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Shmittah Today in the State of Israel


Rabbi Yossef Carmel

Adar 2 5768
2 min read
Shmittah Today in the State of Israel
The connection between our forefathers and their (subsequent) descendants to the Land of Israel is strengthened and receives additional significance through the commandment to Yitzchak to continue to reside in Eretz Yisrael, even in difficult times. Eretz Yisrael’s singularity expresses itself practically in the mitzvah of Shmittah, which is part of the group of agricultural mitzvot of Eretz Yisrael.
The public outrage that was created because of the attempt to compel part of the public to purchase fruits and vegetables from non-Jews obfuscates from us the main themes of the mitzvah of Shmittah, as derived from the Torah.
Let us remind ourselves of the significance of the mitzvah of Shmittah and what is the way to observe Shmittah, l’mehadrin. Based on the pesukim in the Torah that deal with the mitzvah of Shmittah, the Rishonim have explained the reasons for the mitzvah. They explain that Shmittah has the following purposes:
1. The cessation of work on the land —"The Sabbath of Sabbaths, it shall be for the land (Vayikrah 25:4)."
2. The cessation of man’s working his field—"You shall not sow your field. You shall not prune your vineyard (Ibid.)."
3. Concern for the underprivileged sectors of society, who are able to obtain free sustenance. In addition, their debts are erased, as the Torah states, "and the poor of your nation shall eat (Shemot 23)."
The mitzvah of Shmittah demands upon a person, particularly a property owner and landowner, to have faith in the Ribono shel HaOlam, and to believe that everything belongs to Hashem and that everything comes from Him.
Let us elaborate more extensively about the significance of each of these objectives:
1. The cessation of work on the land emphasizes Eretz Yisrael’s sanctity. This sanctity expresses itself through the Sabbatical year that is granted to the Holy Land, similar to a sabbatical of time. "Shabbat of Creation" emphasizes the sanctity of time while "Shabbat of the Land" signifies the sanctity of the place.
2. The cessation of man’s labor comes to emphasize that one must be concerned with his spiritual needs. One needs to take a break from the rat race of earning a livelihood, which is a necessity that cannot be belittled. Nevertheless, one must take a sabbatical leave after six years of labor, to dedicate a year to spiritual development—whether by increasing one’s Torah learning or by strengthening one’s connections with spiritual leadership; the Prophets and those who understand the Torah. Eretz Yisrael’s sanctity becomes fused together with the sanctity of the Jewish People.
3. Concern for the weaker sectors of society is an integral part of the mitzvah of Shmittah. It is impossible to enjoy eating the holy fruits of the Holy Land while other members of society are suffering from lack of nourishment, living meagerly. It is incumbent upon the property owner to remember that everything is the property of the Creator, and man must therefore conduct himself in Hashem’s Ways. It is the application of "Hashem is good to all; and His mercy is over all His works (Tehillim 145:9)." Shemittat HaK’safim, forgiving one’s debtors, can also be explained as part of this obligation.
Any attempt to observe Shemittah kehilchatah must consider these objectives. Let us further preface our words before we evaluate the solutions available in the market today. According to the vast majority of the Rishonim, the obligation to observe Shmittah in our days is rabbinic. That does not mean, G-d Forbid, that one has permission to belittle this important mitzvah. The opposite is true! At times, we must be even more careful with rabbinic rulings. We are obligated to observe rabbinic laws with great precision. However, one must not forget that the Divine Promise of "I Have Commanded My Blessing upon you... (Vayikrah 25:21-22)" only exists when the Torah obligation exists. When no Torah obligation exists, it is impossible to demand a farmer to have faith in something that is not Divinely-promised.
The only viable solution today, lechatchila, is to establish an all-encompassing Shmittah fund that will allow all farmers in Eretz Yisrael to let their fields lie fallow and to go on a sabbatical vacation where they will dedicate their time to elevating themselves spiritually and strengthening their relationship with Hashem. During that year, we hope that other sectors will also take a sabbatical leave. The special atmosphere that would permeate Eretz Yisrael-Eretz HaKodesh — would be indescribable, if a broad spectrum of the populace would delve into spiritual matters during this year, aspiring to a life of holiness and spiritual purity!

