Shmitta Observance

This weekend is a bit unusual. One of our old college friends is visiting for Shabbat. He is not sleeping at our house, but he is eating dinner with us. Back in school (many years ago), I was one of the more religious amongst our friends, but as times change others have taken over that position. This has an impact particularly because this year is the 7th year of the shmitta cycle. The Torah specifies that every seventh year, the land of Israel should rest. The Jewish people should allow the land to lie fallow (uncultivated). The times of the Torah and Talmud, were based on local agriculture and animal husbandry. During this year, farmers were allowed to collect fruit that had grown on its own. They were also allowed to graze their flocks anywhere since all growth is explicitly ownerless during this seventh year. Given the relatively small populations and the fact that most people lived off the land anyway, the year presented a rest for farmers and a change of pace, but not a tremendous hardship.

This biblical commandment has created tremendous stress on the Jewish people in modern times. We no longer live in an agrarian culture. Most people have never grown their own produce. We rely on large corporate farmers and the global economy to deliver fresh produce to our supermarkets. Furthermore, if farmers and agri-corps were required to take a sabbatical year, they would loose market share, market channels and supply chains. It is no longer a case of choosing to eat something else during this year, its a recipe for closing the business.

In the early 1900's, the Jewish people returns en-mass to the Land of Israel. Some of the rabbinical authorities (Rav Kook in particular) searched for a way to allow all of the people to abide by biblical law. Their solution is based on the biblical concept that land owned by non-jews is not subject to the Shmitta year restrictions. It may be farmed and its produce may be sold. These authorities instituted a process called Heter Mechira by which land is sold to a non-jew during the Shmitta year. Jewish farmers and corporations can then farm the land (as usual) providing produce to the local population. Since the inception of the state of Israel, the national rabbinate has sold all agricultural land to a non-Jew during Shmitta years. This solution has been in place for close to 100 years and has been accepted as a necessary solution for the masses.

As a result of the Heter Mechira, even non-religious jews (farmers and consumers) are able to avoid transgressing the restrictions of the Shmitta year.

In recent years, some of the orthodox community has chosen to accept upon themselves greater stringencies, thereby reducing the chance of transgression and elevating their lives toward G-d. On a personal level, this is a selfless act of observance and should be praised.

Unfortunately, some orthodox authorities seem to have lost sight of the nation, narrowing their focus to themselves or their own followers. Thus, although in may cases, the torah law explicitly allows leniencies, these authorities have decided that those who accept the leniencies are unobservant and transgressors.

The Shmitta year is a perfect example. There is a store that caters to the ultra-orthodox community which is running an add that says "Shmitta observance according to the law", implying that other stores do not observe the Shmitta year. A better ad would have been "Shmitta observance according to the strict observance of the law" or "Shmitta for the Ultra-orthodox". Attitudes like this ad serve only to divide the nation, creating distinctions that are neither real, nor supported by Jewish tradition.

The alternatives offered by those unwilling to accept the Heter Mechira all have some limitation. The solutions include hydroculture, buying produce from non-
jews, importing produce from outside of Israel and selling the work but not the produce.

Since the biblical stricture is only on the land, produce grown using hydroculture avoids the stricture by avoiding the land. One of the problems with hydroculture is that it requires lots of water. In a desert land like Israel, we don't have enough water to convert a reasonable fraction of our production to hydroculture.

Buying produce from non-Jews is a double whammy. Not only are you punishing Jewish farmers, but you are supporting their competition in the local markets. If we were to move the entire supply chain to non-Jewish farmers, then we might as well shut down all Jewish agriculture in Israel. There is also the issue of supporting your enemy since we are currently at war with Gaza, which in the past, produced much of the Shmitta year produce.

Importing food has a negative impact on the economy because it removes capital from the local market. Of course, it also provides foreign suppliers with supply chains and channels that supplant the local producers not only for this year, but for future years.

The final option is to sell the work required to produce the food, but not the food itself. As with the Heter Mechira, this is a Rabbinical loophole. The concept is that for the good of the people, the courts can take ownership of the land and pay the farmers to work the land. Purchasers buy the work required to bring the produce to market, but do not actually buy the produce itself. The land is still under the strictures of the Shmitta year as is the produce, but it may be maintained and harvested. This solution differs from the Heter Mechira in that selling only the work retains the holy status of the produce, whereas the Heter Mechira assigns no holy status the produce since it was owned by non-Jews. There are two problems with this approach. First, since the produce is holy, it may not be sold outside of Israel. Exporters are forced to shutdown during this production year. Secondly, in order for this solution to scale, all produce must be brought under the courts supervision, thus turning a free market into a highly restricted market. Given the history of government monopolies and Israeli government monopolies in particular, I cannot see this solution as efficient or acceptable.

The Heter Mechira is the only viable option for today's market. It enables exporters to retain their global position. It provides free market access for produce. Best of all, it provides a mechanism for the Nation of Israel to observe the Shmitta year. Farmers do not transgress the law, nor do the un-observant who purchase produce in the local supermarket.

From a personal perspective, let each person choose their own level of observance. From a national level, the rabbinate must consider the nation and not the person. Let everyone have a chance to meet the minimal requirements of the law. Those who want more have the choice, but those who don't care will be free of sin.


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