Rabbi Dr. Mayer Rabinowitz of Teaneck, a halachist at the Jewish Theological Seminary, is used to taking the long view on issues.
That is particularly useful for a discussion of shmitta, a biblically mandated but not detailed agricultural practice that affects produce grown in the land of Israel.
There is much that is not clear about the original mandate, found in Leviticus 25, verses 1 though 7, “but what is clear is that it applies only to the land of Israel, so that once the Temple is destroyed and most of the Jews no longer live there, it wasn’t being observed,” Rabbi Rabinowitz said. And it became onerous for the few Jews still farming to take the year off – and actually it was more like two years, because there would have been neither reaping nor sowing during the shmitta year.
“So Judah HaNasi, who died at the beginning of the third century, started limiting the laws of shmitta for those Jews who still lived there, because if they didn’t have the money to pay their taxes to the Romans, they’d be putting themselves in trouble. So already, at the end of the second century, there was a tendency to limit shmitta.” The borders around the area affected by shmitta were tightened, people who were suspected of nonobservance were forgiven, and “there was some talk of annulling it altogether,” he said.
That lasted for a very long time, and then Jews started coming back.
“Once Jews started to return to the land in significant numbers, and to cultivate it, they had to start dealing with the laws of shmitta,” Rabbi Rabinowitz said. It was a major issue – the first pioneers came to found kibbutzim, “which were agricultural in nature.
“But the economy had changed since pre-exilic times. It would have threatened the economy.” And what was true a century or so ago is even more true today. Even though many of the kibbutzim and moshavim have diversified, or given up agriculture entirely, still “you have all sorts of agricultural companies producing all sorts of exports and serving the people of Israel.” If the laws of shmitta were followed strictly, “the entire economy would be in trouble.”
There have been a number of ingenious solutions to the problem. The Chazon Ish, a charedi scholar who died in 1953, and whose opinions are highly influential in that world, “said to sow winter crops early, so they are done before the shmitta year begins.” Other solutions include growing crops hydroponically, so they do not touch the land. People appointed as agents of a rabbinic court could harvest crops, and then sell them to court-held warehouses. “These legal fictions worked because the law was said to apply to individuals, and they weren’t working as individuals,” Rabbi Rabinowitz said.
Some charedi kibbutzim were supported by a shmitta foundation; money raised abroad helped its residents weather the two lean years in the cycle.
The first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, Abraham Isaac Kook, “came up with the idea of a heter mechira,” Rabbi Rabinowitz said. Just as a heter mechira allows Jews to sell their chametz to non-Jews before Pesach, and then reclaim it for the same nominal sum after the holiday, the legal fiction allows Jews to sell land to non-Jews for a two-year period. There would be five actions – sowing, pruning, reaping, harvesting grapes, and plowing – that would have to be done by non-Jews. Jews could do the rest.
There were ideological problems with these solutions, however. Being supported from outside Israel “contradicted the vision of Zionism, and Kook’s idea means selling the land of Israel to non-Jews,” he said.
Stores that sell produce in Israel during the shmitta year now inform their customers about the methods used. “One will say we have only Arab produce, and another will say heter mechira, and another that it’s been grown hydroponically, or it is from places where the laws do not apply.”
Rabbi Rabinowitz is Conservative; the movement’s counterpart in Israel is called Masorti, and its prime halachist is Rabbi David Golinkin. “Rabbi Golinkin said that farmers who can’t observe shmitta for either personal or financial reasons may do all the acts necessary to their business during the shmitta year, but they should do it in a different manner than usual.”
For example, “They might say, ‘I won’t turn the light on with my hand, but I will with my elbow.'” (No, it is not forbidden to turn lights on during the shmitta year; it is just hard to come up with an example about farming that speaks to non-farmers.)
“Rabbi Golinkin also said that you should avoid planting and tending to ornamental gardens, although if such gardens are necessary to prevent erosion, or for reasons of that nature, you could do it.
“And he also suggests that all Jewish farmers donate a portion of their shmitta year profits to the poor.”
The idea of using the shmitta year to provide for the poor, as the Torah verse suggests we do, resurfaces often.
Ruth Calderon, a secular Israeli talmudist and a member of the Knesset, “recently came up with a great idea,” Rabbi Rabinowitz said. “Since shmitta is about the forgiving of debt, she is trying to get the banks to lower the interest rate, or to forgive some debt. The forgiving of debt doesn’t apply only to the land of Israel,” he said.
And environmental values also are bound up in the concept of shmitta, he said. “How should we treat the land? We should consider the values that underlie shmitta, even if they are not mentioned specifically.
“There are now a lot of Jews in North America setting up organizations for sustainable agriculture, sustainable meat production, and tying agriculture back into their Jewish culture and identity. They are taking metaphoric ideas that are not part of the legal system as it is written, and using that to expand the idea of shmitta into the modern period, to give it meaning and value today.
“After all,” Rabbi Rabinowitz said, “We don’t live in the same society that people in the biblical period lived in. We mostly don’t grow our own food.”