Israel, Justice, Religion

The irony of shmita: making the poorest poorer

Exodus 23:10-11: “Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its produce, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave, the beasts of the field may eat. In like manner you shall do with your vineyard and your olive grove.”
This year is a shmita year, described above. It only applies in Eretz Yisrael. In modern Israel, the teleology of the shmita year (arguably to benefit the poor) seems to crash up against the halachic practice of the law: some of the country’s poorest are having to pay exorbitant prices for produce. The New York Times today has an article on it. [Note: heter mechira is the ruling that allows eating produce grown and harvested on the shmita year. See Kol Ra’ash Gadol’s recent pieces on the controversy of the rulings.]

The chief rabbinate, which controls the vital kosher certificates for food, declared this year that heter mechira was the rule, but it also said rabbis of local cities and towns could decide for themselves. The announcement resulted in confusion, anger, an unresolved suit before the Supreme Court, a rabbinical revolt and a declaration by the agriculture minister, Shalom Simhon, that he will forbid imports that compete with Israeli produce.
In Jerusalem, Israel’s poorest city, heter mechira is not supposed to be recognized. But while the Supreme Court is deciding on a petition against the chief rabbinate’s ruling, some supermarkets are selling produce under the heter mechira dispensation.
Since the ultra-Orthodox make up at least 30 percent of the city’s population, shops in areas like Geula and Mea Shearim are paying prices two or three times higher than normal for cucumbers and tomatoes grown only by non-Jews in the West Bank. The community is already among the poorest in Jerusalem, but the rulings of their rabbis matter far more to them than money.

But another group of rabbis relies on heter mechira to provide for the most needy, although you might say it’s more tied to building the State and overall economic viability.

Still, a group of younger Zionist rabbis, known as Tzohar, have announced that they will flout the chief rabbinate and issue heter mechira certificates in cities where the local rabbis will not. Rabbi Rafi Freuerstein, chairman of Tzohar, said: “We believe it is important to strengthen Jewish farmers and provide reasonably priced produce to the Jewish nation.” Rabbi David Stav of Tzohar said: “We are trying to save the chief rabbinate from itself.”

A gardener quoted in the article links his leaving his field to providing for the poor, in a way that seems to be closer to the meaning of the Torah.

Shlomi Taasa, another gardener who is religious, is less conflicted. “The main thing for me is that once in seven years, all people are the same. Whether you’re rich or poor, everything belongs to everyone, and in my garden, everyone can come and take the fruits that grow.”

Agricultural production today, it appears, is so removed from the people, fields, fruits, that the result is outrageous prices at the makolet instead of fruits and vegetables available for free. Sadly, the same can also be said of the halachic process as practiced in some circles.

15 thoughts on “The irony of shmita: making the poorest poorer

  1. “The shmita year also affects gardens — even second- and third-story balconies of potted plants.”
    Is this accurate? Even though the plants aren’t growing in the ground of Eretz Yisrael?

  2. I’m pretty sure than anything not literally in teh ground is exempt from shmita. This applies to raised beds, so all the more so to potted plants on any level.
    Although there probably is someone somewhere willing to be machmir/stringent on this.

  3. I have not learned this out inside so much, but my understanding is that even by non-machmir approaches, something must both be removed from the ground (and have no hole in the bottom of the pot, or be on top of non-penetrable tray or something) AND be cut off from recieving rain in order to be outside the halachic requirements of shemittah. More chumradik approaches forbid even this.

  4. Why is this required to be followed by the entire country during the same year?
    The law says “six years shall you sow your land”. If one has empty land and starts agricultural work on it six years after everyone else, that land should not have a sabbatical until that land has been sown for six years even if one’s neighbors will have their sabbatical year shortly.
    There are many regulations that are followed to be properly kosher. It would be extremely simple to also include a database of each producer and their specific sabbatical year. The rabbis can then go to one seventh of the sites each year to verify a lack of production instead of every site once every seven years.

  5. Is it defined that way somewhere else in the Torah, or is this in the Law passed by Israel, or rabbinic lore?
    I agree that this is a Shabbat for the land, but the verses quoted in the article gives no reason why all land must share the same shmita year. The verse says it takes place after six years of sowing. That verse doesn’t make any distinction as to only land in Israel must have a shmita in order to be kosher.

  6. Jason,
    The same thing could be said regarding shabbos b’chlal. 6 days of work followed by one of rest. I’ll start on Tuesday. But rabbinically it was decided that it would be counted from what was counted as the first day. Perhaps shemittah is counted the same way? I’m out of the country and don’t have access to my seforim to check it out. Anybody know this inside?

  7. The Rambam says that the shemitah count started with the first year of creation. (The yovel count is much more complicated, going on and off through different periods of history. Right now it’s off.)

  8. Jason:
    #1. I don’t think the modern state of Israel has a law dealing with shemitta.
    #2. The details of shemitta are determined, like everything else in traditional Jewish jurisprudence, through interpretation/clarification/enactments based on the spare Torah text, over the past 3000 years or so.
    #3. There’s a lot more to Shemitta than just letting your fields go fallow – there’s the cancelling of all debts, (hypothetical) indentured servants go free, etc.

  9. too much confusion!
    1. BZ – potted plants are a machloket rishonim and are probably hayyav derabbanan. However, since shmitta itself is derabbanan, they are pattur from shmitta altogether. The counting is also a machloket rishonim: the bavli seems to think counting started from the 14th year after the Israelites entered Palestine. It also happened to be a lucky coincidence (?) that the year was divisible by 7.
    2. CHillul – indentured slaves only leave on the 50th year. THe Hebrew slave works for six running years and then leaves the employer, shmitta notwithstanding.
    3. The state is the agent for selling the land to the non-Jew, so there are laws discussing shmitta.
    4. Jason – I don’t think you can take the Times, authoritative as it may be, and the verses it quotes, as a vaulting pole over many years of commentary and discussion.

  10. Reading the Rambam, BZ, I think you’re wrong. THe Rambam says that counting started from the 14th year after entering Palestine, which is year 305 after the rosh hashana after Adam was created (i.e. year 2).

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