Shmita Sourcebook Section V: Back to the Land – Shmita in Israel, from Early Pioneers to Modern Times

If you haven't yet, check out section 4 of Hazon's Shmita Sourcebook.

It has been over 100 years since the Jewish people have returned to the land of their ancestors, the stories of their indigenous past. It has been 65 years since the formal state of Israel has been estbalished, and the question of what to do with Shmita is very much alive. Today, the arrival of the Shmita Year in Israel brings with it heated debates. For some, this tradition is a burden, an archaic notion worth forgetting. For others, it is a symbol of the hopeful culture that the Torah challenges us to create. As you read these texts considering Shmita in Israel today, try and shift your perspective towards the emotions, hopes, fears and desires of a young nation, taking shape once again, on a land they only dreamed about until now. Not only must they learn how to live on a land so different from where they came, they simultaneously must face many cultural riddles of how to renew the relationship between Torah laws and the land, in modern times. For Shmita, this means bringing abstract ideals to real-time applications. In this section, we introduce some voices grappling with this Shmita riddle, and some of the creative solutions that are emerging.

1. A First Impression

Rabbi Isaiah ben Avraham HaLevi, Shlah HaKodesh (16th Century)

One year after I arrived in the Holy City of Jerusalem, it is the Sabbatical year. Many of the inhabitants of the Holy Land wish to exempt themselves because of the great difficulty; the year preceding Shmita there was a famine in the land and there was insufficient food, day by day…I have contemplated the matter to myself and have thought, “I have a greater obligation to observe than they do, and even to sell the shirt off my back. God will say to me, Why have you come from a place where you were exempt from this and come to a place of obligation? And now in this place you will abandon this mitzvah? Why have you come to profane my land?”...The mitzvah of dwelling in the Land of Israel should not come through the sins of ignoring the mitzvoth of the Land, in which case what is lost will be more than what is gained.

Questions for discussion:

Do you resonate with the feelings the Shlah Hakodesh was having upon his arrival to Israel? Do you think you would feel a personal connection to observing Shmita if you arrived in Israel on the Shmita Year?

Do you agree with his statement that ‘what is lost will be more than what is gained’ in terms of living in Israel while not following the commandments of the land? Is the holiness of living in this land lost by not observing its laws?

2. Recalling an Ancient Practice & Its Challenges

Jewish Encyclopedia (1900)

Since the Zionist movement began to encourage agriculture in Palestine, the observance of Shmita has become a problem for solution. The leaders of the movement, who had the interest of the colonists at heart and feared that the Shmita might jeopardize their existence, claimed that the law is now obsolete. The Jewish periodicals, especially “Ha-Meliz,” strenuously objected to enforcing the law of Shmita upon the colonists. When the Shmita Year 5649 (= 1888-89) approached, the question was submitted to the chief rabbis in Europe and Palestine. Rabbi Isaac Elhanan Spector was inclined to be lenient, and advocated a nominal sale of the land to a non-Jew [Heter Mechira] and the employment of non-Jewish laborers during Shmita. But the Ashkenazic rabbis in Jerusalem opposed any subterfuge, and issued the following declaration: (“Ha-Habazzelet,” Oct. 26, 1888, No. 6; “Jew. World,” Nov. 16, 1888)

“As the year of the Shmita, 5649, is drawing nigh, we inform our brethren the colonists that, according to our religion, they are not permitted to plow or sow or reap, or allow Gentiles to perform these agricultural operations on their fields (except such work as may be necessary to keep the trees in a healthy state, which is legally permitted). Inasmuch as the colonists have hitherto endeavored to obey God’s law, they will, we trust, not violate this Biblical command.”

An appeal, signed by prominent Jews in Jerusalem, for funds to enable the colonists to observe the Shmita was directed to the Jews outside the Holy Land. Dr. Hildesheim as president of the society Lema’an Ziyyon, in Frankfort-on-the-Main, collected donations for this purpose. Baron Edmond de Rothschild, being informed by Rabbi Diskin that the law of Shmita is valid, ordered the colonists under his protection in Palestine to cease work during the Sabbatical year.

Heter Mechira literally means ‘Permit of Sale.’ Heter Mechira allows for the symbolic selling of agricultural land to a non-Jew, for the one-year Shmita period. Once the ownership of land has been transferred to someone who is not Jewish, the laws of Shmita no longer apply to the land itself, and food can be grown on it. While the state of Israel has developed a successfully strong and secure agricultural sector since its early pioneer days and the initial use of Heter Mechira, this method of symbolic land transfer is still the normative practice on a Shmita Year.

