With Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, just two days away, the biblical commandment to enact a sabbatical year from agricultural work will take center stage, not only in daily religious life, but in the lives of almost everyone in Israel.
More than 4,500 farmers and agricultural producers have technically sold their land and signed up to a series of stipulations from the Chief Rabbinate, and more than NIS 100 million has been allocated by the state to support farmers and deal with the costs of the sabbatical year.
This is because the new Jewish year of 5775 is the seventh year of the seven-year cycle known as the shmita, the sabbatical year, mentioned by the Torah. And although the overwhelming majority of farmers will not actually observe a sabbatical year for their land, the stipulations that enable them to continue farming and to stay within the boundaries of Jewish law affect farmers and consumers whether they are religious or not.
The ruling to allow Jewish farmers to sustain their agricultural output despite the requirements of the sabbatical year depends upon the opinion that the sabbatical year is only a rabbinic and not a Torah-level commandment in modern times. Selling the land, temporarily, to a non- Jew would then nullify the sanctity of the land, according to Halacha, for the duration of time it is not in Jewish ownership and thereby permits the land to be worked.
There are several options available to farmers and consumers for how to approach the sabbatical year and what fruits and vegetables to consume, as well as the possibility, and legal right, of simply disregarding the issue completely, which a handful of farmers have elected to do.
The overwhelming majority of farmers chose to sign up to the “heter mechira” system.
This entails the farmer, moshav, kibbutz or other land owners giving the Chief Rabbinate power of attorney over their land, which the rabbinate then formally sells to a non-Jew living in Israel.
Any land thus sold can be worked, but the Chief Rabbinate insists that the primary forms of agricultural work as defined by Jewish law, ploughing, sowing, pruning and harvesting, can only be done by non-Jewish laborers.
Fruits and vegetables grown through the “heter mechira” system are permitted for consumption by the Chief Rabbinate and other rabbis and rabbinical institutions, although many haredi (ultra-Orthodox) authorities prohibit the consumption of such produce.
Additionally, produce of the “heter mechira system” does not bear “sanctity of the seventh year,” as other fruits and vegetables sold through different methods in the shmita year do, and therefore waste from such food can be disposed of without concern for halachic requirements.
In total, some 4,656 farmers this year completed the necessary requirements in order to sell their land and therefore maintain agricultural activity, and are authorized by the Chief Rabbinate to supply fruits and vegetables to the market.
A separate system is the “otzar Beit Din” (Rabbinical Court storehouse), which exclusively applies to fruits.
In the “otzar Beit Din” method, farmers essentially lease their land to a local rabbinical court. The court appoints the farmer as its agent to conduct only the permitted agricultural work, and the farmer then transfers his produce to a warehouse belonging to the court in return for which he receives a wage as the court’s agent.
The court is responsible for distributing the produce to market but technically only collects money for distribution costs.
The third option for consumers is produce grown hydroponically – in containers using water and mineral nutrients but without soil.
Vegetables grown in this way inside hothouses are considered “disconnected from the ground” and are permitted for consumption by the Chief Rabbinate in the shmita year and do not bear the sanctity of the seventh year.
The third option for farmers is to allow the land to lie completely fallow and to observe the sabbatical year in the most literal sense.
Ceasing agricultural activity for an entire year imposes heavy financial costs on farmers through lost profit and the effect of not maintaining their arable land.
There are only a small number of farmers who have decided to take up this option and, combined with those who utilize the “otzar Beit Din” system, number just 206 in total in the whole country.
Farmers who decide to leave their land fallow are entitled to monetary support from the state upon fulfilling certain conditions that include registering every day for study in a yeshiva. In total, the state has designated NIS 20m. for farmers who leave their land fallow.
There were 42 farmers or agricultural land holders who decided not to participate in any method of shmita observance this year.
The haredi community will in general use only fruits and vegetables from different sources instead of relying on the “heter mechira” system, which the community’s rabbinic leadership largely rejects.
This produce is grown either by non-Jewish farmers in Israel, and therefore does not bear the sanctity of the seventh year and is permitted for consumption by haredi rabbinic authorities, or is imported from farmers in the Palestinian Authority, Jordan or other countries.
The choice for farmers of whether or not to allow their land to lie fallow is a stark one, and for many, especially those who are not religious, is an easy one too, with the overwhelming majority opting to adopt the “heter mechira” system.
However, a very small number of farmers decide each sabbatical year to fulfill the religious commandment to its fullest and refrain from all agricultural work.
Rafi Mor-Yosef, 59, a farmer from Moshav Sde Zvi in the northern Negev, says that there is no choice involved.
“We received the Torah at Mount Sinai from God and we were commanded to observe the shmita year, so there is no decision in such matters,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “All these other things solutions are just nonsense, you have to fulfill the commandment as instructed by God.”
Mor-Yosef, who grows squash, onions, fennel, cabbage and lemons, says the loss of income makes the year extremely problematic financially, and that the economic costs of leaving his fields fallow are extremely high.
Although reticent to talk about his income during the sabbatical year, he said he would be receiving money from various charities and foundations, particularly from abroad.
“In the end, one’s income is established by God and he will take care of those who observe the shmita. It is not an easy thing financially, but those who do it with a pure and clean heart merit divine assistance,” he said.
On the other side of the equation are those who are ideologically in favor of the “heter mechira” system because of the way in which it allows agriculture in Israel to remain financially viable.
Nehemia Rapel, the secretary- general of the Religious Kibbutz Movement, whose kibbutzim will all be utilizing the “heter mechira system,” is for the arrangement.
“If we allowed the land to remain fallow for just one shmita [year], Israeli agriculture would collapse,” Rapel told the Post.
“Not producing for an entire year would ruin businesses and cause customers to seek alternative suppliers both in Israel and abroad,” he said. “There is no possibility for such thing, there is no country in the world that can exist without its agricultural industry.”
“There is also the critical commandment of settling the land, which involves farming and all the biblical commandments which are tied to working the land,” Rapel said. “We don’t just happen to work in agriculture, being a farmer in Israel is part of this commandment, and without Israeli agriculture no one would be able to fulfill these critical aspects of the Torah.”
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