Question: A group is giving the opportunity to buy agricultural land in Israel for the Shemitta year. Is that worthwhile?
Answer: We start with an overview of the agricultural mitzvot of Shemitta along with a brief analysis of the significance of obtaining land ownership.
The Rambam (Lo Ta’aseh 220-223) lists four such negative commandments, about: 1) working the land; 2) tending to the trees; 3) reaping the produce in the normal way; 4) harvesting fruit of the trees in the normal way. The prohibition of working the land applies even to one who does not own the land. There is a machloket whether there is a Torah prohibition on harvesting someone else’s field (Chazon Ish, Shvi’it 12:5 is lenient; Rav Auerbach, Ma’adanei Eretz 7:4 is stringent). In any case, the reward for refraining from aveirot is a function of the availability of and the temptation toward the aveira (see Kiddushin 39b with Rashi). One who owns a distant, small piece of land is not tempted to work it. Just as we would not suggest buying a donkey and bull to refrain from plowing with them together, the above is not a reason to obtain land before Shemitta.
The positive mitzvot are more pertinent. There is a machloket Rishonim whether the positive state of cessation from working the land (Rambam, Aseh 135) is a function of an individual’s work irrespective of ownership (Rambam Shvi’it 1:1) or whether it is a landowner’s responsibility to ensure his field is not worked (Ritva, Avoda Zara 15b). A third approach holds Jews responsible to save the land from being worked, including by redeeming it from non-Jews who may work it (Netziv, Vayikra 25:4). According to the Rambam, obtaining land is not a factor in creating this positive fulfillment (one who takes a sabbatical from his job as a farm worker would fulfill the mitzva). According to the Ritva, buying creates an opportunity to fulfill the mitzva. According to the Netziv (whose opinion is considered somewhat extreme), the mitzva entails obtaining land that would otherwise be worked.
There is also a mitzva to deal properly with the fruit of one’s field that were planted before Shemitta or grew on trees, including treating it as ownerless (Aseh 134). While according to Rav Auerbach (above), elements of this mitzva can also be fulfilled by non-landowners in Israel, buying a field certainly enables one to fulfill this mitzva.
Another gain of buying land is helping farmers keep Shemitta properly. Rav Kook (see his introduction to Shabbat Ha’aretz) and all other poskim who supported the heter mechira, did not do so for those who were willing and able (without extreme financial hardship) to keep the mitzva. This is both in order to not uproot the mitzva and to avoid the great halachic problems involved in the heter mechira. Thus, helping interested farmers survive without selling their fields to non-Jews is similar to giving ma’ot chitim to one who cannot afford mehadrin Pesach provisions or donating to improve a mikveh according to the request of the local rabbi. (A member of the camp that rejects the heter mechira would view it as saving people from sin.)
If one purchases the field at its value (including the overhead of arranging the sale), he should not use ma’aser kesafim, as he should not for buying an etrog (see Tzedaka U’mishpat 6:1). A donation (without buying land or the part of the price that is beyond the purchase’s value) to an organization that helps farmers may be taken from ma’aser money (see ibid. 10).
We discovered that those who provide individuals with the land/mitzva opportunity include people who also plan to earn a lot of money (unfortunately, not all approbations of important rabbis relate to this element). Baruch Hashem, there are also those who are dedicated to helping farmers as well as providing a mitzva opportunity. While we will not rate groups publicly, we recommend to the wise mitzva consumer to check, not only the sale’s authenticity, but also the appropriateness of the price per area and the number of farmers who will be benefitting from the project.
137 - A Loan/Investment that Needs
138 - Buying Land for Shemitta
139 - Is a Professional Believed