Shemittah grapes
Shemittah grapes

Responding to the growth of Shemittah-year initiatives that largely bypass the "sale dispensation" known as heter mechirah, leading religious-Zionist rabbis come to its defense.

With the seventh-year Shemittah "year of fallow" less than a month away, the commonly-practiced "sale dispensation" formulated to help farmers and consumers deal with Shemittah challenges seems to be in danger.  Possibly just in the nick of time, however, many leading religious-Zionist rabbis are making an effort to sway public opinion back in its favor.

According to Biblical law, Jews who own land in the Land of Israel must let it lie fallow every seventh year, and may not work the fields.  In the Shemittah year of 1889, with Land of Israel agriculture making a significant comeback for the first time in 18 centuries, 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.

Despite its wide practice and the many rabbis supporting it, the dispensation, called the heter mechirah, was never universally accepted, and provided regular fodder for Halakhic [Jewish legal] debate among scholars.  Its main pillar of support was the fact that Shemittah applies nowadays only by Rabbinic dictum, and that farmers were instructed not to perform Biblically-prohibited work. The dispensation was almost totally accepted among the religious-Zionist public, and barely at all in the hareidi-religious sector.

The Chief Rabbinate announced last year its plan to reduce its reliance on the controversial "land sale dispensation" for the upcoming Shemittah "to a minimum."  At the same time, religious-Zionist circles began to implement a solution heretofore observed on a minor scale in some hareidi circles, known as the Otzar Beit Din; in its new format, it also involves minimum reliance on the heter dispensation.

With the heter mechirah appearing to lose validity, leading religious-Zionist rabbis have now begun to "fight back." They say the heter dispensation is not only still valid, but is as necessary as it was when it was first formulated.

The Declaration

The rabbis of the Religious Kibbutz Movement, for instance, turned recently to Rabbis Yaakov Ariel and Yehuda Amichai, leading Otzar Beit Din proponents, and formulated a joint public declaration in favor of the heter mechirah.  The declaration also received the support of many other rabbis, including former Chief Rabbis Avraham Shapira and Mordechai Eliyahu, and Rabbis Chaim Druckman, Dov Lior and many others.

The declaration reads, in part:

Ever since the hills of the Land of Israel began bringing forth their fruits as a clear sign of Israel's redemption, all the Torah leaders of Israel have been aware of the need to strengthen Jewish settlement in the Land, and especially that of the religious farmers... They felt that only a strong Israeli agricultural infrastructure could enable a total fulfillment of the commandments of Shemittah. 

Based on this assumption, the heter mechirah was also institutionalized by Torah leaders of Israel, beginning with Rabbi Mordechai Rubio (Shemen HaMor), Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan, Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever, Rabbi Yehoshua of Kutna, Rabbi A.I. Kook, and many others, including leading Sephardic rabbis.  The heter is valid and cannot be challenged.  It is a necessity that comes to strengthen Jewish agriculture in the Land of Israel and prevent it from destruction and collapse.

Therefore, produce that was grown in accordance with Jewish Law according to the above principles is acceptable and preferable to produce grown by non-Jews or imported...

The declaration concluded by saying that Otzar Beit Din solutions have been established for those who wish to acquire Shemitta produce of an even higher Halakhic [Jewish legal] standard, and that some of these solutions will provide heter produce when other fruits and vegetables have been exhausted.

Rabbi Stern

Two articles on this topic also appear in this week's HaTzofeh newspaper.  In one of them, Rabbi Aryeh Stern, the head of the Halakhah Berurah Institute in Jerusalem, writes that Otzar Beit Din solutions are well-intentioned, but may "come at the expense of those whose living comes from agriculture.  We have neither the right nor the authority to demand of them not to rely on the heter, when we ourselves are not even willing to give up one monthly salary..."

"At present," Rabbi Stern writes, "the great danger is that those who are responsible for implementing the heter will find themselves with no backing, while on the other hand, those who are not accustomed to observing the commandments will simply give up on the whole thing and will market their produce regularly, as if it were not Shemittah, leading to a situation in which the whole country and its markets will be filled with forbidden foods, Heaven forbid.  We must therefore strengthen the heter, and those who are behind it... and call upon everyone to make sure only to buy Jewish-grown fruit, and not imported or Arab-grown fruit, in order to strengthen Jewish agriculture in Israel.  This has always been our path, and we must continue upon it..."

Rabbi Aviner

In response to those who ask, "Our agriculture is not really that important anyway. What would be so terrible if Jewish agriculture would take a year off?", Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, head of Yeshivat Ateret Cohanim in Jerusalem's Old City, writes:

To whom is our agriculture not that important - to the consumer, or to the farmer whose staff of support you would like to break?  And it's not only an issue for this coming year, but in general: If he stops for a full year, others from outside Israel will take his place in the world market.  We sell Biblically-forbidden chametz before Pesach in order to save a few boxes of food; we can certainly do so for the Shemittah year.  For we are not forcing anyone to use the heter, but just those who wish to.  And of course, no one can sell the land himself, but must do so only via the Chief Rabbinate... 

The fact that we can import food does not make our agriculture not important.  A country must never allow itself to be dependent on others for food, because then it can be liquidated from without.  Even the liberal-capitalistic US supports its agriculture in various ways...  And regarding the Torah's command to be 'heroic' in observing the Shemittah, this applies to the farmer, not to the consumer who buys foreign produce [and therefore there is no 'heroism' involved in not buying heter produce].

Rabbi Aviner then lists the various types of permitted Shemittah-year produce:

1. Jewish-grown fruits that were harvested in the sixth year and kept in cold storage

2. Jewish-grown fruits grown on detached platforms in greenhouses and the like.

3. Vegetables that were sown in the sixth year and picked in the seventh year via an Otzar Beit Din [public treasury]; eating these with the proper precautions is especially meritorious as they have the special status of "seventh year sanctity."

4. Heter Mechirah - and certainly in those areas that may be outside Shemittah jurisdiction, such as the southern Aravah near Eilat.

5. But certainly not produce of non-Jews from abroad, or Arabs here in Israel, and certainly not of terrorists, such as the murderers who now live or work in Gush Katif, who inherited our brothers' farms...

In summary, the much-maligned heter mechirah is down but not out - as long as the need to protect Israel's agricultural economy, the desire to protect non-religious Jews from their own ignorance, and the Rabbinic status of the Shemittah laws still abound. 

Related articles:

Chief Rabbinate Begins Phasing Out Controversial 7th-Year Sale

Upcoming Shemittah Year Generates Search for New Approaches