Shemitta

December 21, 2014

Shemitta 5775

This year is a shemitta (sabbatical) year and the first since the Rabbanit & I moved to Israel. Strangely, I keep getting questions despite the fact that I left the rabbinate years ago and there is no shortage of rabbis here! But sometimes its impossible to turn people away empty handed so I decided to look into the matter. Of course, as an Israeli, Teudat zehut carrying Jew, I also need to know the laws…..

The Torah (Vayikra 25:1-7) teaches that every seventh year is shmittah and prohibits working the land of Eretz Yisroel. During that year, one may not plough, plant, or work the field in any way. Furthermore, the farmer must treat whatever grows on his land as ownerless, allowing others to pick and keep his fruit. They may only take as much as their family will be eating, and the farmer himself also may take this amount. This has its benefits. If grow apples then besides bartering them I might get sick of apples after 6 years. But just as my neighbours can help themselves to my apples in the shemitta year, so I can help myself to their oranges, pears, strawberries, grapes, melons, etc etc! so its not all bad news. Many other laws apply to the produce that grows during shmittah, including, for example, that one may not sell the produce in a business manner nor may one export it outside Eretz Yisroel.

This was ok in biblical and Talmudic times of small holdings but it can hardly work in a large, modern economy.
The British white paper of 1922 stated that Palestine could not support another 25,000 Jews but here we are in 2014 with 8,146,000 people and exporting fruit, vegetables and flowers to the whole of Europe and beyond.
Not only is nobody dying of starvation but we are facing an obesity crisis albeit 10 years later than the UK and 20 years later than the USA.
But I digress.

The Torah (Vayikra 25:1-7) teaches that every seventh year is shmittah and prohibits working the land of Eretz Yisroel. During that year, one may not plough, plant, or work the field in any way. Furthermore, the farmer must treat whatever grows on his land as ownerless, allowing others to pick and keep his fruit. They may only take as much as their family will be eating, and the farmer also may take this amount. Many other laws apply to the produce that grows during shmittah, including, for example, that one may not sell the produce in a business manner nor may one export it outside Eretz Yisroel.

For the modern farmer, observing shmittah is indeed true mesiras nefesh, since among the many other concerns that he has, he also risks losing customers who have been purchasing his products for years. For example, a farmer may be selling his citrus or avocado crop to a distributor in Europe who sells his produce throughout the European Community. If he informs his customer that he cannot export his product during shmittah year, he risks losing the customer in the future.

Of course, a Jew realizes that Hashem provides parnasah and that observing a mitzvah will never hurt anyone. Therefore, a sincerely observant farmer obeys the Torah dictates knowing that Hashem attends to all his needs. Indeed, recent shmittos have each had numerous miracles rewarding observant farmers in this world for their halachic diligence. Who can possibly imagine what reward awaits them in Olam Haba!

But many farmers are not religious and even many of the religious ones cannot be expected to reach that level of bitachon and simply close the business.

I’m also not sure about Chareidi system of collecting money to pay the farmers to keep shemitta. Are we supposed to pay people to keep mitzvot? Is it Zedaka? Have you ever met a poor farmer?

I once bought a ready mixed salad and noticed that there were 4 ingredients and 4 hechsherim on the packet!
Similarly during shemitta there seems to be 4 ways to go.

1. Shnat shishit. Fruit & veg don’t grow overnight and until Pesach, one can buy produce from the sixth year.
2. Yevul Nochri. Import from outside Israel. Included in this is anything grown outside the biblical borders of Israel ie anything south of netivot. One can hardly believe that the Torah expected the Jews of Israel to live off imported food every 7 years!
3. Hydroponics. ( here they call it the gush katif method) growing ( especially) salads on water detached from the ground.
4. Otzar Bet Din. the farmer sells his land to the Bet Din and they sell the produce and use the money to pay the wages of the non Jewish workers. this is parallel to the prozbul of Hillel. it should mean that the produce is cheaper as no profit is made but in reality it is twice the price of the heter mechira produce! somebody is making momey!

Did I say 4? I forgot hydroponics so I meant 5.

5. Heter mechira. Selling the land to a non Jew. This is the method on which I want to concentrate.

WHAT IS HETER MECHIRAH?

The basic concept of heter mechirah is that the farmer sells his land to a gentile, who is not required to observe shmittah. Since a gentile now owns the land, the gentile may farm the land, sell its produce, and make a profit. The poskim dispute whether a Jew may work land owned by a gentile during shmittah (Tosafos, Gittin 62a s.v. ayn odrin, prohibits; whereas Rashi, Sanhedrin 26a s.v. agiston, permits).

If you say heter mechira people immediately think of Harav Kook zatza”l ( and this is yet another issue that divides the dati-leumi from the Chareidi community). But this is a BIG MISTAKE.