2. Shmittah Today in the State of Israel: Greenhouses & Matzaim Menutakim (plots separated from the ground)
Several kashrut organizations pride themselves with their title, Shemittah lechumrah. Even Shalom Simhon, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, who despite much pressure, did not allow the attempt to force the entire public to observe a controversial halachic method, uttered a slip of the tongue. Even someone like him, who was engrossed in the issue and understood it, and did not allow the flooding of the domestic market with imported produce at exaggerated prices, nevertheless got caught in the snare. In a press statement, Simhon announced, "We will not allow those who observe Shmittah kehilchata to compel the entire public to purchase imported produce and to cause extensive damage to Jewish agriculture in Israel. Hi-tech workers and embassies in Herzliya are not interested in this." Unfortunately, he "internalized" the message that was constantly flashing before him, that whoever does not purchase agricultural produce from non-Jews in the Shmittah year is not observing Shmittah kehilchata.
In reality, all the solutions in practice today are bedievad, not preferred. The maximum that one can say is that within the list of solutions in a time of duress and a time when the obligation to observe Shmittah is rabbinic, there are solutions that are more recommended and less recommended. The solution of buying from the Palestinian Authority and Hamas should appear at the bottom of the list. Slightly above it is the solution of importing produce from Europe. It is very misleading to give a halachic title of Shmittah lechumra—precisely to the most halachically problematic solutions.
Let us further clarify the advantages and disadvantages of the available solutions in the marketplace. We wish to make clear in advance that this forum only allows us to briefly explain the intricate issues. We are therefore unable to deal with all the halachic details and are only dealing with the main points.
Let us begin a discussion about hydroponically grown crops that grow in hothouses. The Talmud Yerushalmi discusses halachic distinctions between crops grown in a field and the various hothouse-grown crops: "Rebbi Yochanan in the name of Rebbi Yannai [stated regarding] a tree that was planted inside a home, one is obligated in orlah (the prohibition of eating fruits from the first three years of a tree's life) and exempt from maaserot, tithes, as it is written, ‘The land shall rest. It is the Shabbat of Hashem,’ and it is written, ‘You shall not sow your field. Nor shall you prune your vineyard.’ (Orlah, perek 1, halachah 2)."
The Yerushalmi is uncertain about which of the Torah’s expressions should be understood as the obligation. Is it "the land" or is it "your field"? "The land" is a more general expression. If it is the main expression, then it implies that the laws of Shmittah should not be limited to one’s field; rather, they should apply anywhere in one’s home. However, if the expression "your field" is the main expression, then whatever is not considered "your field" is exempt from the halachot of Shmittah. The Yerushalmi’s uncertainty remains unresolved. The Rambam did not codify this in Hilchot Shviit [of his Mishnah Torah], although he codified the halachah about one’s obligation in Hilchot Orlah and one’s exemption from trumot and maaserot. Much has been written trying to explain why the Rambam omitted this. Let us mention the Pe’at HaShulchan’s statements regarding the renewal of the settlement of Eretz Yisrael two hundred years ago (5568, 1808 CE) by the Vilna Gaon’s students, and let us also mention the discussions of the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rav Avraham Kook and the Chazon Ish. It is worthwhile to look at the statements of Rav Shaul Yisraeli (Chavat Binyamin, volume 3, siman 87). One should also note the contribution of Professor Meir Schwartz. He developed the method of hydroponics [in Israel] that was first adopted by the Poalei Agudat Yisrael settlements in the first decade of the State of Israel’s existence.
In practice, halachic authorities have ruled leniently regarding the Yerushalmi’s doubt—only because of Shmittah in our times being rabbinic. When the obligation of Shmittah will be Torah-mandated, we will no longer be able to rely on this leniency.
Let us add that even this recommended method is a way of "bypassing" the mitzvah of Shmittah. This reminds us of the exemption of fruits and vegetables that are brought into one’s home via a chimney and not the door, from the obligation of separating trumot and maaserot. Nevertheless, the Talmud states, "Raba bar Bar Chana said in the name of Rebbi Yochanan, who said in Rebbi Yehudah be’Rebbi Ilay’s name: Come see that the previous generations were not like the later generations. The previous generations would bring their produce through the main entrance—in order to obligate themselves in maaser; later generations are bringing their produce through the roofs, courtyards and enclosures—in order to exempt themselves from maaser. Therefore, their produce has not been granted blessing (Ein Yaakov, Talmud Brachot 35b)."
Neither does this solution allow for the spiritual growth that would result from the cessation of the distraction of earning a living during Shmittah.
If the price of vegetables rises because of the implementation of this method, we have also lost the social aspect of the mitzvah of Shmittah. Let us therefore summarize by saying that even the idea of hydroponics and hothouse crop methods is unable to be entitled "Shmittah leMehadrin" or "Shmittah leChumra". All that notwithstanding, between the different bedievad solutions, it is still the recommended solution.
Let us pray that we will soon merit the renewal of the Torah obligation of Shmittah. May we merit the restoration of the Divine blessing for its abundant holy fruits of the Holy Land, especially during the Shmittah year!

