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August 29, 2015 | 14th Elul 5775


Galilee Diary #354, September 9, 2007

Marc J. Rosenstein

When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a Sabbath of the lord. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of the lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.

-Leviticus 25:2-4

One of the main reasons for the Jews’ mourning over the exile for two millennia was their being denied the opportunity to fulfill the commandments related to the Land of Israel. For example, all the laws pertaining to the sabbatical year (called shemitah in Hebrew) simply don’t apply outside of Israel, so we never had to obey them. With the large-scale return of the Jews to Israel, and their return to agriculture there, suddenly shemitah became a living – and most inconvenient – law. While there was debate on how to calculate when the shemitah year falls, after so many centuries of non-observance, a consensus was reached among rabbis in the late 19th century, and the cycle reinstated. The new year beginning now, 5768, is a sabbatical year.

Conceptually, shemitah is an impressive practice: it gives the land and the farmer a year’s sabbatical; it reminds us that the land is only “on loan” from God and that it is not ours to exploit without limit. For scattered individual Jewish farmers living as a minority in the land, the practice might have been practicable: one could store grain and dried legumes, preserve fruits and vegetables, forage among the “volunteers” in the garden – and buy from one’s non-Jewish neighbors. But with the growth of the Jewish population, and of Jewish agriculture, and the rise of a vision of a nation of Jewish farmers, shemitah got harder and harder to practice. How could the early agricultural settlements, barely subsisting from year to year, afford to take a year off with no income, and live from purchased provisions? In the course of the 20th century, four main approaches developed:

a. the majority secular approach: “Give us a break. That was then, this is now. The Bible may be a great book, but we can’t use it as a handbook for operating a modern state.”

b. the liberal-traditional approach: Shemitah may or may not have been actually enforced in ancient times, but it is not binding on us, as the biblical conditions are not met – no king, no Temple. For now we can make do with various symbolic gestures, but the real thing can wait for the messiah.

c. the Ultra-Orthodox position: The law is the law. Shemitah is fully operational today, and farmland owned by Jews must lie fallow. In the age of globalization, eating imported and preserved foods is not such a big deal. Restaurants and catering halls serving produce grown on Jewish-owned land this year should lose their kashrut certificates.

d. the mainstream solution, promulgated by Rabbi Abraham Kook in 1923: the agricultural acreage farmed by Jews in Israel is sold to a non-Jew for the year (just like selling chametz on Pesach). Then, agriculture can proceed normally throughout the year.

Not surprisingly, many people, religious and secular, are uncomfortable with Rabbi Kook’s method, as there is something weird about struggling to return to our land to farm it, and then circumventing one of the land’s primary mitzvot by selling it to an Arab. Over the years the opposition remained muted, and the onset of shemitah didn’t attract much attention in the general public – just a photograph on an inside page of the newspaper, showing the chief rabbi signing away the land to an Arab lawyer. This year, however, the Ultra-Orthodox opposition has grown as has the discomfort with Rabbi Kook’s solution. The polemics – and the dire predictions of skyrocketing prices and collapsing agriculture – have made the front pages day after day. The disunity among the rabbis has become strident and has even been taken up by the Supreme Court (a secular body), and the revulsion of the secular public for rabbis – of whatever flavor – has gotten another boost.

A Jewish State – Herzl had no idea what he was getting us into.

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