Questions for discussion:

What are arguments for and against Heter Mechira? Agriculturally? Economically? Spiritually? In early times and in our current era?

If you had been an early settler in Israel, would you agree with Rabbi Spector or Baron de Rothschild? If you lived outside of Israel, would you have contributed to Dr. Hildesheim’s campaign?

Rav Kook (Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi, Israel, 1921-35)
This is merely a temporary measure that we implemented only because of the overwhelming need to do so. God forbid that one should consider annulling a great and central mitzvah [commandment] such as the holiness of the Shmita unless it is a matter of life and death, such that if we do not sell the land, many will die of starvation and the fledging new Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisrael will be destroyed. However, at a time that a competent Beit Din [Jewish Court] will conclude that the sale is not necessary and that the nation can observe Shmita without endangering lives, then God forbid that the sale should take place in such circumstances.

Questions for discussion:

Compare this text with Rav Kook’s writings in section 4, source #7.

What tensions does he feel around the observance of Shmita? What was at stake?

For further reference to the concerns around Heter Mechira, read an excerpt of a letter from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, dated from 1958, over 20 years after Rav Kook’s time:

Chief Rabbinate of Israel (1958)
As we approach the Shmita Year 5719 we solemnly declare that it is our aim to uphold the laws of the Shmita Year in all their details. Unfortunately, however, the prevailing circumstances force us to make use again—as a temporary measure—of the Heter Mechirah in accordance with the practice of our learned and pious predecessors of blessed memory. The Heter is granted to all those who signed the prepared authorization. Detailed instructions as to the kinds of work permitted or forbidden during the Shmita Year will be given in due course by the Chief Rabbinate. May the Almighty in His great mercy hasten the time of our complete redemption so that we may be privileged to observe the laws of Shmita and Yovel in their entirety, as well as the other laws referring to the soil of the Holy Land, including those referring to the Holy Temple. May it be rebuilt speedily in our days. Amen.

3. Modern Tensions

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, Yeshivat Har Etzion, Israel (1973)

Those who do not wish to rely on this Heter Mechira have the option of going to the trouble of importing produce from abroad. If they [believe] that the holiness of Shmita does not apply to produce grown by a non-Jew…they may purchase produce from the fields cultivate by Arabs. But what of this running to a lone fruit and vegetable seller in order to pay exorbitant prices for the produce grown by non-Jews, when the people buying are so annoyed by the trip and expenses, on the one hand, and half-proud of themselves for their ‘great righteousness,’ on the other? What has this to do with the biblical rule that “you may eat whatever the land produces during its Sabbath”? Is there any recognizable connection between this pride [of buying kosher Shmita produce] and the feeling of man’s subservience and the Creator’s supremacy, which lies at the heart of the mitzvah of Shmita? Among those who are punctilious about observing the prohibition on uncultivated produce, how many of them accept and live the Shmita Year in simple joy, as opposed to the many who are waiting, with all but bated breath, for it to end?

Questions for discussion:

Rabbi Lichtenstein is highlighting the stress and paradox that the Shmita Year brings up. Those who do follow the laws in a modern context seem quite removed from the original intention of the law.

Do you think observance of the laws of Shmita without a connection to the original intention of the law serves any value?

Should this be pursued even if it is causing wider tension on a societal level?

Rabbi David Golinkin, Jerusalem (1985)

[This excerpt is from extensive halachic teshuva/responsa on the question of observing Shmita in modern times.] The mitzvah of Shmita was intended for a simple agricultural society. Most Jews in the Land of Israel in biblical and Talmudic times grew the food they required. During the Shmita Year, it was relatively easy to stop working the land and eat whatever grew on its own. The crops in the field were left unclaimed, and the poor and the city dwellers could come and eat. If we lived in such a society today, we could probably observe the mitzvah of Shmita as it was legislated. But, today, 95% of the country’s inhabitants live in cities, far from food sources. If all the kibbutzim and moshavim observed Shmita as it was legislated, a life-threatening situation would develop. In addition, at the present time, most of Israel’s agricultural produce is destined for export. Agrexco – the Israel Agricultural Export Company – exports 4 billion shekels* (~1 billion dollars) of produce every year. If all the farmers were to observe the mitzvah of Shmita according to biblical law, Israeli agriculture would collapse and this could bring disaster to the State of Israel… If sowing in the seventh year was allowed in order to pay taxes, it is even more justified to allow this to ensure the livelihood of tens of thousands of Jewish farmers and in order to ensure the economic viability of the State of Israel!
​​​​​​​*Israel had over 2.2 billion in agriculture exports in 2018.

