Israel, Justice, Religion

The seventh year

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 “ãøåù å÷áì ùëø” (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?

19 thoughts on “The seventh year

  1. I know for a fact there are for sure many many many people who leave their fields “hefker” as it were because i lived there for a year and we went etrog picking at some of these fields.

  2. Being in the states, I’ve been thinking more about the financial laws of shmita, specifically personal debts.
    I’ve decided not to sign a prozbul this year– don’t get me wrong, it’s a fine invention designed to help people– but I don’t need it, so I decided to avoid the loophole and experience the halacha. There is at least one debt that I’m letting go, and it’s such a relief.

  3. “I’m convinced that shemitah as originally conceived is unsustainable without outside help …and so I don’t plan to pay any attention…”
    But maybe that’s the point. Jews shouldn’t be a sustainable society, to live alone without outside help. We are a part of the entire human world, and we should be aspiring to create a society that is intertwined with others, where they support us and we support them. That’s Torah worth following. And it’s not just idealism – it’s the only way to create a people and a world that can *really* survive.

  4. what happened to some of the reasoning behind shmita? that g-d is the source of all, whether we work or not. I say trust in Him, if he says not to farm for a year, then we shouldnt farm for a year… g-d isnt something that gets ‘outdated’

  5. We are a part of the entire human world, and we should be aspiring to create a society that is intertwined with others, where they support us and we support them.
    So if anything, I would expect dependence on non-Jews to be greater in countries where Jews are in the minority, yet shemita only applies in the one country where Jews are in the majority. I’m not sure what to make of that.

  6. 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 Heter has actually been operative since 1889, even before its famous defence by Rav Kook in 1925. You can see correspondence regarding the first heter here.
    The masorti movement in Israel ruled according to a group of provencal authorities who understood shemittah to be completely inoperative at “this time” (bazman hazeh). But the problem is one of supply – not demand. Even if you chose to eat all the “treif” vegetables in the world, you’d be hard-pressed to find any.

  7. Sustainable or not sustainable, the idea is simply radical. The loopholes and rulings of Rabbinates are all highly economically motivated, as is the case with many (most) issues of Kashrut. Shmitah seems to be trying to teach us the exact opposite – that there can be at least an attempt at freeing the society temporarily from the drives of production.
    In our overwhelmingly capitalistic societies and their bureaucracies, Shmitah will most certainly be no match for these drives. But there are maybe radical shmita-dik steps we can take in our personal lives. Here are some ideas from friends at Nesiya.

  8. Note: If one accepts that deuteronomy is of later provenance than leviticus, then leviticus (and exodus) which describes an agricultural sabbatical reflected an agricultural economy, whereas deuteronomy which describes shmittah as a financial sabbatical of debts reflects a different, more commercially developed society in which the earlier laws were even in Josiah’s time not practical.
    I recall hearing from a secular kibbutz family that haredim sneak into their orchards in sabbatical years to make sure they don’t grow anything, and during regular years to tithe the produce.
    I will check in berkovits’s book, but his answer was probably along the lines of “talmud eruvin states that shmita may be raised in cases of economic necessity, kal vahomer, and because we shouldn’t rely on non-jews, and should be self-sustaining, we should just declare shmita not applicable.” aqirah iqar min ha-torah and all that
    Lastly, from an ANE perspective, it seems that shmita and dror/yovel were practiced by assyrian kings at times determined by the king. God as king specified 7 and 50 years regularly.

  9. I recall hearing from a secular kibbutz family that haredim sneak into their orchards in sabbatical years to make sure they don’t grow anything, and during regular years to tithe the produce.
    Sounds like classic kibbutznick anti-haredi diatribe to me. You can’t tithe produce on trees, and there’s nothing wrong with growing fruit on trees during shmitta – its planting and sowing that’s prohibited.

  10. agreed with Amit– that sounds fishy.
    Also, either the kibbutz is under rabbinic supervision– in which case unannounced visits are often par for the course– or it isn’t, in which case there’s no reason to inspect.

  11. Rebecca, about your decision not to sign a prosbul, remember that your bank account is also a loan – to your bank. Since the bank doesn’t technically exist (its a limited liability company – a legal fiction – then maybe the laws of shmitta don’t apply to it. But maybe they do, and then your use of your bank account would be stealing (again, from the legal finction called “the bank”, or perhaps from the individual shareholders). A simpler solution would be to sign a prosbul next Rosh Hashana, when the shmitta happens (ùáéòéú îùîèú áñåôä) and explicitly exclude certain loans, or just include your bank account.

  12. A few comments, which I may expound upon on the Jew and the Carrot…
    OJ brings up a good point about the possible historical context of shmitta- when societies changed from hunting/gathering to those that grow food, they realized that they needed to rotate the land in order for it to continue to produce.
    On that note, I’d like to beg the question if it really is unsustainable? Perhaps one of the goals of shemitta, in forcing “us” to give up complete control of the land is to force us to plan ahead and save in the good years. Obviously this doesn’t work very well for perishable commodities, but it does work for some, and is a principle that would do a lot of good to revive in the U.S. as well, especially as global warming will bring about more extreme weather conditions, resulting in greater bumper crops and greater shortages.

  13. I’m no expert, and someone will probably come up with an alternate means of surviving the year when you are not allowed to farm, but from my own personal studies of the Old Testament it would seem that we are to take the example of the Israelites roaming the desert who were not allowed to gather mana on the Sabbath but were commanded to gather twice as much on the day before to carry them through. Putting away your excess production in the years preceding the seventh year would seem to be the solution to the problem of not having any food in the fields in the seventh year without violating any scriptural principles. And you also have fruits and vegetables that would grow even without being attended to help spread the food supply further. The key is to realize that you are not to labor in the field in the seventh year. That which grows without human assistance can still be eaten, though you would likely have to wait for it to fall from the tree, vine or bush on it’s own since harvesting it would be labor. Gleaning the fields of that which falls to the ground or is left behind after the harvest is always allowed.

  14. I’m wondering whether there may be a recipe for freedom in this Teaching. How free a people would we be, and how immune to oppressive control over our food supplies, if we were all capable, and practiced every 7th year, foraging techniques. How much more often would we plant wild edibles during the next 6 years, after we’d experienced the good of plants that spring forth on their own?
    Maybe it wasn’t so very impossible, but maybe it was a different kind of farming: forest-gardening.
    Look it up on Youtube. It’s making a come-back 😉

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