The earliest source I found discussing this possibility was an eighteenth century responsum penned by Rav Mordechai Rubyou, the Rosh Yeshivah in Hebron at the time, who discusses the tribulations of a Jew owning a vineyard in Eretz Yisroel in that era (Shu’t Shemen Hamor, Yoreh Deah #4. This sefer was published posthumously in 1793.)

HISTORY OF MODERN HETER MECHIRAH

Before explaining the halachic background to the heter mechirah question, I think it is important to understand the historical context of the question.

Rav Yechiel Michel Tukachinski, one of the great twentieth century poskim of Eretz Yisroel, describes the history and development of the use of heter in is his work, Sefer Hashmittah.

The first modern shmittah was in the year 5642 (1882), Rav Kook wasnt born until 1865 and didnt leave yeshiva until 1885!!!
Although at that time there were a mere handful of Jewish farmers in Israel, located in Petach Tikvah, Motza, and Mikveh Yisroel. The highly observant farmers in these communities were uncompromising in their commitment to observe shmittah in full halachic detail. Apparently, at the same time there were some Sefardic farmers in Israel whose rabbonim did allow them to sell their fields to a gentile for the duration of shmittah (see Shu’t Yeshuos Malko, Yoreh Deah #53; Shu’t Yabia Omer 3:Yoreh Deah #19:7).

By the next shmittah of 5649 (1889), there was already a much larger Jewish agricultural presence in Eretz Yisroel. Prior to that shmittah year, representatives of the developing Israeli agricultural communities approached several prominent Eastern European gedolim, claiming that the new yishuv could not survive financially if shmittah were to be observed fully and that mass starvation would result. Could they sell their land to a gentile for the duration of shmittah and then plant the land and sell its produce?

THE BEGINNINGS OF A CONTROVERSY

Rav Naftali Hertz, the Rav of Yaffo, who also served as the Rav of most of the agricultural communities involved, directed the shaylah to the gedolei haposkim of the time, both in Israel and in Europe. The rabbonim in Europe were divided, with many prominent poskim, including Rav Yehoshua Kutno, Rav Yosef Engel and Rav Shmuel Mahliver, approving the sale of the land to non-Jews as a horaas shaah, a ruling necessitated by the emergency circumstances prevailing, but not necessarily permitted in the future. They permitted the heter mechirah, but only with many provisos, including that only non-Jews perform most agricultural work. On the other hand, many great European poskim prohibited this heter mechirah, including such luminaries as the Netziv (Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, the Rosh Yeshivah of the preeminent yeshiva of the era in Volozhin, Lithuania), the Beis HaLevi (3:1) (Rav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveichek), the Aruch HaShulchan (Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein), and Rav Dovid Karliner.

Rav Yitzchak Elchanan Spector, the Rav of Kovno, Lithuania, who many viewed as the posek hador, ruled that Rav Hertz could perform the sale and instructed him to have the great poskim of Yerushalayim actuate the sale.

This complicated matters, since the Ashkenazi Rabbonei Yerushalayim universally opposed the heter mechirah and published a letter decrying it stridently. This letter, signed by the two rabbonim of Yerushalayim, Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin and Rav Shmuel Salant, and over twenty other gedolim and talmidei chachamim, implored the farmers in the new yishuv to keep shmittah steadfast and expounded on the divine blessings guaranteed them for observing shmittah. The letter also noted that Klal Yisroel was punished severely in earlier times for abrogating shmittah (see Avos Chapter 5). As Rashi (Vayikra 26:35) points out, the seventy years of Jewish exile between the two batei hamikdash correspond to the exact number of shmittos that were not observed from when the Jews entered Eretz Yisroel until the exile. The great leaders of Yerushalayim hoped that if Klal Yisroel observed shmittah correctly, this would constitute a collective teshuvah for the sins of Klal Yisroel and would usher in the geulah.

Rav Hertz, who had originally asked the shaylah, was torn as to what to do. Although he had received letters from some of the greatest poskim of Europe permitting the mechirah, the poskei Yerushalayim were adamant in their opposition. He decided not to sell the land himself, but arranged mechirah for those who wanted it through the Sefardic rabbonim in Yerushalayim, who had apparently performed this mechirah in previous years.

What happened? Did the Jewish farmers observe the shmittah as cajoled by the Rabbonei Yerushalayim, or did they rely on heter mechirah? Although the very committed farmers observed shmittah according to the dictates of the Gedolei Yerushalayim, many of the more marginally observant farmers succumbed to the pressure and relied on heter mechirah. Apparently, many farmers were subjected to considerable financial and social pressure not to observe shmittah.

Prior to shmittah year 5656 (1896), Rav Hertz again considered what to do in the coming shmittah, and approached the Rabbonei Yerushalayim. This time, both Rav Shmuel Salant and Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin approved the mechirah and even suggested to Rav Hertz how to arrange this mechirah in a halachically approved fashion.

