Thursday, May 15, 2014

B'har- The Shmita Year


Ki tavo’u el ha’aretz asher Ani notein lakhem v’shavtah ha’aretz Shabbat lAdonai.
When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall sit as a Shabbat to the Lord. (Vayikra 25:2)
On July 1, 2014, Rav Sean and I will celebrate out 21st wedding anniversary. This means that 5775 will be a shmittah year. Rav Sean and I spent the first year of our marriage living in Israel. That year was a shmittah year, a year celebrated every seven years in which the land is to live fallow as if observing its own special Shabbat.
The concept of a shmittah year is agriculturally sound. It has led to the crop rotation and other advances through its study. Just like a person can be over-worked, land that is continuously farmed will be depleted, spent. That is not to say the land remains empty. Rather it is left uncultivated. What grows, grows. It means a year spent truly living off the land, off the land in its natural state.
Unfortunately, in a modern state, it is not as easy to live of the natural land. What grows in the city? What grows naturally on lands previously cultivated and stripped of all seeds not from the cultivated crop? How do you feed over 7 million people in Israel? How do you ensure the businesses dependent upon agriculture, not only the farms, but the exports and all connected to them? After all, at the last shmittah year, Israeli agriculture was estimated as a $1.75 billion business.
Many rely on a heter mechira, permission to sell. The mitzvot are only incumbent upon Jews. Therefore, shmittah is only required for land owned by Jews. Israeli landowners “sell” their properties to non-Jews for the year; much in the way land would regularly be leased, although the previous owner retains the right to farm. Based on a similar ruling, the prozbul, that allowed loan holders to “sell” their loans to the Sanhedrin, thus allowing debts to be carried through the shmittah year, heter mechira, ensures business and the economy will continue to thrive.
Still, religious Jews and Zionists have difficulty in the shmittah years. Some feel that this “selling” is dishonest, or they have philosophical problems with selling land in Israel. They will only buy produce grown outside biblical Israel, creating a hardship for many Israeli businesses. Others believe that practice to be anti-Zionist. They rely on the heter mechira much as we rely upon selling our hametz.
Much like being a Conservative Jew, finding a balance between shmittah and modern Zionism depends upon thoughtful study and examination of the issues. Rabbi David Golinkin, of the Schechter Institute, the Masorti/Conservative institute of higher learning in Israel, finds a third way. Using traditional sources and opinions, he seeks to fulfill the purpose of the mitzvah. Much like “an eye or an eye” has always allowed monetary compensation, Rabbi Golinkin balances the needs of the business and the needs of the people with the purpose of the mitzvah to help build a better Israel.
To read Rabbi Golinkin’s article, go to the Schechter Institute’s Responsa in a Moment, Volume 2, Issue 1, October 2007. (http://www.schechter.edu/responsa.aspx?ID=25)