Questions for discussion:

Do you agree that Shmita is only relevant to a rural agricultural society, where most people were engaged in land cultivation and food production? Since our modern societies today are predominantly urban, should Shmita no longer be
an obligation?

To learn more about the leniencies of Shmita practice during Temple times due to taxes, see section 2, source #5.

4. Shmita in Israel Today

As Farmers and Fields Rest, a Land Grows Restless, Steven Erlanger, NY Times Oct. 7, 2007

As Israel’s Jews start a new year, the country finds itself in the middle of a fierce religious dispute about the sanctity of fruits and vegetables. Rabbis are pitted against one another, the state and the religious authorities are in conflict, the Israeli Supreme Court is involved, the devout are confused and the cost of produce is rising. And a country in love with flowers and proud of “making the desert bloom,” in its own disputatious way, is letting much of its land go to seed. This year, 5768 by the Jewish calendar, is a Shmita, or sabbatical year…
That presumably worked fine in a primitive economy before decent fertilizer, but Shmita presented problems for the new Jewish state. Zionism was founded on the notion of a return to the land, but a modern country cannot live on what falls to the ground.

In Israel, It’s Temple vs. State Over Farming, Ashraf Khalil, Los Angeles Times Dec. 7, 2007

Yochay Sorok and thousands of his fellow farmers should be taking the year off right now, allowing their land, and themselves, to rest in observance of a Jewish tradition that dates to Leviticus. But Sorok, customer relations manager for the Chubeza organic farm outside Jerusalem, is working—as are the vast majority of Israeli farmers. Just before the start of the Jewish New Year on Sept. 13, Sorok signed papers at the offices of his local chief rabbi, technically selling the farm to a non-Jew. He never met his farm’s “buyer” and doesn’t need to. Next September, the purchase check will be torn up and everything will return to normal. “It’s a trick. But it’s a smart trick,” Sorok said of the nominal land sale. “That’s the Jewish way of dealing with the Torah. You reinterpret—not for small, selfish reasons but for good reasons... Giving people a living is a higher cause.”

Mitzva Makers, Michal Lando, Jerusalem Post, July 24, 2007

Every seven years, an increasing number of farmers defy economic logic and leave their lands fallow for the agricultural sabbatical. In the 1950s and '60s, only about 1,000 dunams (250 acres) of land lay fallow. Seven years ago, in 2001, it was about 220,000 dunams. And next year, 3,000-3,500 farmers will observe shmita, and 400,000 dunams will lie fallow, according to Keren Shvi'it. "This is very exciting," said Rabbi Shmuel Bloom, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America. "We are hopeful that with the proper support, close to 40 percent of arable land in Israel will be resting this year." Over the last few decades agriculture in Israel has moved from a mom-and-pop based system, in which individual families tilled a plot of land, to one made up of large-scale operators who work thousands of dunams. On his recent visit in preparation for the coming shmita, Bloom said he spoke to farmers who gross $1.5 million a year who were willing to shut down operations for Shmita.

Questions for discussion:

If you were a farmer in Israel, what would your approach be during the Shmita Year? And if you were a consumer? What would you add to this debate, if anything?

Do you think Shmita is meant to be followed by the strict letter of the law or should it be adapted for modern times?

Beyond Heter Mechira, these are other creative approaches practiced in Israel today in relationship to Shmita:

