Observing Shmita Sensibly

It is neither correct nor moral to subjugate our small community of Jewish farmers to a commandment whose observance is no longer possible.

The seventh year, the shmita (sabbatical) year, is approaching. The country's major merchants are preparing: Here is a golden opportunity for organizing the mass sale of produce untouched by Jewish hands and "free of any fear of the violation of the laws governing the shmita year." Ultra-Orthodox bodies specializing in supervision of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) are mobilizing to encourage Israeli consumers to purchase agricultural produce only from non-Jews.

Israel's urban dwellers are scarcely aware of the struggle for survival of the small group of Jewish farmers in this country. Most Israelis see shmita as yet another Jewish dietary law and the sale of agricultural produce "free of any fear of the violation of the laws of shmita" as being similar to the sale of worm-free lettuce, fruits "free of any fear of the violation of the laws governing orla" (fruit of a tree in the first three years after planting; during that period its consumption is prohibited) and vegetables "free of any fear of the violation of the laws governing tevel" (untithed produce). Instead of becoming a formative commandment for Israeli society, shmita has become yet another area of Jewish observance that Jews loyal to God's commandments must be careful not to transgress.

This year, as in the past, and after investigating the situation of agriculture in this country, Israel's Chief Rabbinate is instructing Jewish farmers in Israel to sign deeds of sale for the lands they possess so that Jewish farming can continue in Israel. However, at the same time, the Rabbinate has informed the chief rabbis of Israeli cities that they are not bound by this instruction, thus enabling the ultra-Orthodox community to follow a line of conduct that zealously protects - and focuses exclusively on - the interests of ultra-Orthodox consumers. As a result, we find chief rabbis of cities issuing instructions forbidding restaurants and other establishments from using Israeli agricultural produce and requiring them to work only with suppliers importing foreign produce.

Anyone familiar with the halakha knows it is capable of, and interested in, dealing with problems arising because of changing external circumstances. However, there is less awareness of the fact that solutions compliant with the halakha depend on the degree to which rabbinical authorities (and the communities where they operate) feel pressed to come up with solutions.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook's attitude toward shmita is a classic illustration of this point: While still in the Diaspora (prior to 1904), far from Palestine's farms and Jewish farmers, he took the idealistic-utopian position that shmita must be strictly observed and that no special permit should be issued by which Jewish farmers could sell their farms for one year and could therefore continue working the land (which they no longer owned) and sell their produce during shmita. He belonged to the proto-Zionist Hovevei Zion organization, which believed the suspension of Jewish farming during shmita would advance Jewish national redemption. Only after moving to Palestine and meeting Jewish farmers from the rural communities of Jaffa and its vicinity did Rabbi Kook understand the pressure facing them and the need for the permits.

"Although it pains us that we must follow this course of action, we have no choice," he declared. "We must use this narrow loophole and rely on the arrangement afforded by the permit."

The ultra-Orthodox community thinks differently, viewing shmita from the standpoint of its own consumers. Shmita is no longer a splendid commandment but rather a restriction that must be dealt with. This community's solution is to ensure non-Jewish agricultural produce for its consumers. Thus, ultra-Orthodox consumers traditionally prefer produce imported from Jordan or elsewhere to the "blue-and-white" variety. The pressure Rabbi Kook felt in his day, as Palestine's first chief rabbi, is today felt only by rabbis who consider themselves responsible for all segments of Israeli society. That is why the Chief Rabbinate has traditionally supported the permit arrangement, despite doubts expressed about it.

Leading Sephardic rabbis in Israel have also traditionally backed the permit to protect Israeli agriculture. Seven years ago, then chief Sephardic rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron courageously took a stand against the ultra-Orthodox community, coming out publicly in favor of the permit. His teacher and master, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, supported him; in one sermon during the previous shmita, Rabbi Yosef quoted from Rabbi Joshua Trunk's "Yeshu'ot Malko": "Because of the Ashkenazic Jews' rashness, a major stumbling block has been created and Jews [in Palestine] are working their own lands (even without a permit)."

Only people totally oblivious to Israel's social situation could possibly issue a blanket prohibition of this permit. We, the members of Israel's Zionist community (in all its various forms), must stand firmly beside Jewish farmers in this country and not let those with narrow vested interests control major intersections in our lives. In the face of the advertisements of merchants extolling non-Jewish agricultural produce, we must formulate a policy for Israeli consumership. We must declare in the nation's schools, youth movements, synagogues and in every other possible forum that each purchase of non-Jewish agricultural produce unravels another thread in Zionism's flag.

For years, Israeli agriculture has waged a defensive war of survival. One shmita can become for many Jewish farmers here another obstacle leading to their collapse.

Although some Israeli farmers try to strictly observe shmita and do not work their lands, and although others have found ways of skirting its restrictions within the halakha's boundaries, much of Israeli agriculture still depends on the permit. We must protect them and not allow the situation to be controlled by small-minded, exploitative merchants who, for the sake of their own profits, are willing to import foreign produce that seriously undermines Israeli agriculture.

We must apply the original idea of the shmita, a year when commercial competition is suspended and we refine our qualities, to other channels relevant to most Israelis. It is neither correct nor moral to subjugate our small community of Jewish farmers to a commandment whose observance is no longer possible.