During the long years of exile, the Land of Israel remained desolate, and the few Jews who did live here did not engage in agriculture.
The Jews expelled from Spain who began immigrating to Israel about five hundred years ago, and the Hasidim and disciples of the Vilna Gaon who began immigrating about two hundred years ago, barely engaged in agriculture.
Only about one hundred and forty years ago, did Jews begin establishing agricultural communities throughout the country. The first were members of the Old Yishuv in Jerusalem who went out from the walls of the Old City, and together with new immigrants established small outposts, until in the year 5638 (1877) they established Petah Tikvah. In the year 5642 (1881) the First Aliyah of Chovevei Tzion (Lovers of Zion) began, giving rise to the establishment of seven additional moshavot (rural settlements) by the time of the Sabbatical (Shmitta) year of 5649 (1889). They included Rishon Lezion, Zichron Yaakov, Akron (Mazkeret Batya), Ness Ziona, Rosh Pina, Gedera and Yesod HaMa’alah.
This was the first time the question of observing shmitta arose, and the problem was twofold – first, for the individual farmer, and second, for the public in general. Individually, farmers were barely able to exist and required support, and observing shmitta would have brought them to a situation of severe duress, and even starvation. As far the public in general was concerned, observing shmitta would have likely caused the destruction of the moshavot, for even if some of the farmers were able to exist, it was clear that many would not. In addition, many Jews in the Diaspora who considered immigrating to Israel would refrain from making aliyah after hearing about the difficulties of surviving in the shmitta year.
Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever, one of the Torah giants of the generation and one of the leaders of the Chovevei Tzion movement, whose long-range vision was unmatched by any Gadol in his generation, wrestled with the issue along with his European rabbi contemporaries, Rabbi Yehoshua from Kutna and Rabbi Klapfish, the Av Beit Din of Warsaw. They decided to permit farmers to expropriate the fields from the obligation of shmitta by selling them to a non-Jew, in a way that after the sale, the Jews would work in the fields as salaried employees of the non-Jewish owner.
The eminent posek (Jewish law arbiter), Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor from Kovno, also supported the heter.
In addition, the Sephardic rabbis in Israel, headed by the Rishon Lezion, Rabbi Yaakov Shaul Elishar, supported the heter, relying on the judgments of Sephardic rabbis of previous generations who lived in Eretz Yisrael.
However, the Ashkenazi rabbis in Jerusalem, led by Rabbi Shmuel Salant and Rabbi Diskin, opposed the heter. In their estimation, keeping shmitta would not cause great harm, because at any rate, some agricultural techniques claimed it was beneficial to allow fields to lie fallow periodically. Other rabbis believed it was possible to obtain financial support for settlers who observed shmitta.
Some argued that if the farmers acted leniently in observing shmitta, they would continue to do so in other halakhic matters as well. In effect, they feared the heter would actually cause the destruction of the moshavot, because the Torah says the punishment for not observing shmitta was exile, while on the other hand, keeping Shmitta brings great blessing.
It is noteworthy that the position of the Ashkenazi rabbis of Jerusalem carried great weight since almost all the chalutzim (pioneers) were Ashkenazi – about 70 percent of the Jews living in the country were Ashkenazi, and the majority of them lived in Jerusalem. In the year 1888, approximately 36,000 Jews lived in Israel, of which about 20,000 lived in Jerusalem, another 10,000 in Safed, Tiberias, Hebron and other older settlements, and about 2,000 in the agricultural colonies, which were called the “Yishuv Ha’Chadash” (the New Settlement).
In practice, most of the farmers and their supporters felt the need to rely on the heter, and with the guidance of their rabbis from Europe, led by Rabbi Mohliver, the farmers turned to the Sephardic rabbis in Israel, and they performed the sale of the fields for them. However, even though the farmers acted on the instructions of important rabbis, many rabbis in the Diaspora and Jerusalem opposed the heter mechira, and the fanatics of the generation stood by their side and fought fiercely – even wickedly – against the heter, and the rabbis who supported it.
It is worth noting that initially among the rabbis who were machmir (stringent), there were rabbis who felt a civic responsibility towards the Yishuv HaChadash and the farmers, among them the rabbis of Jerusalem, Rabbi Salant and Rabbi Diskin. Among the rabbis who were machmir, there were also rabbis who enthusiastically supported the Chovevei Tzion movement, like the Netziv of Volozhin and Rabbi Mordechai Gimpel Yaffe.
However, from one shmitta to the next, it became clearer just how difficult it was for the pioneers to refrain from working for a year, and consequently, even among the rabbis who were against the heter, some changed their minds in favor. One of them was the ‘Aderet’ (Rabbi Eliyahu David Rabinowitz-Teomim) who attested that while in the Diaspora, he tended towards the opinion of the machmirim. However, after he immigrated to Eretz Yisrael to serve as the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, and viewed firsthand the great duress, he changed his mind in support of the heter (Iggrot HaRa’ayah 207). Rabbi Diskin from Jerusalem also opposed the heter in the first shmitta year, but in the second Sabbatical year, after understanding the reality, agreed in part to the heter.
In the year 5664 (1904), Rabbi Kook began serving as Rabbi of Jaffa and the moshavot, and in the shmitta year of 5670 (1909), twenty-one years after the Gedolei Ha’dor (eminent Torah scholars) had introduced and implemented the heter, Rabbi Kook continued in their path, and enacted the heter mechira.
