Shmita: Rest, Share, Release

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IDI Vice President Prof. Yedidia Stern and Prof. Avi Sagi explore existential, social, and economic dimensions of the Shmita year, and advocate bringing together social, moral, cultural, religious and national forces to implement the idea of Shmita in non-agricultural and national contexts.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Note: This article was originally published in Hebrew in Haaretz at the start of the Shmita year in 2007. While some new initiatives have emerged in response to such calls for action in the years since then, its critique is still highly relevant. 

Shmita in Israel is an oppressive experience that misses a potential moment of benevolence in our national life. The Biblical concept has turned into an additional battleground between the halakhic authorities, one forbidding, the other permitting, without regard for the noble idea which has been stripped of its meaning in the Jewish state. The list of the injured is long: the religion, which is decaying into irrelevance and worse; the state, which is missing an opportunity to improve its image by donning glorious ethical Jewish garb and contributing to the repair of the world; Jewish agriculture, whose withered belly is struck by the fist of halakhic prohibition; and the citizenry in general, one-fifth of whom are poor and who will be forced to pay an exorbitant price for basic goods, particularly in the Shmita year.

In the Talmud it is said: “Jerusalem was destroyed only because they ruled according to the [letter of the] law of the Torah” (BT Bava Metzia 30b). In other words, the formal strictures of law overtook the social religious experience, emptying it of its content. With great pain, one must acknowledge that the unperceived gap between the spirit of Shmita and the manner of its realization in the year 5768 (2007–8 CE) raises a religious doubt as to the future of Jerusalem.

The Torah commands: “Six years shall you sow your land and gather its produce. In the seventh, you shall let it rest and lie fallow. The poor among your people will eat and what they leave behind will be eaten by the beasts of the field” (Exodus 23:10–11). After six years of labor, the goal of which is to maximize economic gain, Jews are told to stop.  The field in which they labored and toiled will be abandoned by its owners, but open to all; the orchards which they tended and cared for will not be pruned or tended; the gardens that so pleased them will grow weeds and brambles. Not only that: They must leave the produce of their land available to all people and beasts. The most important indicator of property ownership—controlling or designating its use—is set aside for an extended period of time. Indeed, the demand to abandon the land and let it lie fallow seems to run against the achievement-oriented grain of human nature. It has far-reaching implications on the existential human plane and also in social, national and religious spheres.

How is a person’s worth measured? Gabriel Marcel, the French philosopher, held that people answer the question “Who are you?” as if they’d been asked “What do you have?”  The acquisitions a person gathers complete his existence; people and their holdings are one. Money and property determine our worth in our own eyes and in the eyes of others.  Emanuel Levinas commented that the human condition pushes us to conquer the other and to “erase” the other’s face. With this background, there should be, there really must be a Shmita year. It punctures the bubble of property-holding that has swelled up and places us outside of our property, on a par with others whose property is greater or smaller than ours. Shmita teaches us that a people are not what they have, but rather what they are. It forces us to consider our internal existence and not our property-holding existence.

Alongside the existential message, there is also a social message. The Torah does not mandate a new division of wealth and full equality every seven years.  If that were to be so, economic life would deteriorate in the absence of personal initiative. Yet a society that adopts property as a one-dimensional measure of worth threatens itself with the loss of its essence. Shmita is a balancing factor. For six years, you shall labor, gather and use.  In the seventh year, you shall rest, share and release. You are not required to relinquish your property, but you must learn to separate yourself from it and, in so doing, to restrain capitalistic forces that otherwise have no limits. People are asked to work against their nature and to create a space for the human presence of the other, weak or weakened.

In privatized, globalized and fractured Israel, Shmita is a vital exhortation. We have amongst our national resources a ready cure to restore our weakened human solidarity.  In this sense, Shmita is a component of our national vitality.

