Bid To Let Land Lie Fallow Finds Fertile Soil

Jerusalem - As occurs every seven years, religious Jews in Israel are grappling with the biblical commandment to let their land lie fallow. But this year there are some added complications.

The sabbatical year, which begins next month, has traditionally been handled by buying produce from non-Jews. In past years, much of the substitute produce has come from Gaza, but this year the borders there are closed following the Hamas takeover. In addition to that, many Modern Orthodox Jews have stiffened their opposition to buying anything from Arab neighbors.

The complications have made for a raucous debate within Israel’s Orthodox sector about how to properly observe Shmita, as the commandment is known. The Modern Orthodox have gotten creative and designed new programs that allow Jewish farmers to keep their crops so that no financial advantage is given to Palestinians. Among the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, that solution has been frowned upon and there have been calls for all Jewish farmers in Israel to cease any agricultural activity.

At its most basic, the debate is about produce, but it also reflects a broader struggle between the nationalist Modern Orthodox and the Haredim, who put religion above all else. The Haredim have been gaining ground lately and pushing the nationalists to increasingly extreme positions on issues of religion and observance.

The basis for the debate is a line in Leviticus that says, “For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a Sabbath of rest, a Sabbath to the Lord.”

The current questions about how to properly adhere to this law while still eating fruits and vegetables are nothing new. Religious authorities who have dealt with the question in the years since the creation of the State of Israel have devised a set of solutions for observant Jews. To begin with, they can consume crops that were grown in previous years and stored. In addition, consumers can buy fruits and vegetables grown on “detached soil” — a technique in which crops are grown on raised platforms, so that the soil does not have direct contact with the land itself. It is what happens after these supplies have been exhausted that has caused the current back and forth.

During the last sabbatical year, the debate became a national spectacle. Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi at the time, ruled that Jewish farmers are allowed to symbolically “sell” their land to a non-Jew for the year and thus be exempt from the prohibition against growing crops. This ruling led to an uproar from the ultra-Orthodox sector and eventually to threats to excommunicate the chief rabbi and his family from the Jewish community. A tearful Bakshi-Doron went to seek support from secular Zionist leaders, but eventually bowed to Haredi pressure and pulled back from supporting the symbolic land sale. This year, the chief rabbinate refrained from making any ruling on the issue.

The Haredi leadership has made clear in recent months that it will not budge on the issue this time around. Haredi rabbis have been visiting observant farmers in support of their decision not to grow any crops.

“The destruction and the exile of Israel were brought about because of those who did not observe the Shmita,” said Rabbi Aaron Feldman during a visit to a Haredi farm near Jerusalem.

Nationalist rabbis support the idea of selling permits that would symbolically transfer ownership of the land to non-Jews. This permit was first devised decades ago as a provisional measure meant to help struggling farmers during Israel’s early years. Since then it was renewed every seven years, allowing farmers belonging to the national-religious movement to maintain their crops.

“We are convinced that there is a need to have the sale permit in this Shmita year too,” said Nechemia Rappel, chairman of the Religious Kibbutz movement, which organizes most of the national-religious farmers.

Rappel stressed that the other option — buying goods from foreign farmers — would be destructive for the local agricultural community. “Everyone understands that you cannot work for six years and then have no income on the seventh. A farmer cannot tell his customers in Israel and abroad that he is not working and that he’ll be back in a year,” Rappel said.

Attitudes in the nationalist camp are sharpened by fears of supporting Palestinian farmers who will benefit from the markets left behind by Jewish farmers. One of the leading voices on the issue is the Torah and Land Institute, which was located in the Jewish settlement block of Gush Katif until the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza two years ago. Now, in its new location outside the Gaza Strip, the institute’s members are urging reliance on Jewish farmers instead of supporting the Palestinian neighbors.

“In our years in Gush Katif we got to know the Palestinian population,” said Ami Giat, the institute’s director. “All along the road we tried to make the Haredi community aware of these concerns and of the security issue involved in buying from the Palestinians.”

In dealing with the unwillingness of the Haredim to reconsider the religious law, Giat and other nationalists have pointed to biblical rules that also call for a financial sabbatical in which all debts are forgiven. This rule was amended in the Middle Ages, and Haredi groups gave up these rules, but they have proven less flexible on the rules about the land.

Even for Haredim willing to buy food from Palestinians, the current closure of Gaza is making planning for the next year more difficult. Cyprus, Israel’s closest non-Arab neighbor, has provided Israeli customers with fruits and vegetables during the previous Shmita and is now expected to increase its exports.

To make up for the additional shortfall, the ultra-Orthodox community has already signed deals with Jordanian and Palestinian farmers to supply produce. Leaders of one of the Haredi groups have asked the Israeli army to provide them with security as they send kosher supervisors to West Bank villages in order to make sure relevant Jewish laws are kept by the Palestinian farmers.

The Haredim have also been coming up with other innovative economic solutions. They have created a fund made up of contributions from religious customers who commit to buying only fruits and vegetables that were grown by Shmita-observant farmers (meaning those who kept crops from the year before and those who use the “detached soil” method). This fund will ensure religious farmers that their loss of income during the seventh year will remain as low as possible.

There is also an outreach effort to Diaspora Jewry. A new program will allow Jews from around the world to buy a plot of land for $180 outside the city of Ra’anana. In accordance with the strictest Jewish law, all agricultural work on this plot will stop on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.

This story "Bid To Let Land Lie Fallow Finds Fertile Soil" was written by Nathan Guttman.


Nathan Guttman

Nathan Guttman

Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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