Tomorrow night is the beginning of the year 5768, which the math people among us probably realized is divisible by 7. This means that here in Eretz Yisrael, this is not just any old Rosh Hashanah, but the beginning of the shemitah year, the seventh year of the seven-year cycle.
Like the other agricultural commandments, shemitah is observed only in the land of Israel. The Torah says that during this sabbatical year, no crops should be planted and no agricultural labor should be done. The land gets a Shabbat, and people may eat only the produce that grows anyway, which becomes hefker (ownerless).
I don’t know enough about agriculture to know whether it was possible 2000 years ago, with Israel’s lower population density (lower than today, but higher than during the hunter-gatherer era), to subsist without agricultural production. I do know that it’s not possible today, with a much higher population, to observe shemitah the way the Torah describes it (which may or may not have ever been observed) without relying on loopholes.
This last point is, as far as I know, uncontested. The current controversy over shemitah is about which loopholes are ok to use. Since the beginning of the state, the Chief Rabbinate has relied on the “heter mechirah” (permission to sell), and has sold all the farmland in Israel to Arabs. The reasoning is that the restrictions of shemitah no longer apply if the land is owned by a non-Jew, so the farmers can go on producing and selling their crops as usual. However, not everyone accepts heter mechirah. In particular, the haredi kashrut certifying agencies do not, and they will only permit imported produce (which is grown outside Israel, and therefore not subject to shemitah).
There has been much excitement recently, because the Chief Rabbinate declared this year that individual municipal rabbinates may decide not to accept heter mechirah, and thus, not to grant kashrut certification to stores and restaurants that use Israeli produce (rather than solely imported produce). The rabbinates of several major cities (including Jerusalem) has opted for this, and if they get their way, then stores and restaurants in those cities will have to choose between importing all their produce or losing their kashrut certification. A court case is in progress; the latest is that the Supreme Court has given the Chief Rabbinate a week to reconsider its policy. We’ll have to wait and see what happens.
Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits wrote in Not In Heaven that whether or not you hold by heter mechirah, both approaches are problematic: if the State of Israel is to be a self-sustaining Jewish society, then it should neither depend on selling the land to non-Jews nor on buying all of its produce from other countries. It’s been a long time since I read it, and I don’t have the book available, so I don’t remember what practical conclusion he reaches from this.
As the shemitah year is about to begin, I’m left wondering how I should relate to it. I’m convinced that shemitah as originally conceived is unsustainable without outside help (and may or may not have ever been sustainable), and so I don’t plan to pay any attention to whether the produce I buy is coming from certified sources.
Separate from any actual observances, there are plenty of valuable messages from shemitah: the idea of Shabbat on a longer timescale, mandating rest both for people and for the land; recognition of human impact on the environment; etc. But these are messages that can be picked up just by reading about it, without necessarily doing anything about it, just like we can learn something by reading about sacrifices, which all agree are not observed today. So is shemitah just about “Ã£Ã¸Ã¥Ã¹ Ã¥Ã·Ã¡Ã¬ Ã¹Ã«Ã¸” (study it, and receive a reward)? Is there anything specific that I can do (in thought or action) in regard to shemitah that is specific to this time (the 7th year) and place (Israel)?
A few weeks ago, when I was still in New York, I was in a Jewish bookstore and saw a “practical guide to shemitah” on display. I was thumbing through it and saw a part that said that when saying the shehecheyanu blessing after lighting candles on this Rosh Hashanah, one should have the kavanah (intention) to accept the shemitah year on oneself. What is that kavanah for us this year?