Mitzva makers

New US-based movements are offering Jews living in the Diaspora the opportunity of observing shmita.

Shmita 88 (photo credit: )
Shmita 88
(photo credit: )
New York - The story of the "miracle at Moshav Komemiyut," one of the first moshavim to keep shmita - the year that concludes a seven-year agricultural cycle during which the land of Israel is supposed to lie fallow according to biblical law - is already a legend. As the sabbatical year drew to a close in 1952, Komemiyut prepared to renew its farming activities. No one could fulfill the members' request for good-quality seed from the previous year's harvest. Having no choice, they planted rotten, worm-infested wheat. "All who saw what we were doing laughed at us, warning us that by planting this wheat we would suffer losses of more than 20,000 lirot," the story goes. But in the end, the harvest yielded the most luscious stalks of wheat, and it was the only settlement in the area that had any yield on the crops. In the coming weeks this story, among other such "miracle" tales, will be heard in the halls of many synagogues throughout the US, as haredim begin a widespread fund-raising campaign to support farmers observing shmita, a commandment that applies only in the Land of Israel. While religious authorities in Israel are busy trying to boost the numbers of farmers, or rather dunams that will remain labor-free, promising them everything from spiritual to financial gain, Jews in America are being similarly courted to open their coffers and donate money. The mitzva of shmita is unlike most other mitzvot in the Torah, in that the reward for observance is explicitly given by God. Observance "will bring forth increase for three years" (Leviticus 25:21), and Jews will "abide in the land in safety" (Leviticus 25:19). We learn from Rashi that the Babylonian exile was punishment for the 70 shmita years the Jews did not observe. Today the threat of exile, or rather of returning more land to the Palestinians, serves to inspire some Jews to make a donation. "The only mitzva that the Torah says allows you to keep Israel is shmita, it's in fact rent we pay to God for keeping the land," said Rabbi Shmuel Bloom, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America (AIA), which acts as the conduit of moneys for Keren Shvi'it, a fund that serves as the main source of funding for Israeli farmers observing shmita. "Therefore at a time when we are challenged on our borders, talking about giving back the West Bank and Gaza, the Torah's answer to that is to keep shmita." The text makes clear that the blessing of shmita is only relevant when the entire Jewish people observes. This is in part the motivation behind ongoing drives to reach out to secular and religious farmers alike, hoping to inch closer each year to God's promised blessing. EVERY SEVEN years, an increasing number of farmers defy economic logic and leave their lands fallow for the agricultural sabbatical. In the 1950s and '60s, only about 1,000 dunams (250 acres) of land lay fallow. Seven years ago, in 2001, it was about 220,000 dunams. And next year, 3,000-3,500 farmers will observe shmita, and 400,000 dunams will lie fallow, according to Keren Shvi'it. "This is very exciting," said Bloom. "We are hopeful that with the proper support, close to 40 percent of arable land in Israel will be resting this year." Over the last few decades agriculture in Israel has moved from a mom-and-pop based system, in which individual families tilled a plot of land, to one made up of large-scale operators who work thousands of dunams. On his recent visit in preparation for the coming shmita, Bloom said he spoke to farmers who gross $1.5 million a year who were willing to shut down operations for shmita. While many of the preparations for the sabbatical year take place on the ground in Israel, those efforts are entirely dependent on the devotion of haredim living thousands of miles away. Today, farmers are supported in part by moneys coming in from around the world largely through the 35-year-old Keren Shvi'it, which in the months before shmita runs a branch of its fund-raising drive out of an office in AIA headquarters in New York. This is the only organization worldwide that has consistently raised money for shmita-observing farmers, and is endorsed by rabbis across the haredi spectrum. In the coming months, the pages of religious newspapers will be filled with ads asking Jews to support farmers who have committed themselves to observe shmita. Most of the ads appear in the form of a letter written by a rabbinic authority, or signed by a group of rabbis. Many mention the work of the late Rabbi Benyamin Mendelson, one of the founders of Komemiyut. "The money is there, one simply has to present the case and collect the money," said Avi Wagschal, who assisted with coordinating the campaign seven and 14 years ago. "People understand that this happens once in seven years, and that the campaign for shmita is not ongoing, so they respond a lot more warmly." Keren Shvi'it needs to raise $5 million to $7m., said Benyamin Cohen, the deputy director of Keren Shvi'it. But Wagschal said his personal goal is to reach $10 million. "I have a special affinity to farmers in Israel, since they do the mitzvot that we abroad don't have," he said. "There