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Photo: Dalit Shacham
Aviad Kleinberg
What's the deal about shmita?
The rabbis' commentary on the Torah follows their political, social and class leanings

The religious community is in the midst of an uproar. The shmita year is approaching. "In the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest". In the seventh year, it is forbidden to plant, sow or prune the land of Israel. "And should you ask, 'what are we to eat in the seventh year if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?' I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years." (Leviticus 25, verses 20-21.)


At its source, the commandment of shmita is therefore part of a cyclical outlook on man and nature. The Children of Israel and the Land of Israel rest on the seventh day and the seventh year from all work. The commandment, in its original version, also demands confidence in a God who will not let His people starve. In the sixth year we will be the beneficiaries of a bumper crop that will see us through the seventh year.


Unfortunately, reality does not behave according to divine promises, and in the sixth year, the fields do not produce enough crops for three years. But Israel need not worry. The Sages found a number of different ways to eat the shmita cake and, simultaneously, fill the land's stomach.


The national-religious camp accepted the system of "heter mechira", the great innovation of Rabbi Cook: one sells the land, fictitiously, to a non-Jew and continues working it. Are you saying this is fraudulent? God forbid. Don't we sell hametz to a non-Jew every Pessah? The hametz remains as is, but for the duration of Pessah it belongs to a non-Jew. So it is for the shmita year.


Cleaning bugs from lettuces

There are other solutions, such as the "property of the court" as suggested by the Chazon Ish, in which the land becomes the property of the court, and not a non-Jew. There is also the strict haredi practice of only buying fruit and vegetables from non-Jews during a shmita year.


But what is the best way to get around the spirit of the commandment that demands trusting that God will make the produce grow three-fold in the sixth year? What's the most advanced halachic trick? Here opinion is divided. The national-religious kibbutzim use the "heter" method, without which religious agriculture would collapse; the rest of the rabbis, who are far removed, both physically and spiritually, from working the land, and for whom the disappearance of Jewish farmers would not be a disaster, tend to be stricter.


The stormy discussions over shmita are interesting for what they do not contain. A shmita year also demands a debt write-off. All debts are cancelled in this year. The Bible expressly forbids not handing out a loan in the run-up to the seventh year: "Beware lest you harbor the base thought, 'the seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,' so that you are mean to your need kinsman and give him nothing" (Deuteronomy 16:9).


But here there is no dispute among the Sages. The commandment of wiping out debts, concerning not land but the poor and poverty-stricken, which tries to reduce, at least once every few years, the social gap by taking from those that have and giving to those that do not, was emptied of all practical value, in the days of the Talmudic sage Hillel.


Hillel ruled that the debt would be transferred to a court, which was not subject to the shmita regulations, and so one could follow the Torah and its commandments, while acting in complete opposition to its spirit.


All this reminds us that halachic rulers have a much wider remit than is usually thought of. If they want, they can override strictures, if they want, they can enforce them. The image of halachacists as simply executing instructions is misleading. They are involved in the most creative commentary possible on the Torah, and they do so according to their political, social and class leanings.


It is worth remembering this when we try to understand why those who are so strict when it comes to matters of religious law concerning property are so indifferent to social issues; why those who will fight to preserve the honor of a corpse are so dismissive of the bodies and honor of the living.


Instead of worrying over cleaning bugs from lettuces, or about the sanctity of the Land of Israel, if the rabbis devoted themselves to fighting for social justice, then perhaps our society would look different.


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