This entry also dates from my mini-sabbatical in Israel two years ago, which was also a sabbatical year (2007-2008). It is still timely !
If living in Israel is complicated and eating in Israel is more complicated, then eating in Israel during a Shmitta year is almost an impenetrable maze. In general, the multitude of local Rabbinates, many with standards of Kashrut than are unacceptable to one accustomed to RCBC or OU standards, make kashrut (and shopping or eating out) a treacherous minefield. It is not merely a question of glatt vs. non-glatt; there are even different standards of glatt, different standards of mehadrin – and even a familiarity with Yoreh Deah is not always conclusive. But shmitta adds a dimension that exalts life here – with a constant reminder of the sanctity of the land of Israel – and also confounds, mystifies and bewilders.
First, the good news. The fundamental obligation of Shmitta is to allow one’s land to lie fallow – not to do any work that does more than maintain the land for future use. We administer a small plot of land outside our home, roughly half the size of a basketball foul lane, and I hate gardening. In fact, I am willing to let my land lie fallow for this entire year and for the next six years as well (on the small chance that they have the wrong date for Shmitta). So I have found that aspect of Shmitta to be one of the easier mitzvot in the Torah to fulfill.
But one has to eat too, and therein lay the perplexities. The Torah declares a moratorium on private ownership of the land of Israel every seven years. Theoretically, any person is entitled to walk onto a field and grab enough produce for a day’s meal. On a practical level, two issues arise relating to fruits, vegetables and other produce: first, they have to be treated with Kedushat Shvi’it (meaning consumed in their usual way and not squandered or thrown in the trash). Every shmitta observant home contains a special receptacle to store peels and leftover produce until they decay, at which point they can be discarded. Of course, there is a special significance in consuming Peirot Shvi’it properly, as it is a mitzva in its own right and affords an additional awareness of what it means to be dwelling in a holy and blessed land.
The second issue, though, is where the majority of complications set in: it is forbidden to commercially sell Peirot Shvi’it. So, in a modern economy, how can the producer get the product to the consumer in a way that does not violate the laws of Shmitta ? On this point, there is no agreement, much disagreement (some of it vehement), and whatever method one chooses attracts both support and opposition.
There are three main methods: to purchase produce from an Otzar Bet Din, to purchase what is called Yevul Nochri (non-Jewish produce, either Arab or European), or rely on the famous Heter Mechira, the “sale” of the land to Arabs in order to allow Jewish workers to work their fields (slightly differently than in the other years) and then sell their produce to Jews.
The Otzar Bet Din is, by far, the preferred arrangement. Effectively, a communal body assumes control of Jewish fields and their produce, pays the farmers a sum of money to do the work on behalf of the Bet Din, and then sells the produce – proceeds to the Bet Din – at certain designated stores. This process is mentioned in a Tosefta, and was endorsed by the Chazon Ish, thereby carrying a lot of weight in these parts. But the Rambam doesn’t cite this as a halachic possibility, many authorities don’t accept it, and many farmers (probably for financial reasons) do not wish to be part of the Otzar Bet Din system.
Non-Jewish produce poses the fewest halachic problems, especially if it comes from outside the land of Israel entirely. (The Chazon Ish, for example, ruled that even Arab-owned produce in the land of Israel has to be treated with Kedushat Shvii’it.) But the notion of buying produce from Arabs does not sit well with many people, it is especially abhorrent and repugnant to purchase it from the new “owners” of the hothouses of the former Gush Katif (at least the ones they didn’t ransack), and it is widely assumed that such purchases underwrite terror. Yet, it is the preferred method for Charedim, and has – again – unleashed torrents of abuse against them. One writer (in classic Israeli understated fashion) termed them “Palestinians l’mehadrin.”
Much of the criticism, to me at least, seems misdirected. It is hard to accept that the government of Israel can turn over the Palestinians $60,000,000 in cash – and that “will not fund terror” – but if one wants to observe the law of the Torah and buy a cucumber for a shekel from an Arab, then that is “funding terror.” And for the other six years of the cycle, Israel and the Palestinian occupied territories are each other’s largest importers and exporters – so, then, is it only during shmitta that this becomes a concern ?
