This Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the sabbatical year, shmitah in Hebrew, during which the Bible prohibits plowing, sowing, and harvesting in the Land of Israel. While modernity has in some ways made shmitah observance easier—since produce can be shipped and stored cheaply and efficiently—in other ways it has posed new difficulties. David M. Weinberg explores the dilemmas facing Israel in the upcoming year:
Shmitah is meant to teach man humility before God. Its observance, even to the point of financial loss to the farmer and economic hardship for the consumer, is considered an extremely important test of society’s religious and moral mettle. However, with modern Israel beset by agricultural and economic difficulties and diplomatic-military challenges, absolute shmitah observance is far from simple. A few hardy farmers indeed are letting their fields lie fallow. But that is not a solution for the entire country, which still needs to eat and keep its agricultural sector solvent.
In response, rabbinic leadership 125 years ago crafted the heter m’khirah, the “sale” of agricultural land to non-Jews for the year of shmitah under a trust agreement, which permits Jews to farm the land and sell the produce under certain conditions. The heter m’khirah end-run around shmitah has been reluctantly re-ratified by the chief rabbinate every shmitah since then, but its implementation grows ever more problematic. To begin with, [it] was meant as a temporary arrangement, not a two-century-long exemption. . . .
Orthodox Jews who impose on themselves stricter standards of shmitah observance get through the sabbatical year primarily by buying Arab-grown produce or expensive foreign produce. Indeed, the various kashrut organizations of the ḥaredi world have been busy signing produce-supply contracts with Palestinian Authority, Gazan, Jordanian, and Turkish farmers. This infuriates me. Primary reliance on Arab produce is neither realistic nor acceptable for health, nationalist, and religious reasons.
On the national level, observance of shmitah is not just a personal matter of technical-halakhic right and wrong, or a question of getting by as a religious consumer. It’s also a question of public policy. That means caring for all Jews in Israel, not just for the faultless kashrut of your own dishes and the impeccable purity of the vegetables you put in your own mouth.
Read more at David M. Weinberg
More about: Halakhah, Israeli agriculture, Israeli Chief Rabbinate, Judaism in Israel, Sabbatical year