For Orthodox Jews, the Holy Land takes on a new dimension of meaning in the shmita (sabbatical) year. The land literally becomes holy. So does anything grown in it. In the books of Exodus (chapter 23) and Leviticus (chapter 25), God commands the Jews to "let the land rest" every seventh year. And at the end of Leviticus (chapter 26), He issues a chilling warning: If Jews do not let the land rest of their own accord, they will be forcibly exiled so that the land gets the rest it deserves.
Orthodox Jews living in Israel take this warning seriously. For instance, Ya'acov Pindeross, mayor of the haredi settlement of Betar Illit, reflecting the belief of many haredim, once said, "I believe keeping shmita protects us in the Land of Israel more than a thousand fighter jets or 10 battalions of soldiers." If you want to stay in the Holy Land you must respect its holiness.
But how does a Jew remain faithful to God without being deprived of fruits and vegetables? And how does a secular Jew get a decent salad in the shmita year? Four different, and sometimes contradictory, approaches - heter mechira, Otzar Ha'aretz, Eda Haredit and mehadrin - will be examined. Each has its own ideological idiosyncrasies, challenges and group of supporters.
There is no synagogue on Kibbutz Mishmar Ha'emek, no mikve (ritual bath) and no Torah scroll. The kibbutz performs its own funerals: no rabbis, no kaddish, no tallitot - bodies are buried in caskets. Food served in the cafeteria is not kosher.
Nevertheless, the kibbutz, under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate and out of deference to Jewish law, is selling every single one of its 6,000 dunams (1,500 acres) of corn, wheat and cotton to Hemda Ganem, a Druse who is a colonel in the IDF reserves.
"I do not identify with the religious and their shmita," says Amos Arzi, the kibbutz's administrator. "But the rabbinate's demands don't hurt the kibbutz's profits. So I have no problem fulfilling them." Although Arzi declines to say so, Mishmar Ha'emek, which sells exclusively to the local market, cannot ignore the rabbinate. It needs the business of the large retail chains and frozen vegetable marketers, all under kashrut supervision. God may not be in the equation for Arzi, but a simple economic calculation is.
However, Imri Ron, a former MK and administrator of Mishmar Ha'emek, resents having to adhere to what he calls "anachronistic rabbinic law." Like the secular founders of the country, Ron, who heads a splinter group within the kibbutz movement that has fought to maintain its socialist, cooperative institutions, believes the rabbinical encroachment on agriculture is inimical to the modern Zionist state.
"Adhering to these ancient laws does not make us a light unto the nations," he says. "It is difficult enough to make a profit in agriculture today, especially in a state that refuses to allot enough green space. Now those religious with their shmita nonsense are threatening to take away what little profit we do make. For whom precisely are we making all these sacrifices?" Judging from Ron's irate complaints, adhering to the directives of the rabbis is quite difficult. But in reality heter mechira - literally "consent through sale" - makes it relatively simple to get around the numerous restrictions imposed on agricultural activity in the shmita year. First implemented in the shmita year of 1888 by Rabbi Samuel Mohilever and other Hovevei Zion rabbis to save Jewish farmers from famine, heter mechira involves selling Jewish-owned land to a gentile for the shmita year.
Once ownership is transferred, the land is no longer governed by many of the restrictive laws of shmita. For instance, at Mishmar Ha'emek, after Arzi signs the 20-page sales contract provided by Rabbi Ze'ev Weitman, in charge of implementing heter mechira for the Chief Rabbinate, ownership of 1.75 million dunams of fields will be transferred to Ganem in exchange for a down payment of NIS 70 billion. After the "sale," corn and wheat that grow in the kibbutz's fields can be eaten. If not for the sale, anything that began growing during the shmita year would be forbidden for consumption.
Heter mechira permits the consumption of produce grown in the Land of Israel during the shmita year. However, it does not remove the prohibitions on Jews against plowing, sowing or harvesting. At Mishmar Ha'emek, farmers will probably disregard these prohibitions. But, according to Weitman, 90 percent of the field work on kibbutzim and moshavim is done by non-Jews anyway.
Heter mechira is by far the single largest kashrut supervision apparatus. At least 80% of the local produce will be sold in accordance with heter mechira in the shmita year, according to Yerahmiel Goldin, head of the Agriculture Ministry division responsible for shmita.
"Heter mechira is so easy to do it makes no sense not to do it," he says.
But according to Weitman, there are a few secular kibbutzim and moshavim that have so far refused to cooperate with the heter mechira. One of them is Nahalal, the country's oldest moshav. According to the directives of the Chief Rabbinate, every kibbutz and moshav interested in heter mechira must hold a vote among its members. At Nahalal members voted against; the measure is up for a revote.
