We need to preserve the beauty of Shmita - opinion

The concept of shmita is introduced in the Torah, where we are told to let the land lie fallow every seventh year.

 ‘SHMITA’ INVITES us to pause, to take a deep breath, to rest, to reflect and to reconsider where we are going. (photo credit: MICHAEL GILADI/FLASH90)
‘SHMITA’ INVITES us to pause, to take a deep breath, to rest, to reflect and to reconsider where we are going.
(photo credit: MICHAEL GILADI/FLASH90)

With the holidays behind us, we are now fully in the midst of the shmita year. 

As more and more produce is harvested from the fields and comes into our homes and kitchens, the challenges involved with properly observing the laws regarding shmita will become more apparent. It is therefore critical that we appreciate the beauty of this tradition without viewing it as an obstacle.

The concept of shmita is introduced in the Torah, where we are told to let the land lie fallow every seventh year. There is both spiritual and agricultural value to this concept. Just as we are commanded to rest every seventh day to rejuvenate after a full and busy week, so too there is also a value in letting the land rest based on a set schedule.

There is no disputing the beauty of this sabbatical year and its importance should in no way be mitigated. But shmita in our times, according to the majority of rabbinical authorities, is a rabbinically ordained mitzvah (as opposed to a biblically mandated one) and therefore halachic scholars have endeavored to adopt an approach that fully respects the mitzvah while addressing the very real economic challenges it presents.

There are essentially three options available to the Israeli consumer looking to observe shmita. Yet as we will see below, one is able to most effectively protect Halacha and ensure that we are not irreparably damaging the financial security of local Jewish farmers.

The shmita (sabbatical) year comes once every seven years. The Torah commands us to stop working the land and let it lie fallow, leaving its yield to any man or animal. (credit: THEOPHILOS PAPADOPOULOS/FLICKR)The shmita (sabbatical) year comes once every seven years. The Torah commands us to stop working the land and let it lie fallow, leaving its yield to any man or animal. (credit: THEOPHILOS PAPADOPOULOS/FLICKR)

THE FIRST option is what some might believe as the most machmir (stringent) approach which is to cease purchasing any produce that is grown on holy lands. This by definition takes away any doubt that someone might be consuming produce grown in the seventh year on the ground where such production is prohibited. The major and deeply problematic issue with this option is that it pulls hundreds of millions of sales out of the pockets of farmers who have dedicated their lives to Israeli agriculture and sends those proceeds out of the country. Much of that produce needs to come from areas close to Israel’s borders, which by definition means lands belonging to governments and regimes that are often hostile to our very existence. Indeed, no small amount of the produce purchased by those who advocate for this option is coming from the Gaza Strip. 

Wherever one might sit on the political map, it is still regrettable to think that shmita would be coming at the direct expense of Israeli farmers, depriving them of at least a year of profit. In many cases, such a loss is something from which a local farmer would be unable to recover.

THE SECOND option is the purchase of products known as Otzar Beit Din. This is produce which is harvested in the seventh year but on lands or greenhouses where shmita is strictly observed, meaning there is no new planting – only harvesting of what had already been planted before the onset of the new year.

On face value, this is a commendable option but it comes with two major obstacles.

The first is that properly using this avenue, for both the farmer and the consumer, requires a very strict and careful understanding of the intricate halachot related to shmita. This harvested produce has the category of kiddushat sheviit (sanctity of the seventh year), which means that it either needs to be fully consumed or carefully and properly disposed of. Any misuse of this produce brings with it a serious concern of a halachic transgression – and needs to be avoided at all cost.

A secondary, but no less challenging, problem related to Otzar Beit Din is that there is simply no way that the well-intentioned farmers who are harvesting their produce through this manner will be able to produce enough fruits and vegetables to accommodate an Israeli Jewish marketplace that is blessedly numbering in the millions.

While people who piously and carefully adhere to the halachot of kiddushat sheviit should be commended and blessed, it is not a viable solution for the large population of Israeli Jewry today. 

THIS BRINGS us to the third option, which is the preferred one from the halachic, practical and Zionist perspectives. 

Known as heter mechira, more than 100 years ago, when a large community of Jews began returning to the land of Israel, the leading rabbis of the time adjudicated that the sale of lands to non-Jews for the period of shmita allows for the Jewish farmers to continue to work and profit from the lands. This allows us to respect and observe this ancient and important tradition within Halacha, but ensures that our farmers’ livelihood and professional future are not being severely jeopardized. Following the creation of the modern State of Israel, and as we have been blessed to see our nation grow into the millions, this path has become all the more important for our observance of shmita

Shmita is a beautiful and important reminder of our connection to the ground, to produce, and to the miracle that God has bestowed upon us of turning seeds into sustenance. But it also demands of us that we act in a way that is compassionate to the needs of others.

We have a halachic imperative to respect and abide by this mitzvah. We also have a national responsibility to support our local economy and protect the welfare of our fellow brothers and sisters who choose to make their livelihoods by working these holy lands.

Only through the proper observance of shmita in a way that promotes and secures our land and our agriculture, are we best celebrating the miraculous return to this land.

The writer, a rabbi, is chair and founder of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization in Israel.