is such satisfaction in helping, no one here would quit their job for a year." Though theoretically the fund-raising drive is geared toward religious Jews from across the Orthodox spectrum, and even beyond, according to Bloom, haredim are the primary players. This is in part because of an ongoing dispute about the halachic validity of the "heter mechira," a symbolic sale of land to non-Jews for the sabbatical year. In the years before the establishment of the State of Israel, some rabbis found a solution to the problem of feeding the nation that shmita observance posed through the heter mechira. The heter was okayed by Rabbi Avraham Kook in the early 20th century, when there was a shortage of food and Jews had no other choice. At that time, Israel depended on the produce of its small farms, whereas today importing food has become commonplace. While religious Zionists continue to favor the heter, haredim say it was always understood as a leniency permissible in an emergency situation that no longer applies. In Leviticus, immediately following the laws of shmita, God tells the Jews that they "may not sell the land absolutely for the land is mine." Some rabbis understood the word "absolutely" to mean that technically Jews could sell the land for a designated period of time, and then buy it back. But today, supporters of the heter find themselves on "shaky ground," said Jonathan Rosenblum, director of Am Echad Israel. "Rav Kook emphasized in all his writing that it was an emergency provision for a particular situation, which no longer applies today," he said. "It's a heter based on combining four or five claims, all of which are subject to dispute, and it was always understood that it was something meant for a desperate situation." From the start, fund-raising was a way to avoid the heter. Almost 100 years ago, a collection of letters from many of the most respected rabbis speaking out against the heter was published. Even at that time rabbis spoke in favor of collecting funds to support the farmers. A hassidic rabbi at the time made an important declaration that a person who gives money will have the same blessing as the farmer who keeps shmita, said Brooklyn-based Rabbi Gavriel Zinner, author of 30 volumes of religious texts. Since then, the idea that one could share in the blessings of shmita has lured many into making generous donations. IN THE LAST few shmita years, some independent entrepreneurs have cropped up alongside the mainstream fund-raising drive. The latest to emerge is Irgun Mitzvat Shmita, which is selling tracts of farm land in Kfar Ma'as, near Petah Tikva, which American Jews can buy for $180. "We will divide the money among the farmers so they can keep shmita," said Avi Kanid, head of Irgun Mitzvat Shmita. The group claims that by buying up the land and then doing nothing with it, buyers become like the farmers themselves and can perform the mitzva of shmita. Its ad says: "We present you a precious opportunity to purchase a tract of farmland of Eretz Yisrael upon which the mitzva of shmita will be performed with utmost scrupulence. This will enable you to fulfill a mitzva you were never able to do before." Hersh B. saw an ad in his Brooklyn synagogue, and called Irgun Mitzvat Shmita to inquire. He is one of 100 people who have thus far bought tracts of land. "I was aware that the only way to fulfill the mitzva is to own property, and here is an opportunity under the supervision of a rabbi," he said. "Here is a chance to be a part of a mitzva which normally I wouldn't be able to do." Rabbi Mordechai Gross of Bnei Brak is listed as the endorsing rabbi. As the ads circulate, rabbis are weighing in on it. Zinner said selling the land to Jews in America is a nice idea, though in the end he feels fund-raising should be the top priority and should be left to the old guard, who are experts in the field. At the same time, he pointed to the late Belzer Rebbe as setting a precedent for this. It is said that when he immigrated to Israel, he asked his secretary to buy him a tree for his garden, so that in the shmita year he too could fulfill the mitzva. Bloom, on the other hand, discounted the the tactic of temporarily selling land to Jews in the US: "Buying a plot of land simply in order to do nothing with it is like buying a ham sandwich and not eating it." Cohen, from Keren Shvi'it, treats this as just another gimmick. "Once there was a man who came to the US trying to sell boxes filled with soil taken from Israel, it's all a bluff." More than that, he says, the land belongs to the government and cannot be sold. In the end, what seems to be of greatest concern is that Irgun Mitzvat Shmita is selling an "opportunity" rather than encouraging "charity." The ads do not encourage Jews to support the farmers, but rather appeal to their own self-interest by offering them an opportunity to do a mitzva. Alexander Rapaport, of Borough Park, recalled an old hassidic saying: There is no point in thinking why am I not Moses, or Abraham, because everyone God creates is unique. "You have to be yourself, not exchange yourself with someone else," he said. "By you buying out someone else's mitzva, there is no more land preserved, it's for yourself. Helping people living their lives is more important than you getting your own shmita."