"Farmers who opposed heter mechira don't need it to market their produce," says Mordechai Danieli secretary of the moshav. "I hope in the next vote, they will take into consideration the needs of the other members." While people like Ron and the members of Nahalal resent what they call the religious coercion of rabbis who push heter mechira, the Orthodox have a different gripe. They oppose rabbis like Weitman who help secular farmers skirt the biblical command to let the land rest.
For instance, Shaul Shif, a popular columnist at the religiously moderate daily Hatzofeh, recently published a letter written by Rabbi Yitzhak Brand warning against the spiritual dangers of heter mechira, which Shif prefaced with the message, "The faithful should heed these words."
"It is not a coincidence that the Yom Kippur War broke out after the shmita year," Brand wrote. "Nor is it a coincidence that the Oslo Accords were signed on the eve of a shmita year and that the Aksa intifada began on Rosh Hashana of a shmita year.
"Why did God punish us? Because we did not adhere to the laws of shmita; rather we sold the Land of Israel to gentiles thinking we were removing it from God's custody." Brand's position is not representative of the vast majority of religious Zionists, but the fact that his opinion received prominent coverage in Hatzofeh is proof that it resonates among some religious Zionist circles.
According to Weitman it is impossible to do away with heter mechira completely.
"I believe we can take major steps to reduce the amount of heter mechira," he says. "But we need enough rabbis who have the courage to find creative leniencies within the framework of the Halacha that would enable farmers to continue to grow in the shmita year."
"I decided early on to place my trust in God, not in human beings," says Ariel Porat, as he leans back in a padded, swivel chair in his air-conditioned office. "That, in a nutshell, is the lesson of shmita." Two years after he was evacuated from Gadid, a small settlement in the Gaza Strip, he is thankful that he is back on his feet. He is now farming about 30 dunams of greenhouses on Masuot Yitzhak, a religious moshav a few kilometers west of Kiryat Malachi. He also runs a nursery that supplies other farmers with seedlings of tomatoes, cucumbers, basil, celery and lettuce. The moshav is just a few kilometers from the religious Kibbutz Ein Tzurim, where Porat and dozens of other families removed from Gaza are living temporarily.
Porat belongs to an ideologically homogeneous group of Israelis who are both religious and Zionists. Porat and his peers believe the State of Israel, as vehicle for the ingathering of the exiles and with the military might to protect the sovereignty of the ingathered, has inherent sanctity. Disengagement flew in the face of the religious Zionist belief that the establishment of the State of Israel would lead to a gradual progression toward an inevitable redemption of the Jewish people.
He has not yet received any compensation from the state for being forcibly moved off his land in the Gaza Strip, but by using his future reparations as collateral, he swung a bank loan to fund investments of more than NIS 3 million in his new farm.
"I actually plan on doing better than average during the shmita year," Porat says. "I'm one of only three nurseries that grow seedlings using hydroponics." Hydroponics is a growing method that effectively detaches the growing thing from the holy Land of Israel. In the shmita year Israel's earth is sanctified, and anything that derives its life-giving force from that earth also is sanctified. A Jew is forbidden to nurture or tend to these growing things.
Rather, he or she is commanded to allow the land to rest.
Any annual crop that begins growing in land that belongs to a Jew during the shmita year is called sfihin - "that which grows spontaneously" - and is forbidden for consumption. The rabbis forbid sfihin out of concern that the farmer might clandestinely plant during the shmita year and claim it grew spontaneously. So the rabbis prohibited outright everything that started growing during shmita year in land owned by a Jew.
But there is a way of getting around these prohibitions. Instead of growing in the earth, seeds can be planted in a mineral and nutrient-free environment, such as sand, coconut shards or moss. Minerals and nutrients that the fledgling plants need to grow are injected into the irrigation system.
Portable flower pots are used to hold the seeds and the artificial soil. The flower pots are placed inside a greenhouse after the floor of the greenhouse is covered with two layers of plastic. The plastic effectively disconnects the plant in the flower pot from the ground.
The sfihin prohibition does not apply to vegetables that grow during the shmita year in land that belongs to a non-Jew. But the rabbis who run Otzar Ha'aretz are ideologically opposed to switching their demand for produce from Jews to Israeli Arabs, Palestinians or neighboring Arab states.
