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Sunday, July 5, 2015

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Shmittah, the Israeli economy and faith

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“You may plant your land for six years and gather its crops. But during the seventh year, you must leave it alone and withdraw from it.” (Exodus 23:10-11)

Sound simple? Not quite. Every seven years, residents of Israel are faced with a slew of restrictions based on the biblical commandment to leave the land fallow. As we mark the start of the Jewish New Year 5775 in a few weeks, we also usher in the shmittah year. Shmittah will have an impact on Israeli farmers and the country’s economy, and on the eating habits of the followers of this commandment.

The restrictions are wide-ranging, complicated (and controversial). Here are just three examples:

• Most watering, fertilizing, weeding and other essential fieldwork are forbidden both commercially and at home.

• Produce that grows on its own may be eaten but cannot be sold.

• Shmittah produce must be treated with a level of sanctity. If a fruit cannot be entirely eaten, there are guidelines for how it may be disposed of.

Because of the economic implications to the agricultural industry, rabbis granted certain leniencies in the early days of Zionism. Since shmittah restrictions apply only to Jewish-owned land within the biblical boundaries of the Land of Israel, farms were temporarily “sold” via a “heter mechira” (sale dispensation) to non-Jews. This technique made farming by Jews permissible, and was approved by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine.

Those leniencies are not universally accepted and have come under fire on both religious and nationalistic grounds. Even Rav Kook understood it as a “temporary measure that we implemented only because of the overwhelming need. God forbid that one should consider annulling a great and central commandment such as the holiness of the shmittah.”

Others have continued to defend this practice, including the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, former chief rabbi and spiritual leader of Israel’s Sephardi community. During the last shmittah cycle he said, “the heter mechira is alive and well,” as it stems from the principle that “the Torah is a Torah of life, ‘that a man shall do the commandments and live,’ not a Torah of pointless decrees.”

In the past, as the shmittah year approached, stories began to pop up about how a hungry Israeli market looked to other sources to fill its supermarkets, including importing food from Cyprus, Jordan and even Gaza. During the shmittah year of 2007, the IDF conducted a test to see whether it would be viable to import produce from Hamas-controlled territory.

Although shmittah has huge implications today, years ago it was more of a curiousity. Back in 1951-52, the modern State of Israel was marking its first shmittah, and Time Magazine described ceremonies as the year ended.

“Pilgrims wearing rich prayer shawls cried out in jubilation, dancing and clapping their hands to the jangling of tambourines. The next morning, Orthodox farmers went out to the land once more to plow their weed-choked fields and prune the tangled vines. There were relatively few of them who had made the sacrifice which the Law called for. Israeli government statisticians estimated the total loss in produce at less than £30,000 ($84,000).” (This year the Israeli government has set aside 100 million shekels (US $28.8 million) toward assisting shmittah-observant farmers.)

Dov Weiss remembers that early shmittah year well. In The Seventh Year, he tells what it was like to farm – actually, to not farm – on his moshav that year. The real challenge facing them came at year’s end when they had trouble finding wheat seed for the new crop. When they finally did, they couldn’t get it sown until November. But because of that year’s late rains, the moshav’s wheat thrived while neighbouring farms sprouted only small, weak crops.

So where does all this leave you? As mentioned above, there are no restrictions on planting, pruning and growing produce outside the borders of Israel. At the same time, there is no way for Jews outside Israel to merit from fulfilling the mitzvah of shmittah – until recently. The organization Shomrei Shvi’t is offering for sale small tracts of land that will lie fallow during the upcoming year. For the sum of US $180, you can purchase one year’s ownership of a plot 1.35 metres square where they guarantee that absolutely nothing will happen.

Next time, a green spin on the millennia-old tradition.




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