The remarkable revival of the sabbatical year

In an extract from his new book, Rabbi Pini Dunner looks at how shmittah observance returned to Israel


More than 2000 students attend a ceremony ending the Shmita year (sabbatical year), in Efrat, on October 11, 2015. The shmita year is the seventh year of the seven-year agricultural cycle mandated by the Torah for the Land of Israel. During shmita, the land is left to lie fallow and all agricultural activity, including plowing, planting, pruning and harvesting, is forbidden by the Jewish law. Photo by Gershon Elinson/FLASH90 *** Local Caption *** è÷ñ îòîã ä÷äì äðòøê áñéåí ùðú äùîéèä ðòøê ì2000 úìîéãé áúé äñôø åäâðéí áàôøú

Jews have lived in the biblical Land of Israel uninterrupted for thousands of years. For much of the last 2,000 years Jewish life has been confined to small communities of pious families who braved poverty and hardship, relying on generous charitable support from coreligionist communities in North Africa, Asia and Europe.

But starting in the 1870s things began to change, and Jews ventured out into the largely uncultivated semi-arid land, and founded agricultural settlements, such as Petach Tikva and Zikhron Yaakov. The newly opened farms and orchards also became the subject of fierce debate, as Jewish laws relating to land cultivation in the Holy Land that had been dormant for millennia suddenly became relevant and controversial.

The most famous of these controversies centered on the observance of shemittah, the sabbatical year mandated in Parashat Behar (Leviticus 25:1-7) for all agricultural land in Israel. In 1888, the rabbinical authorities of Europe vigorously debated whether or not struggling farmers in nascent settlements would need to cease farming the land during the shemittah year of 1888-9.

Everyone agreed that without the existence of a fully functioning Temple in Jerusalem, shemittah observance was a rabbinically imposed stringency rather than a full-blown Torah mandated obligation. But while this allowed for greater leniency, shemittah was still considered a compulsory requirement, as opposed to an elective option.

Nevertheless, with the farmers complaining that they were barely able to sustain their livelihoods, the leading Ashkenazi rabbinic authority of the day, Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor of Kovno (1817-1896), issued a ruling referred to as heter mechirah (“sale dispensation”), permitting the “sale” of farmland to local Arabs, so that the Jewish owners could work for these gentile “owners” for the duration of shemittah and money earned from the sale of produce could be paid to them as “salary.”

Rabbi Spektor’s halachic ruling was fiercely challenged by some of his colleagues in Europe, and also by the religiously zealous leadership of the Ashkenazi Jewish community in Jerusalem, who despised the financial independence of the new agricultural communities. But despite the vehement opposition, the “sale” went ahead, and the grateful farmers were able to work the land.

By the time the next shemittah year came around, in 1895-6, disapproval towards the heter mechirah in the Jewish centres of Europe had abated and it seemed the controversy was over.

That modus vivendi changed when the secular-led Zionist movement was launched in 1897 and agricultural settlements in Ottoman Palestine run by militantly non-observant Jews increased in number.

Religious opposition to the activities of secular Zionists crystallised around the heter mechirah of 1909-10, and despite the precedent authorised by undisputed rabbinic luminaries of the previous generation, when the charismatic new chief rabbi of Jaffa, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook (1865-1935), opted to permit the heter mechirah, he and those who supported him were vilified and maligned.

The scene was set for this issue to forever be associated with ideological affiliation rather than systematic halachic reasoning.

Interestingly, however, in recent shemittahyears, more and more farmers, even those who are less religious, have chosen to observe the sabbatical year rather than to rely on the heter mechirah. During the shemittah year of 2014-15, almost 3,500 Israeli farmers allowed their land to remain fallow.

Remarkably, if you ask them why they are doing it, they generally just shrug their shoulders and answer simply: “because the Torah says so.”

Although, perhaps it is not so remarkable after all. The passage that introduces us to shemittah begins with the verse, “God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai” — which is strange, as Mount Sinai is never mentioned in the introduction to any other Torah commandment.

Rabbi Zadok Hakohen of Lublin (1823-1900) offers a compelling explanation. There were two distinct moments during the wilderness sojourn after the Exodus from Egypt. One took place at Mount Sinai, when the Torah was given for the first time.

The other moment took place almost forty years later, in the plains of Moab, when Moses reiterated the Torah for the next generation, who were about to inherit the Promised Land with Joshua at their head.

It was not just the passage of time that separated these two moments; it was also existential realities. The Sinai group had all their needs personally taken care of by God, unlike the Moab group, who needed to be trained for a military campaign and subsequent cultivation of the land.

Clearly the observance of shemittah was of no direct concern to the first group, only to the second.

In which case, why is Mount Sinai, and not Moab, mentioned in association with shemittah? The answer must be that shemittah concerned the Jews even when it was irrelevant. The Mount Sinai Jews were hyperconscious of the fact that every facet of God’s Torah, and the commandments it contained was important.

For all the years after our Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, during which time shemittah was not practised, we nonetheless kept it alive in absentia, eventually re-embracing it when the opportunity arose — at first with the use of a dispensation that acknowledged its continued significance, and ultimately by taking on its full observance, despite a valid way with which to dispense with it completely.

That lesson of love for Torah, even when it appears dormant, is a lesson we have inherited from the Jews of Mount Sinai.

Excerpted from Rabbi Dunner’s new book, Hearts & Minds – an original look at each parsha in the Torah, Otzrot Books, £18.99

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