Sabbath Crisis in Israel

Shmitta Smitten

Every seventh year, Israeli farmers are faced with a sabbatical year for the land (called Shmitta in Hebrew):

Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather in the fruit thereof; But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest unto the land, a sabbath for the LORD: thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard.

Lev 25:3-4.

The farmers typically get around this burdensome requirement by "selling" the land to a non-Jew for the year and buying it back - all under a previously agreed contract - at the end of the year.

This is critical for many, not only to keep their land in fruits and vegetables, but to pay their debts and prevent their losing the homes and lands to creditors.

Sabbatical Year Begins

But this year, Rabbi Shalom Elyashiv, the country's most influential rabbi, dug in his heels. Beginning at sunset on Rosh Hoshana (September 29) the sabbatical year began, and this year, the Shmitta must be kept to the letter, he said. As this generation's premier adjudicator of Jewish religious practice, Elyashiv ruled that there would be no planting and no harvest for an entire year, and no fictitious sales of land to non-Jews.

This created a serious dilemma: skipping a growing season can mean defaulting on loans and losing their farms and homes to creditors.

But defying a rabbinical ban would render their crops non-kosher, inedible to the half of the Israeli population that keeps the dietary laws.

Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, the Chief Rabbi of Israel, had supported the symbolic sales, only this year he was to be overruled by the nonagenarian Elyashiv, who holds no official office but outranks him in the unwritten consensus world of rabbinic authorities.

And so this year, rabbinic wisdom on this issue was all over the map. (As they say in Israel, "Where you have two Jews you have three opinions.")

Rabbi Doniel Hartman, the modern Orthodox Zionist educator, was furious; he not only criticized Elyashiv's ruling as too strict, but was even more critical of fellow Zionist rabbis who did not come to Bakshi-Doron's defense.

Rabbi Hartman suggested that another verse in Leviticus provides the answer:

And if ye shall say, What shall we eat the seventh year? behold, we shall not sow, nor gather in our increase. Then I will command my blessing upon you in the sixth year, and it shall bring forth fruit for three years. And ye shall sow the eighth year, and eat yet of old fruit until the ninth year; until her fruits come in ye shall eat of the old store.

Lev 25:20-22

In other words, a miracle was required, Hartman suggested. Since there are no miracles these days, he said, the strict Shmitta laws need not be kept.

(An interesting justification for breaking the Law. Others suggest that they never see any miracles because they take action themselves before God can act miraculously.)

Jumping into the fray, Yosef Lapid, leader of the secular political party Shinui, or Change, encouraged farmers to set up rabbi-free markets. "We'll buy their produce," he pledged. Lapid said that in a modern nation, secular citizens should not have to pay more for their food to get a rabbinical certificate of approval they don't want anyway.

After much dissent, a compromise was finally reached that allowed the old system to remain in place. Still, the controversy reverberates, reflecting continuing conflicts between traditional Jewish Israelis versus secular Israelis, and Orthodox Jews against ultra-Orthodox.

There have always been degrees of strictness in observing Jewish laws, and the Shmitta is no exception.

Most Jews accept the centuries-old practice of circumventing the Shmitta. But stricter ultra-Orthodox Jews do not eat fruit or vegetables grown in the Holy Land during this year, paying more for food grown in Gaza, Jordan or the Golan Heights, outside Biblical boundaries.

At its heart, the dispute is over dueling interpretations of another commandment from Leviticus:

Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments: which if a man do, he shall live in them: I am the LORD.

Lev 18:5

The ultra-Orthodox, who devote their lives to studying religious tomes, do not recognize the state of Israel and refrain from contact with the secular world. They take this to mean that the Biblical laws must be followed literally.

Modern interpreters of the phrase emphasize the word "live," and guard against rulings that would make it impossible for people to live by the commandments.

"My brand of Zionism combines religion with life," Hartman said. "The ultra-Orthodox have no connection with daily life."

Instead, he said, they took an opportunity to undermine the chief rabbinate, associated with religious Zionism.

Rabbi Eliahu Klugman, a follower of Elyashiv, disagrees. He said Elyashiv outlawed the fictitious sale of land on the basis of today's reality.

"The conditions that applied 120 years ago no longer apply today," said Klugman.

When the sham sales were first allowed, agriculture was the mainstay of the economy, food could not be imported, poverty was widespread and untilled land was in danger of being taken over by non-Jews. The solution then was to bend the rules. "Israel can live without this now," said Klugman.

There are some who see other solutions.

Technological Alternatives?

At his institute for the study of the commandments of the Holy Land, Rabbi Shneour Revach has developed ways to grow fruit and vegetables without breaking the Shmitta laws and without selling the land.

Revach persuaded some farmers to prune their grapevines before the start of the Shmitta. Usually farmers wait until the winter.

Deftly handling a pruned vine, he said his experiments showed that there is almost no financial risk from early pruning.

Revach wants the laws to be followed, "but not by coercion. That makes religion hateful."

[This article was largely excerpted from an article by Mark Lavie, Associated Press Writer, in Religion Today, September 28, 2000.]