“For six years you shall sow your land and gather its crops. And in the seventh you shall leave it untended and unharvested, and the destitute of your people shall eat, and the wildlife of the field shall eat what is left of them; so shall you do to your vineyard and your olive grove.”
This passage from Exodus 23 is one of several biblical references to the commandment of shmitah — releasing the farmland in the Land of Israel from planting and harvesting every seventh — or sabbatical — year.
When Jewish farmers started returning to till the soil in the late 1800s and early 1900s, following 2,000 years of exile, they faced the practical problem of how to rest the land during the sabbatical year without losing their only means of survival. Many had no choice but to take advantage of a mechanism called heter mechira (“sale permit”), which was reluctantly endorsed by Mandatory Palestine Chief Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook. It allowed them to turn over their fields’ ownership to a non-Jew under a one-year trust agreement, so that they could continue planting and harvesting during the seventh year.
Today, many of Israel’s roughly 5,700 active farmers rely on heter mechira arrangements, but the number of farmers keeping shmitah has been rising. Whereas about 2,000 farmers observed shmitah during the last cycle in 5768 (2007-2008), this year some 3,500 farmers are on board, despite the economic difficulties it entails.
And that is where Dave Matkowsky of Teaneck comes in.
The 48-year-old Jewish communal professional established the Shmitah Fund, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to easing the financial burden on Israeli farmers who are fulfilling this religious-national imperative. The Shmitah Fund is a partner organization of Jerusalem- and Brooklyn-based Keren Hashviis, which has solicited support from ultra-Orthodox communities for shmitah-observant Israeli farmers since the 1950s. This year’s budget is $22.5 million, a sum Keren Hashviis could not raise alone.
Mr. Matkowsky, a Yeshiva University graduate, thought it was time for the modern Orthodox world to step up to the plate.
“Support for farmers in the shmitah year has not been on the radar screen of the modern Orthodox or religious Zionist communities, maybe because of the prevalence of heter mechira,” he said. “But the vast majority of the farmers keeping shmitah are Religious Zionist or traditional — and some are even secular. While it’s wonderful that the charedi community has supported these farmers for the past 10 shmitah cycles, it’s important for other natural constituencies, such as the religious Zionist community, to join the effort. The farmers are counting on us.”
The fund’s website, www.shmitahfund.org, features video interviews with six Israeli farmers who explain why they chose to honor shmitah and what that means for them on both the ideological and the practical level.
“I thought it was important to personalize these farmers and their families, to give them the opportunity to explain what it means to them to be farming the land of Israel and feeding the people of Israel after 2,000 years of exile,” Mr. Matkowsky said, adding that the current budget allows for an average stipend of $6,000 to $7,000. “They’re not relaxing and taking a vacation; they’re still shouldering the lion’s share of the burden. We’re just making it possible to them to stay afloat and maintain their financial obligations.”
The Ministry of Agriculture estimates that about 2 percent of the Israeli labor force is involved in agriculture.
“In meeting with the farmers and hearing their stories again as we edited the video, I found them so inspiring and I hope others will also,” Mr. Matkowsky said. “These are people of great faith. Rav Kook wrote about the deep spiritual values embedded in the practice of shmitah that he was reluctant to give up in order to create a workaround in the heter mechira.
“Many farmers I met with said our people waited 2,000 years to keep this mitzvah; why rely on a workaround if they can actually fulfill it? It’s a declaration that the land belongs to God, and that our livelihood is from God. If we find it hard to relate to this message in our modern economy, the farmers keeping shmitah remind us of this core principle of our faith.”
The Shmitah Fund’s rabbinic advisory committee includes prominent figures in America and Israel. They include Rabbi Yosef Adler of Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Englewood’s Congregation Ahavath Torah, and Rabbi Steven Weil of Teaneck, senior managing director of the Orthodox Union.
“Shmitah is a mitzvah for the entire Jewish people, and the Torah connects our welfare as a people to proper observance of this mitzvah,” Mr. Matkowsky said. “The farmers are the ones on the front lines, but it’s our obligation to offer whatever support we are able to. We are a very successful community in United States, and this is something that ought to be a communal priority.”
Though the shmitah year officially started last Rosh Hashanah and thus will end soon, Mr. Matkowsky explained that launching his initiative now is not as strange as it may seem. The effects of shmitah on many types of crops last well into the eighth year. That’s because of the schedule that controls when replanting is permitted and economically viable, and because of the wait until there is a crop to harvest and sell.
Leviticus 25 addresses this situation with a divine promise of bumper crops in the sixth year of the cycle, which will last through the eighth year. There are different understandings of the conditions necessary for the fulfillment of this promise, but in any case it is not part of the Shmitah Fund’s business model.
“Many farmers stressed that they are not testing God as a condition of their faith,” Mr. Matkowsky said. “They are simply following the Torah requirement without expectation of reward. Our role as an organization is to partner with them in the mitzvah and to help make their sacrifice possible.”
Mr. Matkowsky is setting up presentations and meetings in Jewish communities across the country, and he is preparing a shmitah mini-curriculum for day schools in coordination with Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon, a noted authority in Israel on the laws of the sabbatical year. “We plan to bring in some farmers to share their stories in person,” he said.
To arrange a presentation, get in touch with Mr. Matkowsky through his website.