(May 22, 2022 / Jewish newspaper) good respect for shmita has been a topic of perennial debate within the Orthodox community of Israel for the past 130 years. The rules of the sabbatical year—shmita– force farmers to stop working and open their fields and all their products to anyone. But Jewish farming communities established in the late 1800s feared that shmita could affect their viability. They felt they just couldn’t afford to close for the whole year.
At the time, the idea of a heter mechira was first proposed by several religious Zionist rabbis and endorsed by Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spector, the leading halachic authority of the time. the heter mechira stands for “authorization through a sale”. It employs a mechanism where fields are sold to non-Jews for the shmita year, and the Jewish farmer continues to work the same field. After the conclusion of shmita year, the Jewish farmer buys the field. Even within the Zionist religious community, there have been strong opponents of the heter mechira. Zionist religious pioneer Rabbi Yechiel Michel Pines wrote about respecting shmita in 1889:
The command of shmita has been an essential element of our religion, an element without which we cannot live. And now comes the first shmita in our colonies, and suddenly appear the merciful, the sons of the merciful, who have compassion on the settlers without even asking their opinion, and make a great uproar seeking in the world a way to offer halakhic permission (to work activated fields) shmitaand cut off a member of the Jewish people.
These passionate words underline the importance shmita is to Judaism. But why is it shmita so important ? There are four theories in the commentaries about the purpose of shmita: Recognize the sovereignty of God, support the poor, offer the peasant a sabbatical year of contemplation and honor and protect the earth. What is most fascinating is that there is a strong biblical basis for all four theories.
In this week parshathe Torah describes the shmita year as a sabbath; shmita is also the seventh year, a “seven” just like Shabbat. This suggests that, as with Shabbat, the purpose of shmita is to recognize the sovereignty of God over the world He has created. The Talmud emphasizes this point when it says: “The Holy One, blessed be He, said to the Jewish people: Plant for six years, and hold back for the seventh year, that you may know that the land is mine.
Chmita also emphasizes the importance of care for the poor. In Exodus 23:11, the Torah says that the shmita It is a time when farmers open their fields to everyone, and “let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat.” Another rule of shmita year also concerns the poor: The forgiveness of unpaid loans in order to allow the bankrupt to get out of debt. Charity is one of the main purposes of shmita.
The Torah also associates the shmita year of study and contemplation. The mitzvah of Hakhel follows the shmita year; in Hakhel, the whole nation gathers at the Temple to hear the King read the entire Torah. Hakhel’s connection with shmita has to do with the importance of learning. Ibn Ezra offers the theory that Hakhel occurs at the beginning of the shmita year and inaugurates a year of community learning; and as Shabbat, shmita is intended to be dedicated to learning. (Contrary to Ibn Ezra, the Talmud says that Hakhel takes place just after the end of the shmita year. Even so, the link between shmita and the learning is clear.)
Finally, the Torah describes the land of Israel as “desiring” the shmita (Lev. 26:34), and the earth as “watching” the shmita. Abravanel sees in this the purpose of highlighting the unique sanctity of the Land of Israel. As a holy land, it too must be distinguished by a holy year of shmita. The holiness of the land of Israel requires that the land itself have its own sabbath and rest during a sabbatical year. A very different earth-centered explanation is offered by the Rambam. He explains that the rest has a very practical purpose, as the land “betters when it lies fallow for a period of time”. At Rambam, shmita is simply good agronomy.
Why does the Torah give so many different purposes for shmita? Perhaps because, taken together, these four ideas represent a vision of a return to utopia. Farm life is overwhelming and competitive, and alienates the farmer socially and spiritually. In the shmita year, farmers are able to find their true selves. This year they are connecting more deeply to God, to their fellow human beings, and even to the very land they cultivate every day. Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook described the utopian beauty of shmita thus: “What Shabbat does for the individual, shmita made for the nation as a whole. … Our mundane lives, with their toil, anxiety, anger and competition cannot entirely extinguish (our) creative force. On the shmitaour pure inner spirit can be revealed as it really is.
Yet despite such a deep appreciation of the beauty of shmitaRabbi Kook and many others supported the heter mechira because of the practical issues involved. In the early years of agricultural colonies, there was a real fear that closing farms for a year would cause these colonies to fail. There is a debate today about whether these concerns are still relevant in 2022 in a country that has a well-developed agricultural sector. But there are good reasons to think that they remain a serious problem. Today, only a small percentage of the population, and an even smaller percentage of farmers, observe shmita. Yes shmita were a reality for the whole country, it would wreak havoc on the economy. Consider the supply chain implications of shutting down all Israeli farms for an entire year and finding new sources for all agricultural products. Those who are strict about shmita should in fact thank those who are not; otherwise, there would be runaway inflation and persistent shortages every shmita.
While practical concerns motivated the rabbis who proposed the heter mechira, their decision rested on a solid halakhic foundation. The status of shmita in contemporary times is not entirely clear. The majority of medieval authorities consider it to be purely rabbinical in nature, coming after the destruction of the Temple, and some even see it as a simple custom. Moreover, after years of exile, it has become difficult to know which year is really the shmita year, and there is more than one way to count seven years. Therefore, each shmita year carries the status of doubt. Due to these factors, proponents of the heter mechira considered it acceptable to circumvent shmita by selling agricultural land to a non-Jew. But this decision sparked controversy from the start and the debate continues to rage to this day.
the heter mechira debate is closely linked to many other debates within the Orthodox community. Should practical concerns shape how one relates to important religious goals? What is the importance of Jewish nationalism and a secular Jewish state in halakha? What relationship do we have with farmers who are secular and do not want to follow halakha? All of these debates rest on the foundations of earlier medieval debates over body versus soul: “If there is no flour, there is no Torah, and if there is no Torah, there is no flour.”
But I would say the heter mechira the debate is also something else. It is a clash between two utopias: the utopia of the Tanakh, and the utopia of the simple Jew. The biblical utopia is the shmita, in which mankind returns to the Garden of Eden and realizes the original ideals of creation. It is an inspiring goal, but in reality, it remains beyond our reach. Today, shmita is only practiced by a small group of farmers, who are supported by charities. The sad irony is that instead of rich farmers supporting the poor for shmitait is now the farmers who need the support of others during shmita.
However, there is another utopia, that of the simple Jew. For 2,000 years he dreamed of returning from exile and having his own home in his own homeland. But this practical nationalist view is actually a deeply religious view. It represents a messianic vision of “v’shavu banim l’gvulam“, “the children will go home”. To walk the streets of Israel and see a thriving and vibrant Jewish state was just a dream in the 1800s; and for the simple Jew, Israel is a real utopia. After a journey of two millennia, the simple Jew embraces Israel as a piece of paradise, where every fruit tastes sweeter, every day is more beautiful than the next, and every child is exceptional. the heter mechira is there to support and strengthen the State of Israel, the utopia of the simple Jew.
For those of us who rely on the heter mechira, it is essential that we do not allow pragmatism to stifle our idealism. Even if the utopia of shmita eludes us, we must embrace a utopia that we too often take for granted: the State of Israel.
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the chief rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.
This article was originally published by the Jewish Journal.