Much Ado About Shmita

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The article below appeared in Haaretz earlier this week, under the title “When Orthodox Jews boycott Israeli produce.”

The “ultra-Orthodox” are at it again. This time they’re aiding and abetting the BDS movement.

Well, not intentionally perhaps, but still. An early welcome to 5775!

The Jewish year about to begin, of course, is a shmita, or “Sabbatical,” year, and its implications are sticking in the craw of some non-ultra-Orthodox Jews.

A bit of background: The Torah enjoins Jews privileged to live in the Holy Land to not till or plant during each seventh year. What grows of its own is to be treated as ownerless and may not be sold. The law is viewed as an expression of ultimate trust in G-d

When substantial numbers of Jews began to return to Eretz Yisrael in the 19th century, some of the pioneering Jewish farmers endeavored to observe shmita; most, though, living in deep poverty, did not. As a result, in 1896, religious leaders, including respected Haredi rabbis, approved a plan whereby land owned by Jews was legally transferred to the possession of Arabs for the duration of the shmita year, technically transforming Jewish farmers into sharecroppers and, with some conditions, permitting cultivation of the land.

During subsequent shmita years, many farmers continued to rely on that “sale permission” or “heter mechira.” And when the State of Israel was created, the official state Rabbinate endorsed it as well.

In subsequent years, however, a few farmers, seeing the heter mechira as a temporary measure, moreover a legally dubious one (unlike selling chametz for Pesach, which is a full and enforceable sale) and not enamored of the idea of even nominally selling tracts of Eretz Yisrael to non-Jews, opted to not rely on it. They chose to observe shmita in its original way, allowing their fields to lie fallow and relying on other income or charity (i.e. ultimately, on God), to make it through the months when they could not farm and sell produce. As a result, in the 1950s and 1960s, about 250 acres of land “rested,” as per the Biblical injunction.

This coming year, tens of thousands of acres will lie fallow, as more than 3,000 farmers (up from 2383 seven years ago during the last cycle) will be observing shmita, aided in their effort by an organization known as Keren Hashviis, and by their faith in the Torah.

Here in North America, every major Orthodox kashrut-certification agency, including the centrist Orthodox Union, approves Israeli produce only if it hews to that stricter, non-heter mechira, shmitah standard. So there is little discussion here in the American Orthodox community about the heter mechira.

Seven years ago, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate declared that while it still validated the heter mechira, it would, for the first time, permit municipal rabbis in Israel’s towns and cities, when issuing kashrut certifications, to decide for their localities whether to rely on the heter or not.

From the reaction at the time, one would have thought that the Chief Rabbis had declared an extra Sabbatical year rather than simply taken a pluralistic stance on religious standards. Israel’s agriculture minister at the time, Shalom Simhon, threatened to outlaw products from Arab-owned land in Israel in a bid to force Haredim to comply with the heter mechira. Media like the New York Jewish Week wrongly described the new policy as some sort of prohibition. (Even in cities hewing to the stricter standard in kosher certification, nothing prevented a vendor from selling lower-shmita-standard produce – or any produce – and more cheaply than the rabbinically-sanctioned fruits and vegetables.)

But jaundiced eyes saw only Haredi Jews poisoning Jewish wells. Writer Hillel Halkin risibly asserted at the time that “There are, after all, no farmers in the ultra-Orthodox community.” Only, he continued, “plenty of rabbis and kashrut supervisors who will find jobs making sure that Jewish-grown fruits and vegetables are not, God forbid, being smuggled into the diet of unsuspecting Israelis.”

It was a strange picture: Observers otherwise enamored of ecological and liberal ideals were outraged at the prospect of leaving nature alone, of providing Arabs with extra income and of permitting individual rabbis to rule in accordance with their consciences.

This shmita year, in the wake of the most recent Gaza war, an even-more-forlorn-than usual peace process and a growing worldwide boycott movement against Israel, the grousing, somewhat understandably, has been renewed.

Talking head David Weinberg, for instance, bemoans that “Orthodox Jews who impose on themselves stricter standards of shmita observance… get through the shmita year primarily by buying Arab-grown produce or expensive foreign produce. This summer, the various Badatz kashrut organizations of the haredi world have been busy signing produce-supply contracts with Palestinian Authority farmers.”

Although he begrudgingly acknowledges that Haredim have the “right” to their choice (thank you kindly), he says it “infuriates” him. “Primary reliance on Arab produce,” he declares “is neither realistic nor acceptable, for health, nationalistic and religious reasons.”

No health problems, to my knowledge, have been associated with Arab produce (though all fruits and vegetables should be thoroughly washed before being consumed!) Regarding nationalism, Mr. Weinberg is entitled to his definition of the concept, although opposing business dealings with Arabs is a rather questionable defining element of Zionism. As to religious reasons, though, well, he needs to allow others their definitions too.

Truth be told, the contretemps is just a manifestation of the fact that Haredim live in a different universe from many of their fellow Jews. Yes, we’re all part of Klal Yisrael. But whereas people like Messrs. Halkin and Weinberg see Israel’s wellbeing as tied to economics and national pride, Haredim see things radically differently. To us, what protects, secures and supports Jews in the Jewish land, and everywhere, is dedication to the Torah.

Some see the thriving Jewish society on the ancient Jewish land as the result of military prowess and political acumen. Others, though, see it as evidence of subtle miracles. And while the former may regard shmita observance as a problematic relic of a long-gone past, the others perceive it as a key to the ultimate protection of all Jews.

Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as Agudath Israel of America’s director of public affairs and blogs at www.rabbiavishafran.com. His most recent collection of essays is entitled “It’s All in the Angle” (Judaica Press, 2012).  

© 2014 Haaretz