"We don't want a situation in which the Arab profits and gains strength during the shmita year," says Rabbi Yehuda Amichai, who heads the Institute for the Torah and the Land, which was uprooted from Kfar Darom, a former settlement in Gaza and reestablished in Ashkelon after disengagement. "We have an interest in supporting Jewish farmers only. Besides, Arabs take advantage of the shmita year to squat on Jewish-owned land that is left fallow." The nationalist tendency in Otzar Ha'aretz is what sets it apart from the haredi, non-Zionist or anti-Zionist kosher supervisions which all rely substantially on gentile-owned land, particularly in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. For someone like Porat, who was kicked out of Gaza, buying produce from Gazan farmers would be the ultimate humiliation.
Unlike heter mechira, Otzar Ha'aretz incorporates most of the stringencies adhered to by haredi kashrut supervisors. Special effort is made to avoid using heter mechira, which is looked at as a betrayal of the biblical command that in the seventh year the land should be left fallow.
Since the previous shmita year, there has been a steep rise in demand among religious Zionists for Otzar Ha'aretz kosher supervision. Last shmita year only a few hundred families joined (one must sign up and pay a monthly fee of NIS 50). Thousands of families have signed up.
The success of Otzar Ha'aretz is part of a wider haredization process affecting religious Zionists. Whereas religious Zionists used to be concerned with providing solutions that were applicable not only for themselves as Orthodox Jews, rather for the entire Jewish nation living in the Land of Israel (heter mechira is a perfect example of a halachic solution applicable for religious and secular alike), in the past decade religious Zionists, like haredim, have become less wiling to compromise on their religious principles for the sake of unity and, consequently have become more parochial and "enclavist."
A vociferous debate is taking place within the more right-wing religious Zionist circles about heter mechira. In the summer issue of Tzohar, a religious Zionist rabbinic periodical, religious Zionist rabbis debated what should be made top priority: strengthening Jewish farmers by relying on heter mechira or rejecting heter mechira and adopting a more stringent approach to the shmita year and preferring imports from Europe. A potato grown in Germany, for instance, would be preferable to a potato grown on Jewish land temporarily "sold" to Genan, the Druse colonel. Buying directly from an Arab farmer is not even a consideration.
The dilemma of choosing between imports and heter mechira becomes particularly acute toward the middle of the shmita year. For the first half of the year, it is relatively easy to avoid choosing between the two by relying on refrigerated produce grown in the sixth year, vegetables produced using hydroponics or crops grown south of the 30-degree latitude line (about where Kibbutz Grofit is located), just north of Eilat, which is considered outside the historical borders of Israel, and therefore unsanctified land. But around February or March refrigeration is depleted, hydroponics is too limited to keep up with demand and by May the south becomes so hot that it is impossible to grown anything there.
Otzar Ha'aretz plans to offer both options, imports and heter mechira, and consumers will be asked to choose. The details of how to market the two types of produce have not yet been ironed out. But the Otzar Ha'aretz ideal is to rely on farmers like Porat for their produce.
Porat, who immigrated from Strasbourg, France, at 18, says his faith in God helped him to recover so quickly from disengagement. He believes many farmers in a similar situation to his own still have not recovered because they were bitter and lacked a positive attitude for the future.
"Regardless of his religious background, every good farmer must be a man of faith. He knows not everything is in his own power. But he also understands that it is impossible to succeed in anything unless God helps."
"You Jews give the land a rest just like a man gives his wife a rest between births," jokes Saed Abu Nasser, a farmer in Baka al-Gharbiya, as he pushes a tray of cut watermelon at his guests - a group of haredi kashrut supervisors. "Luckily you have a substitute woman in the meantime." The supervisors, dressed in pressed white shirts with their suit jackets draped over the backs of their chairs, look at one another and laugh nervously.
Arab landowners like Abu Nasser make it possible for haredim to respect the sanctity of the Land of Israel in shmita year. Without men like him they would have to rely on imports. But the Agriculture Ministry is not so keen on exposing local farmers to foreign competition. And protecting local farmers takes priority over providing haredim with kosher produce. Even if the ministry were willing to open up the produce market to imports, Jordan, the most logical source of imports, is already doing tremendous business with the US forces in Iraq. Jordanians have no interest in selling to Israel at a much lower price. So the Eda Haredit, a fervently anti-Zionist conglomerate of hassidic courts and old-time haredim whose forefathers predate the State of Israel, needs men like Nasser.
The Eda Haredit adheres to the halachic opinion that a gentile who owns land in Israel abrogates the land's holiness. This is a centuries-old Jerusalem tradition that was famously supported by Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulhan Aruch.
According to Karo, a gentile who owns land in Israel creates an island of profaneness surrounded by a sea of sanctity. The Eda Haredit kashrut supervisors' job is to determine that the gentile farmer truly owns the land by verifying, for instance, that the land is registered in his name. If the land belongs to the gentile, fruits and vegetables that grow in that land have no sanctity whatsoever.
