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Upcoming Shemittah Year Generates Search for New Approaches

As the Shemittah "year of fallow" approaches, many rabbis feel that the 'temporary land sale' is still necessary - but the religious-Zionist public is trying out some no-sale solutions.
By Hillel Fendel
First Publish: 2/7/2007, 7:12 PM / Last Update: 2/6/2007, 10:42 AM

First in a Series of Shemittah Articles

The Torah and Land Institute held its annual conference on the Jewish Laws of the Land of Israel in Bar Ilan University this past Thursday. Over 300 Torah scholars, farmers, scientists, Agriculture Ministry officials and students gathered to exchange thoughts and plans on how the State of Israel could best observe the upcoming Shemittah - the last year of a seven-year cycle in which the Land is Biblically-mandated to "rest."

Among the topics discussed were:
  • Israeli agriculture on the eve of the Shemittah
  • the ideology and measure of necessity of the Heter Mechirah (the dispensation to temporarily sell the land so as to exempt it from many Shemittah-year laws)
  • Rabbi Kook's approach to the Heter Mechirah
  • the Otzar Beit Din solution
  • the ramifications of shutting down Israel's agriculture for a year
  • the late Torah giant Rabbi Valdenberg and Shemittah
  • agricultural research in the service of Shemittah


Lectures were also delivered on individual laws of Shemittah, such as maintaining the sanctity of the fruits in large institutions, private land sales, and gardening during Shemittah.

Various aspects of Gush Katif were mentioned on different occasions, serving as a thread connecting many of the discussions. Among the contexts in which Gush Katif was mentioned:
* The contributions of Gush Katif farmers to Israel's agriculture and to the public observance of Shemittah
* The abandonment of the Gush Katif residents by the government of Israel in a year characterized by the concept of charity [the sixth year of the seven-year Shemittah cycle, in which extra tithes to the poor are given]
* Ways in which concerned citizens can help them find jobs.

The end of the evening featured a special recognition of long-imprisoned Jonathan Pollard: the granting of a certificate to his wife Esther for his "total dedication on behalf of saving the State of Israel" and making an "urgent call to all of Israel to demand his immediate release."

Click here for an IsraelNationalRadio audio report from the conference.

Shemittah and the Economy
The central Shemittah issue facing the conference speakers in particular, and the State of Israel in general, is how to fulfill the so-basic and essential commandment of Shemittah without destroying Israel's fragile agricultural economy.

"We can be like the opinion in the Tosafot [Talmudic commentary]," said the Rabbi of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, Rabbi Elyashiv Knohl, "that states that observing the agricultural commandments of the Land of Israel is too difficult, and that therefore the entire commandment to live in the Land is suspended. Or - we can choose to believe in the importance and viability of our national existence in the Land of Israel, and to relate to those who farm and work the land as a precious resource, and to find every way to make it easier for them to fulfill these commandments."

Rabbi Knohl was referring to the two major approaches among the religious public to the laws of Shemittah. The hareidi-religious public relates to most Israeli produce during the year of fallow as forbidden, and buys most of its fruits and vegetables from Arab farmers. The bulk of the religious-Zionist public, on the other hand, adheres to the Heter Mechirah - the temporary sale of the land to a non-Jew, who is not bound by the Shemittah laws - and thus relating to the produce as grown on non-Jewish owned land and therefore largely permissible.

The rabbis who spoke at the conference are members of the religious-Zionist public, yet reflected differing views on the value of the Heter Mechirah. Several of them explained why it could and even should be relied upon, while others presented and promoted other solutions that would not require relying on what they feel to be a de-facto solution.

Rabbi Yehuda Amichai, head of the Torah and Land Institute - originally of Kfar Darom, Gush Katif, and now relocated in Ashkelon - briefly outlined the history of the Heter Mechirah. He explained that its Halakhic [Jewish-legal] principles had been formulated well before Rabbi Avraham Kook - widely and falsely considered to be the "founder" of the Heter - even arrived in Israel.

"What, then, did Rabbi Kook add?" Rabbi Amichai asked. He answered that Rabbi Kook's contribution was manifest in the importance he ascribed to national considerations. Without the Heter, Rabbi Kook feared, the following would occur [translated from his own words]:
  • The entry to the Land of Israel will be blocked to farmers of religious-faith, [for they will not bother immigrating if they know they will not be able to work the land,] and only those who throw religion behind their backs will come, causing immeasurable harm to Judaism in the Land of Israel in general.
  • Many farmers will work in a forbidden manner, leading to great damage to matters of Judaism - as is known, that one who actively transgresses continues to fall deeper into evil... If they feel that they are transgressing and that they are evil according to the Torah, they will come to despair, which will lead them to detach themselves from Torah in other matters as well...
  • It will cause destruction of the Land of Israel, and those who wish to breach our Torah will become stronger - because they want the rabbis to ban work in the Shemittah year, so that they can show how people don't listen to the rabbis...
  • It will greatly harm the communal life of the yishuv, the Jewish society in the Land of Israel, which is truly a matter of life and death... and it will prevent the build-up of the Land...


In addition, Rabbi Neriah Gutel of Jerusalem, the Dean of Orot Yisrael College in Elkanah, cited sources showing that strengthening Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel is important both Halahkically and Jewish-philosophically. "The goal is to strengthen our bond with the Land and observe the Shemittah year without relying on produce grown outside Israel or by our enemies," he explained.

Rabbi Gutel cited statistics indicating that Shemittah councils that do not follow the Heter deal with a full 15% of the country's produce - and in many cases they prefer non-Jewish or imported produce. Because such a large sector does not use Shemittah-year produce, Shemittah expert Dr. Moshe Zacks has written that the State "is forced to market wheat grown that year to neighboring countries at a loss... In addition, even farmers who carefully adhere to the Shemitta rulings of the Chazon Ish are harmed by not being patronized." Dr. Zacks terms this an apparent infraction of the Biblical commandment, "Your brother shall subsist with you" (Lev. 25, the same chapter that stipulates laws of Shemittah).

Rabbi Gutel also quoted Ramat Gan's Chief Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, who wrote that some problems that necessitate the Heter Mechirah still exist today. Specifically, he lists the threat of non-Jewish take-over of Israeli lands, and the fact that "most of the Israeli public is not currently able to fulfill the Shemittah laws, whether because of their spiritual state or because of the problem of [losing markets for] exports."

All of the above notwithstanding, the Heter Mechirah is still not the solution of choice, as many speakers said. Rabbi Ariel says that though "there currently is no way to sustain certain branches of the agriculture other than the Heter Mechirah... the proposal is to reduce or avoid altogether the use of the Heter in those branches that do not necessitate it, and to use the Heter in those in which there is no alternative. Every Shemittah we find new options by which to observe the Shemittah with higher and higher standards."

----The next article in this series will deal with other solutions, such as the Otzar Beit Din, as well as other points raised at the Shemittah conference.----