WHAT CHANGED?

Why were the very same rabbonim who vehemently opposed the mechirah seven years earlier not opposed this time? Initially these rabbonim felt that since we had now merited returning to Eretz Yisroel, we should make sure to observe all the mitzvos of Eretz Yisroel without compromise, and evading shmittah with heter mechirah runs totally counter to this spirit. However, upon realizing that few farmers had observed the previous shmittah properly, the feeling of these great gedolim was that without the option of heter mechirah, most farmers would simply conduct business as usual and ignore shmittah completely. Therefore, it was better to permit heter mechirah while at the same time encourage farmers not to rely upon it.

Prior to the next shmittah in 5663 (1903) Rav Hertz re-asked his shaylah from the rabbonim of Yerushalayim, Rav Shmuel Salant, and the Aderes, Rav Eliyahu Dovid Rabinowitz Teumim (Rav Diskin had passed on in the meantime), since the original approval stipulated only the 1896 shmittah year. These rabbonim felt that the circumstances had not changed and that there was still a need for heter mechirah. Rav Hertz himself passed away before the heter mechirah was finalized, and his son-in-law, Rav Yosef HaLevi, apparently a talmid chacham of note, finalized the mechirah in his stead, following the instructions of the rabbonei Yerushalayim.

Seven years later (5670/1910), Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook was the Rav of Yaffo and continued the practice of the mechirah, while at the same time encouraging those who would observe shmittah correctly to do so. As Rav he continued this practice of performing the heter mechirah for the several subsequent shmittos of his life.

In addition, Rav Kook instituted a new aspect to heter mechirah. Prior to his time, the heter mechirah involved appointing an agent to sell the land for the years of shmittah. Rav Kook improvised a facet of the mechira enabling even a farmer who did not avail himself of the mechirah to be included since it would be in his best interest to have some heter when he works his field rather than totally desecrating the Holy Land in the holy year.

Although there is merit in protecting the farmer from his sin, a practical question now results that affects a consumer purchasing this farmer’s produce. If the farmer did not authorize the sale, does the produce indeed not have the sanctity of shmittah produce? For this latter reason, many individuals who might otherwise accept heter mechirah produce do not.

By the way, although the original heter mechirah specified that gentiles must perform all plowing, planting and harvesting.

SELLING ERETZ YISROEL

In addition to the question of whether one should evade performing a mitzvah of the Torah, the issue of heter mechirah involves another tremendous halachic difficulty. How can one sell any land of Eretz Yisroel when the Torah prohibits selling it to a non-Jew (Avodah Zarah 20a), and Chazal prohibit even renting the land (Mishnah, Avodah Zarah 20b)?

Different poskim have suggested various approaches to avoid this prohibition. Some contend that selling land temporarily with an expressed condition that it returns to the owner preempts the violation (Shu’t Shemen Hamor, Yoreh Deah #4), while others permit this since the sale is to assist the Jewish presence in Eretz Yisroel (Shu’t Yeshuos Malko, Yoreh Deah #55; Yalkut Yosef pg. 666, quoting Rav Reuven Katz, the late rav of Petach Tikvah). Others contend that the prohibition extends only to selling land to an idol-worshipper but not a gentile who does not worship idols (Sefer Hashmittah pg. 74; Yalkut Yosef pg. 665, quoting Mizbayach Adamah), whereas still others maintain that one may sell land to a gentile who already owns land in Israel (Shabbas Ha’aretz, Mavo 12). The original contracts approved by the rabbonei Yerushalayim incorporate some other aspects of the way the sale transpires to avoid this problem (Sefer Hashemitta p. 75). Each of these approaches is halachically controversial. In fact, the problem of selling the land to a gentile is so controversial that many poskim consider such a sale invalid because of the principle ein shaliach lidvar aveirah, that transacting property through agency in a halachically unacceptable manner is invalid (Chazon Ish, Shvi’is 24:4).

The Wise House

Rabbanit Wise is strict in matters of kashrut. She has taken to buying shechitat Harav Machpud ( chalak/glatt) and keeping shemitta lechumra! And since the kitchen is her domain there is little I can do about it. I keep telling her that shemitta is miderabbanan according to ALL authorities, that the koach dehetera adif, and that great rabbis including Rav Ovadiah Yosef, Rav Nachum Rabinovitch, Rav Shaul Yisraeli, hold that the basis for the heter mechira is stronger than otzar bet din. But whenever I raise the issue she asks me if I am really Jewish. So, I’m Mister Cash & Carry (and shut up) If Torah chasa al mammon yisrael, Rabbanit Wise certainly does not!

I’d better stop here and get dressed for the Sheva berachot that we are making for our niece. My theme will be shalom bayit!!!

Merry Chanukah!

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