It is difficult not to be impressed by the profundity of the idea that moves cautiously between the desire to preserve private property and the wish not to see property as the be-all and end-all. Shmita is a call for the creation of a bubble in time in which economic activity slows down, and which brings kindness, compassion and even partnership among all those who share the face of the earth, including the beasts of the field. In the eighth year, the race will resume, because humanity requires it, but the idea and its memory are meant to reach beyond the sabbatical year into the six years of feverish productivity.

The idea of Shmita was given to us in a time when all of economics was private: each under their grapevine and under their fig tree. But today when we benefit from a national economy, shouldn’t we upgrade the personal and societal message to the situation of the state? Is Shmita to be observed only on the micro level and not on the macro level as well? This question should have been the focal point of the religious discussion of our generation, since the restoration of Jewish sovereignty is the greatest novelty to have occurred in Jewish civilization over the last two thousand years. And instead—how frustrating!—there is silence.

Religious leaders of various groups consistently refrain from dealing with the most burning religious question: the creation of a halakha of the state. Halakha always stood out in private law, but due to the continuing exile it was not allowed to deal with certain areas of public law. Questions of public policy in various aspects of life—economics, society, government and politics—became extra-halakhic territory. Sixty years of statehood have not changed a thing.

One must admit that were the religious public responsible for the implementation of executive authority, it would not have a clue how to lead a state according to its ideas.  The halakha deals with tzedaka, but it has no suggestion as to how one administers national health insurance; it recognizes the authority of communal leaders, but it hasn’t developed a position on the proper nature of government; it determines laws of war, but it steers clear of taking a position on foreign relations and security. Shmita is yet another example of the halakha’s helplessness in the face of sovereignty.

The laws of Shmita are difficult to apply in the modern economy. Hillel the Elder already understood that the biblical commandment of Shmita of money—not collecting monetary debts in the seventh year—is not capable of implementation because the debt market will freeze up for lack of lenders and thus the result will be the opposite of the biblical objective. Therefore, he effectively rescinded the commandment. In similar fashion, it is clear that the Shmita of land in the modern competitive market, which is to support millions of people who are not farmers, would be the beginning of a disaster. Halakhic authorities seek to work around the practical problem, while maintaining the outer appearance of Shmita. The current dispute about Shmita stems from the tension among three halakhic solutions all of which, in our opinion, are problematic.

The Hazon Ish held that farmers were permitted to work their land on the condition that they deposit their produce with the “court treasury” [otzar beit din], which would pay them the cost of their labor, but without any profit whatsoever. The court treasury, for its part, would sell the produce to consumers, again without any profit margin. The advantage of this approach is the lowered cost of agricultural products for the consumer.  It is appropriate for a rural society in which everyone produces food for themselves.  They sell cheap, they buy cheap and thus they are not harmed. But, in the modern State of Israel, this idea would result in Shmita affecting only the agricultural sector, making up 3% of all the breadwinners. That is, the economy in general will continue to function as usual, except that 97% of the population will continue to go on earning money, while 3% will work with no profit. In time, the bubble will burst, the capitalist race will continue and the farmers will be bankrupted.

Rabbi Kook, following the lead of earlier authorities, suggested that Jewish land in the Land of Israel be sold to non-Jews for the Shmita year. In this manner, the sacredness of the seventh year will be lifted and the Jewish farmers can continue working their land as they are accustomed to, under temporary Gentile ownership (with certain limitations). At the end of the year, the land would return to its original owner.  This solution—“permission to sell” [heter mechirah]—is supported today by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef [deceased 2013 – eds.] and the national-religious public. Its important advantage is that it permits the continuation of Jewish farming in Israel and therefore, among the three solutions on the halakhic table, this is the preferred solution. Decent people should rely on it.

However, on the symbolic and the educational plane, the absurdity is evident: In order to fulfill a mitzva based on the land, Jews have to sell their land to non-Jews. The most nationalist faction in Israeli society finds itself supporting the wholesale, even if fictitious, sale of all the arable land in Israel to non-Jews.

Rabbi Elyashiv [deceased 2012 – eds.] and the Haredi public reject the solutions above, as, according to them, the land will not lie fallow. True to “the law of the Torah,” they insist on a third solution: the importation of whatever is necessary during the Shmita year from abroad and particularly from the Palestinian Authority. By way of their control over the Chief Rabbinate (a State organ!), they seek to invalidate the kashrut certification of neighborhood greengrocers, chains of supermarkets, wedding halls or hotels which sell the produce of the land of Israel.

As is usual in our surroundings, the determination of the matter is left on the doorstep of the Supreme Court. Should the Supreme Court intervene, the earth will shake with cries of “anti-religious imposition.” Should the Court refrain from getting involved and if the religious and secular public don’t organize to liberate themselves from the imposition of the Haredi solution, the land will indeed be allowed to lay fallow, but the practical price will be heavy: The state will be forced to import products that it is capable of producing, consumers will pay exorbitant prices for basic supplies, Jewish agriculture in Israel will fall behind and, in part, will collapse and, for every Israeli fruit salad, a potentially beneficial shekel will be diverted from the productive Israeli economy.

The paradox cries out from every direction: The three solutions miss the ideological content of Shmita. They suggest maintaining the formal side of it in the manner of one who eats the peel and discards the contents at an intolerable price: The Haredim empty the already impoverished plate of “the poor amongst your people” and the national religious demean their most precious symbol—sovereignty over the lands of the Land of Israel. Both accept from the start that it is impossible to manage a Jewish halakhic state without cooperation with and a need for non-Jews.

What is necessary? The history of halakha is full to overflowing with reversals that are reactions to changes in reality…. For two thousand years, Shmita was not observed due to the absence of Jewish agriculture in the Land of Israel. Nowadays, when we have taken possession of our land, it turns out that the return to Zion is largely post-agricultural. We are organized as a sovereign nation that manages, alongside the private economy, a national economy. This then requires a dual change: First, the implementation of the idea of Shmita in non-agricultural contexts; second, Shmita must also function in a national framework.

If we will be wise enough to understand that Shmita is not a subsection of the laws of kashrut, but rather an opportunity to rectify personal, social and national errors and over-reachings that accumulated over the six years of labor, we can open ourselves to ideas such as the following. For instance, once in seven years, a state budget will be formulated which will be more generous than usual to the underprivileged. This could include a measured rise in welfare payments to the needy; subsidies for basic products; a national focus on the war on poverty and more (“and the poor amongst your people will eat” Exodus 23:11). The state will strive for a social economic policy that will reduce the extent of the maximum gap between rich and poor as much as is possible once in seven years, with the goal of preserving the profile of an affluent nation.

Public attention can be given to Shmita—in education, in the media and in politics—not only to production, to work and to the race for riches, but rather to the quality of life, and its meaning, to the deeper dimensions of the human journey. We should look forward to a contemporary Jewish repair of the world, which will lead to the announcement of a concentrated effort, in the framework of the national sabbatical, to a public deliberation on the quality of life and not only the standard of living and more: In a world that is warming, polluted and exploited, it is worthwhile to dedicate the seventh year to educational and practical undertakings, whose goal would be to raise awareness to the vital importance of protecting the environment (“there shall be a sabbatical year for the land,” Leviticus 25:4). All these values for which the Shmita year can advocate express a clear religious spirit. Certainly the renewed Shmita will fulfill the verse “and in the seventh year…a sabbatical before God” (ibid.).

In the Shmita year 5768 (2007), the religion is abandoning its hold on reality: the state is abandoning its unique Jewish character; the society is abandoning its responsibility to a minimally just distribution of resources. What is needed is an aggressive coalition which will bring together social, moral, cultural, religious and national forces in the Jewish democratic state, for the sake of reviving the idea of Shmita.

Give us a leader—religious or otherwise—who will do what Hillel the Elder did. 

This article was translated by Yale J. Reisner and has been published courtesy of the translator and The Sova Project. 

This article was originally published in Hebrew in Ha’aretz on September 24, 2007.