  • Otzar Beit Din: The Rabbinic Court ‘hires’ a farmer to supply them with permissible foods during the Shmita Year. In buying this food, the court remains within the boundaries of religious law, as they are paying the farmer only for his time as a ‘worker’ of the court, and not for the actual food that he is providing. The next step is getting the food to the customer. Before the Shmita Year, stores sign up as in the court’s distribution system, paying for ‘membership’ rather than for the food they are receiving. In this way, no food is actually being sold even though harvests are still being distributed through the networks of the modern marketplace. (For the original model of Otzar Beit Din, see section 2, source #8.)
  • Shmita Farming: Foods which are permissible to be harvested during the Shmita Year are perennial harvests (fruits, nuts, vine crops, herbs). Foods which are permissible to be cultivated are those grown in systems which are not directly touching the ‘land’ of Israel, such as raised beds and hydroponics. Lastly, foods grown outside of the biblical borders of Israel, e.g. farms in the Golan and the Negev, are not affected by the laws of Shmita.
  • Leaving The Land Fallow: Keren HaShvi’it is a public fund established in Israel to raise money for religious farmers who choose to follow the practices of the Shmita Year. This fund provides the farmers with financial support to compensate for lost income. In addition, they also offer guidance and advice to make sure the farmers fully understand how they can best prepare for the Shmita (focus on storage crops, perennial plants) and what agricultural practices they can continue with, once the Shmita Year has arrived.
  • Debt Release: Keren Nediveh Aretz is a public loan amnesty fund, established to help bail out those in debt. This fund raises money which is distributed, as a loan, towards the end of the Shmita Year, to specific individuals the fund is working with. At the end of the Shmita Year, the ‘loan’ is forfeited, and the recipient uses this money to pay back his or her remaining debts.

Closing questions for discussion:

As Israel further develops as a Jewish country, there is the opportunity and challenges of building modern systems, rooted in practical halachot. Where should we celebrate and invest in this opportunity? And where should we develop separations to keep a healthy balance?

Is Shmita today a question primarily for Israel, or is this a system that we should consider adopting internationally, for all Jewish communities? What might Shmita look like outside of Israel?

How might Jewish communities in the Diaspora play a role in supporting the rise of the Shmita practice in Israel today?

Shmita Yisraeli: The Israel Shmita Initiative
The fringe has made its way into the status quo. The social justice protests of the summer of 2011 heralded a growing (and, some would say, unusually mainstream) openness to questioning the social order, economic system, and political power structure in Israel. In this new reality, it is par for the course to hear ordinary Israelis discussing complex social and environmental issues. Even better, many are even beginning to talk about why it is a “Jewish thing” to work for change.
This is an amazing achievement. However, even if we could say “mission accomplished” on a certain stage in Israel’s societal evolution, it seemed clear to me that we are ready to take the conversation one step further…The 5775 Shmita year is timed perfectly to be just the sort of catalyst and medium Israeli society needs right now.
The Torah relates to Shmita primarily in the context of an agricultural society. But a contemporary approach understands Shmita as a lens through which to address pressing issues in the realms of education, social equity, culture, industry, and more.
Clearly, the above-described ideal has not yet caught on in the modern State of Israel. Instead, Shmita has become mired in legal, political, and economic issues that obscure its historical and ethical origins. For most Israelis, the topic of Shmita has been relegated either to the kitchen (kashrut observers must choose between a complex set of Shmita standards) or the garden (when am I allowed to cut the grass?!). The fierce debates around these issues not only exacerbate tensions between the secular and religious communities, but also detract from the underlying significance of Shmita.
It is time that we transcend these conflicts, and return Shmita to its rightful place in Jewish life – as a once-in-seven-years chance for reflection and rejuvenation in all sectors of society.
Einat Kramer, Times of Israel, The Next Chapter in the Social Change Movement:
Israeli Shmita, February 25, 2014

The Israel Shmita Declaration
The ancient mandate of Shmita obligates all farmers in the Land of Israel, once every seven years, to leave their fields fallow, relinquish ownership of the produce, let the soil rest, and enable all people (and animals, both wild and domestic) to take part in the land’s blessing. During this year, financial debts are cancelled, and people receive the opportunity to start over in a new period of financial and social freedom.
During Shmita, property assumes less importance, time is less pressured, and nature becomes much more than a resource to be exploited. Shmita presents an alternative to the race of modern life and is characterized by love of the people and Land of Israel, a heightened sense of social responsibility, and a framework for environmental practice. Shmita invites us to renew quality of life in all spheres of reality, through a unique public effort.

  • It is a year of social involvement, spiritual and ethical renewal, and environmental reflection.
  • It is a year of brotherhood and sisterhood, culture, spirit, family, and community.
  • It is a gateway in time, once in seven years, to renew the covenant between humans and earth.
  • It is a year that leaves a distinct impression on the subsequent six years.

Recognizing that the values of Shmita are fundamental to education in Israel, and with an understanding that with the return of the Jewish people to Zion, the Shmita year can now be actualized, we, the undersigned, seek to revitalize the Shmita year and establish it as a year of individual, social, communal, and national significance.

The discussion continues in section 6!