Even after determining that the gentile owns the land he works, the kashrut supervisor must make sure that the produce being sold by the gentile was actually grown in his land. There is a definite economic incentive for Jews interested in obtaining the higher prices offered for produce with haredi kosher supervision to falsely present produce as grown by a gentile. Jews do this by secretly transporting their produce into Arab towns. They then ship it out pretending that it was grown by an Arab farmer. To combat these attempts, kashrut supervisors must enter Arab-controlled areas to determine where the produce being sold was truly grown. But this can be dangerous. In 2001, the previous shmita year, Rabbi Aaron Abadian, a kashrut supervisor for the Chief Rabbinate, was shot to death in Baka al-Gharbiya's market. A kashrut supervisor makes an easy target for terrorists since he is highly visible and visits regularly.
To avoid these dangers the Eda Haredit is testing technology that would enable kashrut supervisors to oversee the various stages from harvest to transport without actually entering potentially dangerous Arab villages. The Arab farmer would use a camera, like the one contained in some cellphones, to relay pictures of the harvest to the kashrut supervisor who can follow the produce on his laptop screen. The Eda Haredit also uses a bulletproof car to enter dangerous areas when absolutely necessary.
Rabbi Meir Bergman, who heads the shmita supervision for the Eda Haredit, said it is still unclear whether it will be possible to use produce from the West Bank. "Especially after the Hamas takeover, Gaza will probably not be providing much. In fact Hamas has an interest in worsening the economic situation there to show the world how horribly Israel is treating them." Gaza is ideal from the point of view of Eda Haredit kosher supervisors.
Since the border is carefully guarded, any produce leaving Gaza was grown in Gaza in land owned by Gazans.
In previous shmita years, Arab farmers in the Gaza Strip supplied 70,000 tons of produce to the haredi market, according to data provided by the Agriculture Ministry's shmita department. This represents a large chunk of approximately 200,000 tons of produce consumed during the shmita year by haredim. In 2006, Israel produced a total of about 1.5 million tons of fruits and vegetables, 500,000 of which goes to industry.
Asked if he had any qualms about strengthening Palestinian farmers while shunning his fellow Jews, Bergman said that he was religiously obligated to adhere to shmita. "Our customs predate the State of Israel," he says.
"Unlike others who have created all sorts of new shmita laws, we at the Eda Haredit have not changed, just expanded. We are faithful to our beliefs." Bergman says it is hypocritical to shun Arab business in the shmita year.
"Every single year everyone buys freely from Arabs. Suddenly in the shmita year they decide not to. It makes no sense. If you want to boycott them do it all year round. Besides, we have been encouraged by Israeli Civil Administration officials in the West Bank to do business with Palestinians. When farmers bring home a nice living they do not take out their frustrations on us."
But Bergman, an eighth-generation Jerusalem resident who has a Yiddish accent, is quick to add that he is not left-wing in his political opinions.
"I do not love the Arabs like Peace Now do. I know that this land belongs to the Jewish people."
In the past few weeks Bergman has met several times with IDF officers in the Jordan Valley to discuss the security of kashrut supervisors who are forced to enter Palestinian villages. "We have demanded that IDF facilitate the movement of kashrut supervisors in the West Bank," he says. "They will share intelligence information with us so we will be warned about potentially dangerous situations in advance. Our supervisors will also be provided with a special panic button. In some cases soldiers will accompany us." Bergman dismisses the irony of a situation in which a virulently anti-Zionist organization such as the Eda Haredit demands military backup from the IDF.
"Listen, I am not much of an ideologue," says Bergman. "All I know is that the State of Israel is not willing to import enough to support haredi demand. So we have to rely on Arabs in the West Bank for produce. To do that we need the IDF's help."
M. will not grow chickpeas this year. Nor will he grow watermelon, corn, sunflowers or wheat, the crops he grows in a normal year. In fact, M. will not be growing anything this coming year. M., a self-defined haredi Jew who asked to remain anonymous ("I'm afraid of the evil eye") is faithful to God's demand to "let the land rest" despite the economic sacrifices this entails.
"We get a little help from the Agriculture Ministry and the Fund for Shmita Adherent Farmers," he says. "Still, it's tough. We live from hand to mouth. But I'm not complaining."
He says that for him heter mechira is not an option. "I was always taught that a God-fearing farmer should not rely on heter mechira. From my point of view it is as if you never kept shmita." A change in profession is not an option either. "I don't know anything else. For me farming is not just a livelihood, it's a part of my life. You develop sensitivities to the land that the average person does not have. You feel the differences in the soil, the changes in the weather; you know when rain is coming or when there will be drought."
