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Parshas Behar (5774)

Honey, I Bought the Land of Israel

You may not know this, but this coming year in the Land of Israel starting from Rosh HaShanah (September 25th) is a Shemittah year … and it makes life in Israel very interesting.

Shemittah (lit. "release", also called the Sabbatical year, or Shevi’is‎, lit. "seventh") is the seventh year of the seven-year agricultural cycle mandated by the Torah for the Land of Israel, and still observed by many Jews until this very day.

The laws of the Shemittah year can mostly be found in this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Behar (see Leviticus 25:1-7; see also Exodus 23:10-12 and Deuteronomy 15:1-6). During Shemittah, the land is left to lie fallow and all agricultural activity, including plowing, planting, pruning and harvesting, is forbidden by Halachah (Jewish law). Other cultivation techniques (such as watering, fertilizing, weeding, spraying, trimming and mowing) may be performed as a preventative measure only, not to improve the growth of trees or other plants. Additionally, any fruits which grow of their own accord are deemed hefker (ownerless) and may be picked by anyone. A variety of laws also apply to the sale, consumption and disposal of Shemittah produce.

You can imagine what this must have been like in an agrarian society like Israel where most of the population farmed and cultivated crops for a living. What incredible faith and trust must the Jews have had to be able to “release” their hold on their farmlands and crops for one full year and rely on G-d’s blessing to support them.

In fact, the Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah teaches us that the verse in Tehillim “… the strong warriors who do His bidding, to obey the voice of His word” (Psalms 103:20), especially refers to those who faithfully uphold the agricultural restrictions of the Sabbatical year. Since G-d commanded that the land lie fallow for one full year, these farmers willingly allow their property go to waste, despite the fact that they must pay taxes on the property which they cannot use. Because the devout man accepts all this with serene faith, he merits the title strong warrior.

Now maybe in our times when many Jews in Israel make their livelihood through other means (such as “hi-tech”), it’s not such an issue. However, for most of our history, Jews in Israel made their living by farming the land. And even today there are a great number of orchards, farms and agricultural companies across the land producing every imaginable kind of fruit, vegetable and grain, making the Shemittah year a tremendous challenge and test of faith.

In the late 19th century, in the early days of Zionism, the great Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spector ZT”L and other rabbinical authorities came up with a Halachic means of allowing agriculture to continue during the Shemittah year, in order to help all the Jewish immigrant farmers who might well have starved had they not worked the land for the entire year.

After ruling that the biblical prohibition consists of not cultivating the land owned by Jews, Rabbi Spector devised a mechanism by which the entire Land of Israel could be sold to an Arab for the duration of that year under a trust agreement. Under this plan, the land would belong to the non-Jew for the Shemittah year, and revert to Jewish ownership when the year was over. When the land was sold under such an arrangement, Jews could continue to farm it. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook ZT”L, the first Chief Rabbi of British Mandate Palestine, adopted this principle, which became known as the heter mechirah (lit. "sale permit").

The heter mechirah was accepted by Modern Orthodox Judaism and is practiced in Israel till this very day. The Chief Rabbinate obtains permission from all farmers who wish to have their land sold. The land is then legally sold to a non-Jew for a large sum of money. The payment is made by a cheque post-dated to after the end of the Sabbatical year. When the cheque is returned or not honoured at the end of the year the land reverts to its original owners. Thus, the fields can be farmed with certain restrictions.

[Can you imagine the phone call Achmed makes to his wife when he’s driving home from the meeting with the Chief Rabbis? …“Fatima, you’re not going to believe this, but remember those crazy rabbis who sold me all their bread and expensive scotch back in April? Well today they sold me the entire land of Israel!! Do you hear me?? The entire freakin’ country!!]

However, it is important to note that the heter mechirah has not been universally accepted in the Orthodox community and has met with strong opposition, particularly from Chareidi (so-called “ultra-Orthodox”) poskim (authorities of Jewish law).

They maintain that the heter mechirah cannot be used for a variety of reasons, primarily the fact that one is Biblically forbidden to sell any part of the Land of Israel to a non-Jew (see Deuteronomy 7:2 and Tractate Avodah Zarah 20a).

As well, they view the sale of the land as somewhat ‘fictitious’. When, prior to Shemittah, a contract is drawn up and signed between the representative of the landowners and a non-Jew, selling him all of the fields and orchards in Israel, there is no one who believes even for a moment that it is a normal transaction. For financial, social, and ideological reasons the owners would never part with their land under these circumstances; the sale is clearly but a legal device to side-step a prohibition.

Additionally, the economic situation is far better today than it was in the late 1800’s when Rabbi Spector first applied the heter mechirah under extenuating circumstances, and therefore the heter should not be relied upon today.

So, as I said before, the upcoming Shemittah year will likely be very interesting indeed … never a dull moment in the Land of Israel!

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