Of course, who can verify that it is actually Arab produce ? There were cases in the past of Israeli farmers unscrupulously selling their produce to an Arab “middleman” who then re-sold it as yevul nochri. In the Arab shuk, a few weeks ago, I saw Israeli tomatoes being wheeled to some unknown destination. So who really knows what it is ? (They have tried to compensate for this by sending in mashgichim to Arab-occupied areas with security escorts, but who really knows ?)
The third method is the most controversial – the sale of the land of Israel to an Arab. It is a tactic that is now well over a century old that was endorsed by many gedolim in the past (and opposed by many as well). Rav Kook, in 1904, endorsed its use temporarily, as “an emergency measure to prevent starvation.” Undoubtedly, in the context of his time, he was correct. But no one will starve today, and it is more a question of loss of farmer’s income than anything else. But yet, every shmitta cycle, the “sale” is carried out, with fewer and fewer straight faces.
Some have falsely analogized this sale to the ‘sale of chametz‘ before Pesach, but, in fact, their functions are completely opposite. We sell the chametz in order to fulfill the Torah’s requirement that we not own chametz on Pesach. We don’t want the chametz on Pesach – and so we divest ourselves – we only want to possess it after Pesach. The “sale” of Eretz Yisrael has the exact opposite effect; it is an attempt to circumvent the Torah’s proscription of not working the land during shmitta. The analogy would be apt if a person “sold” his chametz on Pesach, and then transacted business with it.
The substance of the heter mechira, you will surely recall, we studied in depth on Shavuot night in 1999, so I will not re-hash it here while it is still fresh in your minds. But a few points to ponder: What is actually being sold ? (I was told just the topsoil.) So, is there a mitzva of aliya this year, as the land is owned by Arabs ? Will all residents hold two-days Yom Tov ? Is there reward for walking four amot in the land, since one walks on the topsoil ? How does one sell a country anyway ? (Actually, that happens too). I am being half-facetious.
And here is the greatest irony: the proponents of selling the land to an Arab are the group in society most adamantly opposed to surrendering any land to the Arabs, not only on security grounds but also based on the Torah’s prohibition of Lo Techanem (not providing any non-Jew with permanent real estate in Israel). Furthermore, the Religious Zionists – the ones most engaged in implementing the Torah in a modern Jewish state – are essentially conceding through use of the heter that this part of the Torah – observance of Shmitta – is incompatible with a modern state; while those who are not Zionists at all – and not averse to receiving handouts, which sustains the many frum farmers who observe shmitta completely – are in the position of arguing that the Torah – in all its categories and laws – is compatible with a modern Jewish state. Go figure. Of course, keep in mind that the great advantage of the heter is that it supports Jewish farmers, and that itself is an important mitzva.
Add to this the fact that the Chief Rabbinate has been lukewarm in its endorsement of the heter, that many jurisdictions have prohibited use of the heter, that the Rabbanut has been ordered by the High Court of Justice to implement the heter (!) and that a new Rabbinical organization named Tzohar has offered its own hashgacha using the heter and breaking the Rabbanut’s kashrut monopoly in the process – what we have is a major league balagan. Personally, we try to avoid use of the heter, patronize the Otzar Bet Din and mehadrin shmitta stores – but even what mehadrin means is hard to know for sure. Every question has an answer, and every answer generates new questions. Perhaps the balagan was meant to be.
A few weeks ago, we were driving on the Ayalon Highway from north to south Tel Aviv. To be more accurate, we were really sitting in traffic on the Ayalon Highway, and not moving at all. As we entered and were stopped dead in our tracks, the road-sign above read “P’kahk ad Kibbutz Galuyot“, or “Gridlock until the ‘Kibbutz Galuyot’ Exit” (the last Tel Aviv exit on the highway). As I sat there (with little else to do), I contemplated the sign, and saw the deeper message: indeed, there is gridlock – spiritual gridlock – and there will be, until all the exiles come home and until Moshiach arrives. Only then will all these questions be answered, all these problems resolved, and as Torah Jews we will speak with one voice in acknowledging the Torah that comes from Zion, and the word of G-d that comes from Yerushalayim.
Until then, as the old joke ends, the minhag is to fight about it. Until then… which we pray comes speedily and in our time.