Mahne Yehuda Shuk in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
This year, 5775, is a shmita (sabbatical) year and many Jews believe that the Torah requirement that the land rest every seventh year applies in our time. So they do not plow, plant, prune or harvest their crops this year. Customers therefore do not buy any agricultural produce grown in Israel during the year, relying on agricultural produce that has been imported. This is not a practice that I would want to emulate.
However, some rabbis believe that shmita today is not a biblical requirement but a rabbinic one, and have permitted one leniency, namely that one may perform otherwise prohibited activities if the purpose is to prevent financial loss. However, the landowner may not treat what grows as his own, but rather the crops should be left available for people to help themselves. They may only take as much as they can eat, as may the landowner.
Some people will eat fruit and vegetables harvested and distributed by Otzar Beis Din.Keep up to date on the latest opinion pieces on our new Opinion & Blogs Facebook page
This is based on the rule that the Bet Din (rabbinical court) or its agents may harvest and distribute produce growing in a field during a shmita year. The produce may be distributed free of charge with a payment required to cover labor costs.
Still others, who also believe that shmita today is a rabbinic requirement, rely on Heter Mechira, and I intend to focus on this. Under Heter Mechira Israel’s agricultural fields are sold to a non-Jew for two years. The halachic basis is that when land is owned by non- Jews some work that is otherwise forbidden is allowed.
There is a great debate on the issue of Heter Mechira. I am not qualified to reach a halachic decision but must rely on rulings of those authorities that are. I need to be satisfied that my practice has sound halachic support.
Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon, in his book Shemita – Halacha Mimekorah, sets out a summary of the Heter Mechira debate on pages 408-410.
Whatever view one takes, it is clear that there are senior rabbinic leaders that support it. Rabbi Rimon raises the question as to whether Heter Mechira involves deception.
He writes: “One of the most discomforting aspects of the Heter Mechira is that it reminds us of a loophole that allows the criminal to walk free. The truth, however, is that the heter is far from a legal trick. In a normal legal system, as soon as a loophole is discovered, the law is emended in order to ‘seal’ the hole that went unnoticed when the law was first legislated. All human legal codes include many amendments that are meant to seal such loopholes.
In civil law, had the legislature foreseen that a certain loophole would be exploited, it would have sealed the hole from the outset, rather then leave breach that it invites the criminal to commit his offense. God, however, is prescient and all-knowing. If a breach is found in the Torah, it cannot be that God was not aware of it from the very beginning. A loophole in the Torah must have been intentionally included so that it might be used at the appropriate time.”
There is a story told of Rabbi Israel Salanter, who was once invited to eat a meal with an affluent family. His host noticed that he used the minimum amount of water possible to wash his hands before the meal. The host mentioned that the more water used, the greater the mitzvah. Rabbi Salanter replied that he had seen how his host’s servant girl was struggling to bring up water from the well and that he couldn’t increase his mitzvahs at someone else’s cost.
There is a passage in Responsa Yeshu’ot Malko (The Gaon of Kutna, Yoreh De’ah, No. 55) that states: “I have said that it is obviously better to permit selling [the land] to a gentile, even though it is forbidden to give away or sell land in Eretz Yisrael. Inasmuch as this is done for the benefit of [Jewish] settlement [in Eretz Yisrael]; there is no prohibition of lo techonem! “Were it not for Heter Mechira Jewish agriculture would collapse, and in its place gentile agriculture would flourish” (Rabbi Rimon p. 400).
Chief rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, first chief rabbi in Palestine, formally expressed his support to the use of Heter Mechira in Palestine in circumstances where the economy of the Jewish community in Palestine was based on agricultural produce.
Today we live in a different world. The Israeli economy is not based on agricultural produce and as a result there are people who had previously supported the use of Heter Mechira but do not do so now. However, there are many farms and kibbutzim whose income is exclusively dependent on agriculture.
They have consulted responsible rabbinic leadership and have been authorized to work the land in accordance with halachic requirements of Heter Mechira. Without this authority the Jewish families who rely on this decision would have been reduced to poverty.
One of the most emotive prayers that is exclusive to the 10 Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is “Unetaneh Tokef.” It climaxes with the statement, “ut’shuva ut’filla utzedaka ma’avirin es roa hagezeira,” or “with repentance and with prayer and with charity we can avert the evil decree.” The giving of charity is critical in the repentance process.
Rambam states that highest form of charity is to give someone an income. Buying Heter Mechira agricultural produce today does exactly that.
I wish that the Otzar Beis Din would incorporate all agricultural produce grown in this country so that we would all participate in Kedushat Shevi’it. However, this is not yet the case. Were I, and others who think as I do, to abandon Heter Mechira, our decision would send Jewish farmers into impoverishment. Families could become destitute. I do not want this on my conscience; I do not want to increase my mitzvahs at someone else’s cost. I will continue to buy Heter Mechira.
The writer is a resident of Jerusalem.