3.Shmittah Today in the State of Israel: Otzar Beit Din
The question arises: what is the most preferred solution to observe Shmittah (in our times, when the obligation is rabbinic) within a reality of bedievad? The formation of a non-ideal solution exists because of the inability in our times to demand from the farmers to abandon their fields.
Let us attempt to clarify what is the meaning of the solution of the Otzar Beit Din, the Beit Din’s "storehouse." What are the advantages? Why is this also a non-ideal solution, notwithstanding that this is the most preferred solution, according to HaGaon Rav Shaul Yisraeli, zt"l, in contemporary circumstances (take a look, for example, at the practical suggestions offered in "Shnat HaSheva", Chavat Binyamin, volume 3, siman 98; and in the introduction to B’tzeit Hashanah, an anthology on Shmittah)? The source for this solution is found in the Tosefta:
"The agents of the beit din originally would sit at the city entrances. Anyone who would bring fruit in his hand, the [beit din] would take the fruits from him and would give him three meals’ worth of food. They would put the rest in a storehouse in the town. When the fig season would arrive, the agents of the beit din would hire workers. They would till them, make them into a fig cake, gather them in casks, and put them into the storehouse in the town. When the grape season would arrive, the agents of the beit din would hire workers. They would pick [the grapes], tread them in a winepress, gather them in casks, and put them into the storehouse...and they would distribute them before Shabbat to each and everyone, according to his household (Shviit 8:1)."
The Rambam ignores this Tosefta and does not codify it as halachah in his Yad Chazakah. Many people were dumbfounded by the Rambam’s omission, but this is not the time to elaborate. On the other hand, the Ramban on his commentary to the Torah (Vayikrah 25) states that the Tosefta is the halacha. The Tosefta’s words imply that this solution is offered in order to fairly distribute the yield from the ownerless fields to each person according to his household needs. The batei din that were appointed to regulate public distribution thus realized one of the important goals of Shmittah: annulment of private purchases of produce during the Shmittah year and the fair distribution of the produce that grew by itself according to the need and not according to the ability.
Two of the great supporters of this solution (and we will not be able to clarify the differences in approach in our brief statements) were the Chazon Ish and our teacher, Rav Shaul Yisraeli. Both of them according to their explanations, elaborated on this solution of the possibility for a beit din to appoint the actual farmers as their agents in the handling of the fields and orchards and harvesting the crop. This method allows for the sale of produce and a return of the farmers’ expenses and other market costs. These leniencies also rely on the opinion that the observance of Shmittah in our times is rabbinic. The great advantage to this method is that it does not require the sale of the land to non-Jews. Additional advantages are:
• It allows the farmers to earn an income from their labor during Shmittah and does not obligate them to earn their livelihood from charity.
• The mitzvah of Shmittah expresses itself practically, since the produce that was grown according to this method has sanctity of Shmittah, according to all opinions. It prevents those who accept this suggestion from forgetting the laws of Shmittah (the opposition will claim the contrary that this is not a solution for the entire populace. Instead, it causes problems since the majority of the public is unaware of how to keep the laws of Shmittah’s sanctity).
• This solution reduces the price of produce. This is compatible with the social aspect of the reason for this mitzvah.
Although Rav Shaul Yisraeli supported this method and preferred it to the other solutions, he agrees that this solution has significant disadvantages:
• "There is obvious ha’arama (a term used to describe a halachic loophole) (B’tzeit HaShanah)."
• "The concept of declaring the fruits ownerless is practically-speaking, almost completely uprooted (B’tzeit HaShanah)."
• This is a solution that is only appropriate for vegetable that were sown during the sixth year and were harvested in the seventh (relying on the opinion of the Rash and in opposition to the rulings of the Rambam). The same applies to the fruit of Shvi’it. This solution does not solve to the problem of supplying vegetables for the vast majority of the Shmittah year. It therefore does not solve the problems of the vegetable growers.
• This solution does not allow for the exportation of agricultural produce during Shmittah. It thus constitutes a grave blow to the Israeli economy, since this does not cause losses for only one year. Rather, it will cause the loss of contact with customers, who will immediately look for long-term contracts with other suppliers. Our responsibility and mutual liability with all sectors of society obligates us to also consider this factor.
Let us therefore once again summarize by saying that even the method of Otzar Beit Din, in its practical use today, is not a solution of Shmittah leChumrah or Shemittah kehilchatah. The maximum that we can say about Otzar Beit Din is that, among the solutions, all of which have their problems, Otzar Beit Din is a preferred partial solution.
Let us continue to pray that we will soon merit observing Shmittah from the Torah with hidur and happiness, with the return of the entire Nation to their land.