Over the years that passed from the start of the new settlements, the moshavot grew and expanded. Instead of hundreds of farmers there were now thousands of families whose livelihood depended on agriculture. On the one hand, this fact made the heter even more necessary, but on the other hand, it also caused the opponents of it to harden their position, since the heter became more widespread and involved a lot more people and land.
In the meantime, another significant change occurred: most residents of the first moshavot, members of the First Aliyah, were religiously observant and committed to the rulings of the rabbis. However, during the following generation, the rapid secularization process that swept over European Jewish communities was reflected in the composition of the young immigrants who came to Israel as part of the Second Aliyah. Thus, in the year 1909, many of the new farmers were not completely observant. The majority of them were willing to cooperate with the rabbis on issues concerning Shabbat, orlah and agricultural tithing, but by no means could they be persuaded to stop working the fields for an entire year.
The pioneer’s distancing from mitzvot caused the opponents of the heter to escalate their struggle against it, and against the rabbis supporting it, but conversely, strengthened the position of those in favor, who believed that by way of the heter, the pioneers would continue cooperating with the rabbis in matters of kashrut (Iggrot HaRa’ayah 291, 311).
By then, the opposing camps were clear. If initially there were rabbis who supported the Chovevei Tzion movement but objected to the heter, in the second generation, all those who supported the new settlements backed the heter. On the other hand, the salient feature of the opponents was they had reservations, to one degree or another, about the new settlement – all the more so, they opposed the Zionist movement which, in the meantime, had been founded in 5657 (1897), and most of its leaders and activists were non-observant.
Only in this light can the severe opposition to the heter be understood. For even if in the first generation the opposing rabbis could disregard the opinion of the lenient rabbis, seeing as it was a new issue which had not yet been adequately clarified, and the dire need for the heter was not sufficiently clear, in the second generation, those who opposed the heter were already familiar with its considerations, and could have known that its foundations were vastly firmer than similar heters practiced by all observant Jews (such as eating chadash in Chutz le’Aretz). Not only that, the rabbis who advocated the heter leaned to the side of chumra in comparison to what was common in similar cases of distress.
The only answer is that the machloket (controversy) of most of the opponents of the heter against the Zionist movement defied the rules of proper debate among Torah scholars, to the point where they ignored all the solid sources of the heter, and at the same time, gathered all possible chumra arguments.
In other words, if they believe there is no point in Yishuv ha’Aretz without observing shmitta, nor any value to the settlement of the Land when it is done by Jews who are not meticulous in the mitzvot, it goes without saying there is no need to find a heter to work in the shmitta year – on the contrary, it is preferable to make it difficult for the settlers.
However, the position that led the advocates of the heter was based on the mitzvah of Yishuv ha’Aretz, about which our Sages said it is equivalent to all the mitzvot, and that all of Israel, even those who do not meticulously observe the mitzvot, are sons of Lord our God, and every mitzvah they keep is very dear to Him. All the more so, the mitzvot on which the redemption of Israel depends.
Therefore, since not working the fields in the shmitta year was liable to cause great damage in settlement, because even without it the difficulties of aliyah and settlement were enormous and only a few agreed to immigrate to Israel, all the more so would their numbers have decreased if they heard they had to stop working in the shmitta year. Consequently, the rabbis saw a great need to find a heter in order to expropriate the obligation of shmitta which today is de’Rabbanan (of rabbinic status) or Midat Chassidut (a pious and meritorious act), and fulfill the mitzvah of Yishuv ha’Aretz, whose obligation is de’Oreita (of Biblical status).
It later turned out that the necessity was much more severe, because many of the Jews who remained in European exile, some because of the propaganda of the opponents of the heter and the pioneers, were murdered by the Nazis, or trapped under Communist persecution.
It was not easy for the rabbis who were in favor of the heter; they had to withstand harsh attacks and slander from the fanatics of the generation. There were some Gedolei Ha’dor who initially opposed the heter, but after hearing explanations, supported it, but refrained from openly expressing their opinions due to the dispute waged by the opponents of the heter (for example, the eminent posek, Maharsham).
Although when the Gedolei Ha’dor instituted the heter in 5649 (1888), Rav Kook was only twenty-four years old, many people associate the heter with Rabbi Kook, because he clarified its halakhic foundations at length in his book ‘Shabbat Ha’Aretz‘ and in numerous responsa and letters, and he was also responsible for it as Rabbi of Jaffa and the moshavot in the Shmitta years of 5670 (1909) and 5677 (1916) [although he was not in Eretz Yisrael at that time]. Later on as Chief Rabbi of Israel, he also instituted the heter in the Shmitta years of 5684 (1923) and 5691 (1930).
It is worth noting that by nature, Rabbi Kook was an extremely pious man, inclined to enhance and embellish every mitzvah possible, and therefore, greatly regretted being required to expropriate the mitzvah of shmitta by means of the heter mechira. Nevertheless, in practice, he determined it was absolutely impossible to be machmir. And as he wrote, the magnitude of Chillul Hashem (desecration of God) and destruction of the Torah caused if they were to be machmir in this issue beyond what was necessary was immeasurable, because it would strengthen the heretics who claimed the Torah does not allow Israel to exist, and thus, its commandments should be disregarded (Iggrot 291, 311).
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew