemittah can be observed in modern-day Israel.

Alon Tennenbaum, Rabbi Vitman's assistant, told Arutz-7 that the intention this year is to map out the ownership of fields throughout the country, and not to automatically sell the entire land as has been done in the past. He said that local rabbis will be asked to help so that as many land-owners and farmers as possible can be contacted.

"The heter is not the preferred solution," the Chief Rabbinate declares - in a noted departure from past Rabbinate practice - "since there is no consensus that land belonging to a non-Jew is exempt from the laws of Shemittah. On the contrary; most Halakhic decisors feel that a Jew must not work land belonging to a non-Jew. The very sale of the land to a non-Jew is also problematic, from both the legal and Halakhic standpoints."

"Therefore, when possible, only the trees and crops will be sold... Farmers will fill out forms, and Chief Rabbinate representatives will meet with the farmers in order to review the need for a sale and reduce it to the necessary minimum."

Another Solution
In the past, Rabbi Vitman has promoted another large-scale solution, known as the Otzar Beit Din. Based on the concept that produce grown in the seventh year is not forbidden, but is rather ownerless and may be taken for personal use, the Otzar Beit Din solution involves the gathering of fruits in a large-scale manner and their not-for-profit sale.

This solution will not be promoted on a national scale this year, however, largely because Tnuvah no longer has a fruits-and-vegetables department. "The solution requires a large body that can stand behind it," Tennenbaum explained, "and which is willing to absorb losses. Tnuvah filled the bill in the past... Rabbi Vitman is consulting with great rabbis to see how the Otzar Beit Din solution can be implemented on a smaller scale."