4.Shmittah Today in the State of Israel: Heter Mechirah
As we have already written in the past, the majority of the inhabitants of Eretz Yisrael in contemporary times (starting from 120 years ago) rely on the heter mechirah as a bedievad solution as long as there is no other choice, halachically and practically-speaking.
We will now explain what the disadvantages of this solution are and discuss some recent suggestions regarding how to overcome some of these hurdles. We will also explain why, with great pain and a prayer to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, to restore the crown of Shmittah to its former glory, we are compelled to recommend to the public to purchase this agricultural produce. Later, with Hashem’s Help, we will explain why one should refrain from buying non-Jewish produce and instead support farmers who receive guidelines from rabbinical authorities on how to work their fields.
The difficult plight of the Jewish farmers in Eretz Yisrael at the time of the renewal of agricultural settlement in contemporary times became more severe when they were compelled to contend with the question of observing the mitzvah of Shmittah. Gedolei Yisrael tried to find a remedy to their distress. The possibility then arose to sell their land to non-Jews in order to avoid the prohibition of working the fields during the Shmittah year. This suggestion spurred a fundamental halachic controversy that split the rabbis into two groups. Even the Netziv, a great supporter of Zionism, was opposed to it. In the end, Torah leaders like Rav Yisrael Elchanan Spector from Kovno, Rav Yehoshua from Kutna, Rav Avraham Kook (and in his footsteps, all the chief rabbis), the chief rabbi of Yerushalayim, Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (with a demand for improvements which have already been implemented in the last few years) supported this approach.
The Heter Mechira is based on the following halachic principles:
• Since Shmittah in our age is rabbinic according to the vast majority of halachic authorities, "A non-Jew’s acquisition can free the land from its obligation in the mitzvah of Shvi’it." (cf. Talmud Gittin 47a, introduction to Rav Kook’s Shevet HaAretz, perek 11; Rav Shaul Yisraeli’s Chavat Binyamin, volume 3, siman 101, in his correspondence with Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach).
• Eretz Yisrael’s sanctity and the obligation to settle the land are not dependent on the question of whether there exists an obligation to fulfill the agricultural mitzvot (introduction to Shevet HaAretz, perek 15).
• No prohibition of Lo T’chanein exists (the Torah prohibition of strengthening the non-Jew’s holdings in Eretz Yisrael) in a temporary sale, whose purpose is the strengthening of the Jewish settling of Eretz Yisrael.
• No prohibition of sefichin and the law of shamor ve’ne’evad exists by agricultural produce that was grown according to halachic dispensation (in accordance with Mahari Korkus, and even according to the Chazon Ish, Shvi’it, siman 10, sif katan 6, when the sale was done in the proper manner).
• The four forms of work that are forbidden by the Torah shall not be executed, even with the heter, in a forbidden manner.
In the last few years, many halachic improvements were made in this matter. We will mention a few of them:
• The Knesset has legislated a special law exempting land sold for purposes of Shmittah from the obligation to register in the Israeli Land Registry.
• The sale is not done by means of an authorization and appointment of an emissary (this avoids a substantial amount of the Chazon Ish’s claims against the heter).
• The sale contract has undergone many improvements, including the avoidence of the possibility that a "Saudi prince" could pay for the land parcels and never return them.
• Those who have been appointed by the Chief Rabbinate on this topic, Rav Avraham Yosef and Rav Zeev Whitman, have extensively researched the question of ownership of each seller, and sat with landowners who understood well the sale’s implications. Thus the claim of insufficient intent "gemirut da’at," has fallen to the wayside.

An additional advantage to this method is that it does not damage Jewish settlement of Eretz Yisrael. It allows for the continued supply of fruits and vegetables, including exported goods, throughout the entire year, at reasonable prices. This method is the only solution that takes into consideration the needs of the public and not just the individual’s desire to try to fastidiously keep the laws of Shmittah.
In spite of all this, allow us to again mention that this heter is bedievad. It is necessary to test each Shmittah year the need for its implementation. By using this heter, one is partially nullifying the laws of Shmittah. The land subsequently does not lie fallow, man does not cease his work, nor is there any social benefit from the Shmittah year that is observed in such a manner.
Therefore, let us repeat our previous statements that we must continue to pray that we will soon merit the observance of Shmittah from the Torah, with hidur and happiness. Amen!