M., 52, lives in Beit Hilkiya, established by Holocaust survivors from Hungary who identified with the now defunct Poalei Agudat Yisrael political party. PAI managed for a time, during the first decades after the establishment of the state, to fuse seemingly contradictory Jewish archetypes. The landless, wandering ghetto Jew turned bucolic took up the plowshare and made the Land of Israel flourish. The PAI farmer was both a punctiliously observant Orthodox Jew and a pioneering farmer. He had sidelocks and a beard, but he also had an affinity to the earth.
"Working the Land of Israel is a form of serving God," says M. "The work ties us to the land like a Jew ties himself to tefillin. But tefillin are not worn on Shabbat and a Jew does not work the land in the shmita year." But today PAI is defunct. The ideal of transforming the God-fearing shtetl Jew into a farmer has lost traction. Today at Beit Hilkiya, the number of residents who still make their living from farming has dwindled to just 15 to 20 out of 60 members. The largest, most prominent building in Beit Hilkiya is a multi-million dollar yeshiva established by the Belz Hassidic sect. The only time the young, unmarried yeshiva students in their long black coats can be seen outdoors is during the short walk from their bungalows to the yeshiva and back.
M. says technological and marketing changes over the years have made small farming impractical. Today fewer people are growing bigger crops. M. has taken over the plots of several members who left agriculture.
The residents of Beit Hilkiya adhere to the halachic approach of Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz (the Hazon Ish, 1878-1953). Karelitz, who arrived here in 1933, instituted a new set of laws governing the shmita year. Unlike the centuries-old customs of the haredi community of Jerusalem or Eda Haredit, which forbid any working of the land by Jews during the shmita year, Karelitz looked for novel ways to permit Jewish agriculture without relying on heter mechira.
For instance, he allowed Jews to plant non-perennial crops like tomatoes and cucumbers right before the beginning of the shmita year, even if they were harvested in the shmita year. Karelitz also permitted growing certain crops in detached flower pots that were placed inside greenhouses.
In addition, he instituted the use of Otzar Beit Din which made it possible for Jews to harvest perennial crops (apples, oranges, grapes, etc.) and distribute them without making a profit. The rabbinic court takes possession of the orchard and distributes the fruits for the farmer, charging a nominal fee to reimburse him for his expenses. The Eda Haredit does not recognize this as a legitimate solution.
But perhaps the most fundamental difference between the Eda Haredit and Karelitz was over the question of fruits and vegetables grown in land owned by gentiles. The Eda Haredit looks at land owned by gentiles as unsanctified, as if it were not a part of the Land of Israel. Karelitz, in contrast, held that when a gentile takes possession of land in Israel, he does not abrogate its inherent holiness.
Karelitz agreed with the Eda Haredit that there is no prohibition against eating crops that grow in land owned by a gentile. However, unlike the Eda Haredit, he was of the opinion that this produce is sanctified with the holiness of the shmita year. Therefore, it cannot be bought and sold as it is in a regular year. Rather, an elaborate system was set up in which the storeowner who supplies the fruits and vegetables becomes a proxy for the consumer. The consumer has to sign up in advance to be on the store owner's list. Everyone on the list appoints the storeowner as his representative to bring fruits and vegetables.
In the upcoming shmita year, numerous haredi kashrut supervisors will follow the rulings of Karelitz - Rabbi Yosef Efrati, Rabbi Moshe Yehuda Leib Landau, She'erit Yisrael, the Jerusalem Rabbinate, Beit Yosef and Otzar Ha'aretz. Although Eda Haredit is the single largest supervisor with about 40% of the haredi market, all these different supervisors combined make up more than half the produce market.
The majority of haredim and many religious Zionists believe, like Karelitz, that fruits and vegetables grown in the shmita year in the Land of Israel contain holiness. Therefore, they will have to be careful how they dispose of them during the shmita year. Because of their inherent holiness, they cannot simply be thrown out; this would be disrespectful. Instead, a special shmita garbage bin must be designated. Peels, soft pits and other edible parts of fruit and vegetables have to be placed in individual plastic bags and placed carefully in the shmita bin until they begin to rot.
Although Karelitz managed to find some solutions that allowed Jewish farmers to work in the shmita year, the vast majority of crops cannot be grown. This is true of anything that does not grow on a tree or cannot be grown in a greenhouse. As a result, despite Karelitz's good intentions, men like M. have no choice but to stop working in the shmita year.