5.Shmittah Today in the State of Israel: Non-Jewish Produce
Let us investigate the solution of non-Jewish produce during the Shmittah year. Some halachic authorities have not accepted the solution of heter mechira, primarily because of their claim that the sale of parcels of the land of Israel to non-Jews is forbidden according to the Torah, the prohibition of Lo Tichaneim. The significance of this prohibition is the obligation to avoid taking steps that would help non-Jews (idolaters) from taking control of Eretz Yisrael or parts of it. Therefore, the sale by means of an authorized agent would not help according to the law of "ein shaliach lidvar aveirah," there is no agent in a forbidden act. Furthermore, those who are opposed to the heter have claimed that the sale does not help, since there is no real intent to sell on the part of the sellers. An additional claim is that the heter mechirah completely cancels the laws of Shmittah. It is therefore unlike other dispensations that are used in halachah (earlier, we explained the answers given in the past to these difficulties and what are the improvements that were implemented in the last few years regarding the issue of heter mechira). These halachic authorities called on the public to act according to their halachic rulings, and to consume only non-Jewish produce during the Shmittah year. The agricultural produce of Arab-Israelis, Arabs of Yehudah and Shomron, of adjacent Arab countries, and the agricultural produce imported from Europe are included in this category. Now we will explain, with Hashem’s help, some of the disadvantages of this method.
Importing from Europe allows for the sale of vegetables and afterwards fruits that do not have any concern regarding the halachot of Shvi’it. However, this produce is sold at exorbitant prices. The vast majority of the public is unable to afford these prices. Especially larger families who lack physical means (from their own freewill) are bound to pay these prices. This reality certainly takes its toll on their childrens’ health and possibly the health of the adults. One should consider the halachic ramifications.
Prior to the commencing of the Shmittah year, agreements for the upcoming years were signed with farmers in Arab countries. They ensured the importing of their crops to the State of Israel. These agreements caused harm and will continue to inflict injury for several years upon Israeli agriculture. All this is in order to be saved from a possible prohibition of "Lo Tichaneim", while at the same time causing a definate blow to the settling of the Land. These fruits and vegetables are also much more expensive than Israeli produce.
The agreements that were signed with Arab-Israelis are very problematic from a halachic perspective. A difficult competition exists between the Jewish law-abiding public and Arab authorities who do not recognize the laws of the State regarding the ownership of land in the State of Israel. The problem of Lo Tichaneim arises here in full force. This method’s advantage is in reality a clear disadvantage. From this perspective, it appears that it is preferable to rely on the heter mechira. At least the sale is temporary and does not encourage the wresting of control of land parcels and vast territories into the hands of those who are hostile towards the State of Israel as a Jewish State.
The agreements that were signed with Arabs living in Yehudah and Shomron are much worse from a halachic point-of-view. The State of Israel announced that the Gaza Strip and the people who took it over are a hostile entity, who are currently at war with us. The State of Israel calls upon the entire world to boycott the rulership there and to not encourage it financially. How is it possible that when the hostile entity is trying to murder us—men, women, and children—by firing missiles on a civilian populace, G-d-fearing individuals are being "meticulous" by signing with members of this hostile entity multiple-year trade contracts? This is when there are other halachic remedies available! The agreements with members of the Palestinian Authority in Yehudah and Shomron are extremely problematic in this regard. Fatah members are caught on a daily basis in attempts to smuggle suicidal terrorists into Israeli towns. Palestinian police members attempt, and to our great dismay, succeed, in killing Jews. The problem of the kashrut certification here seems quite severe.
An additional existing problem, even within the sovereign jurisdiction of the State of Israel, is the problem of kashrut supervision. Even the various mehadrin hechsherim admit that their mashgichim are in danger and under constant threats to their lives. The problem of supervision touches upon two areas: The first, preventing the trickling of produce of Jews, who did not sell their fields and who are attempting to get higher prices by falsely marketing their produce as non-Jewish into the market place. The second area—the distribution of produce that grew on Jewish land but was merely rented to Arabs. Attempts to be "scrupulous" might cause great obstacles. It is therefore astonishing to call this solution "Shemirat Shmittah kehilchata", observing Shmitta according to halachah, or "Shemirat Shmittah lechumrah," observing Shmittah stringently.
In wake of the above, Rav Shaul Yisraeli, zt"l ruled that heter mechira is preferable to purchasing agricultural products from non-Jews—especially from those who attempt to expel the Jewish People from its inheritance and who are unprepared to recognize the State of Israel as a Jewish State (responsa BaMareh HaBazaq, volume 3, responsa 106. See the explanation there of other halachic difficulties using this method).
May we soon merit the scrupulous observance of the laws of Shmittah from the Torah with faith! May we merit being like those who only rely upon HaKadosh Baruch Hu. Let us continue to pray that we will merit to conduct ourselves like the believers in Hashem who plant for six years and who abandon their fields during the Shmittah year.
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