As we begin 5768, we will enter another Sabbatical, the Seventh Year Release referred to in Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15, called Sheviit or Shmita.
The concept of the Shmita concerns issues of nature, study, economics, and leisure. In an agrarian society this fantastic idea was not just a sort of crop rotation to help agriculture, it was also an opportunity to spend time in study and contemplation, a kind of statute of limitations on servitude and debt, and a device to try to level the economic playing field and prevent too much concentration in only a few hands. However ancient the idea, its moral implications are as essential in our post-industrial age as they ever were thousands of years ago.
The first challenge to the idea came with exile. It was a law that only applied in the Land of Israel and so, at a stroke, it became irrelevant to the majority of Jews, who after 586 BCE (and until our day) never returned to work in their ancient homeland.
But two thousand years ago in the Land of Israel it proved problematic for economic reasons, as commerce became more sophisticated and as fewer and fewer Jews earned a livelihood from the land. The real issue became a financial one. If the Seventh Year released all debts, then long-term lending became effectively impossible. The great Hilel dealt with this through his innovation of the Prosbul (Talmud Gittin 36a). Only private debts were to be cancelled, not public or institutional debts. So if you transferred the debt to the courts, the courts would be exempt from the release. They would collect in due course and pass the money back to you, taking a commission of course. You might argue that this was the first example of finding a way around the law without annulling it altogether so as to preserve its ideals.
Over time other such devices came into use. In medieval times came the selling of Chametz on Pesach to a non-Jew so as to be able to use large stocks of leaven or alcohol without having to destroy them before Pesach. Then later came the Heter Isska, a way of lending money not for interest, which was forbidden, but for a share in the business and a “director’s fee” (something the Muslim world is now bringing to the attention of Western financial circles).
With the modern Return to Zion (there have been many other smaller ones over the years) a huge agricultural industry owned by Jews on land subject to Shmita, suddenly created new problems. Modern agriculture did not lend itself to taking a year off. Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor (Kovno 1817-1896), responding to the increasing Zionist settlements, was the first to permit agriculture to continue during the Shmita year on the principle that Jews were allowed to farm fields owned by non-Jews during the Sabbatical so you could simply sell the land temporarily. The early Chief Rabbinate in Israel did this and “sold” the land each seventh year to a compliant local Arab Sheikh. However, the greatest rabbi of my childhood, the Chazon Ish (R. Avraham Karelitz 1878-1953), was opposed to this and argued that even produce grown in Israel on land owned by non-Jews should be subject to Shmita. So ultra-Orthodox farmers (yes, they do exist) leave their fields fallow every seven years and are supported by communal funds .
As a result of Charedi pressure on the Israeli Rabbinate, a previous Sephardi Chief Rabbi Bakshi Doron cancelled the arrangement to sell land to non-Jews during the Shmita but other mainstream rabbis persevered and Charedi organizations make their own arrangements to deal with the issue of both Jewish and non-Jewish produce in the Land of Israel. I have to admit that many years ago, as an impecunious yeshiva bochur, I did some part-time work for the Orthodox authorities in Meah Shearim in Jerusalem and they were not above all sorts of ingenious stratagems that miraculously permitted produce from Jewish sources in the Land of Israel to turn into perfectly acceptable produce.
Did the ultra-Orthodox world object to selling the land because the original idea was provisional? Or was it because it was the hated Zionist rabbinate that was arranging it? Or was it simply that the idea of Shmita was such a wonderful and spiritual one that the rabbis really wanted it preserved despite the problems and possible solutions? Or, dare I say it, was it a way some people could make good quick money by buying food from Kibbutzim, selling it on to Arabs, and then buying it back for the kosher market, rising exponentially in price along the way? Feh feh, that I should even think such a thought.
The fact is that now Israeli Shmita observers are divided between the moderate Orthodox who available themselves of the “selling” device on the grounds of supporting Israeli agriculture and if other devices were and are permissible why not this one too, and the Charedi world, which loudly proclaims the great charitable endeavor of supporting Orthodox farmers who now will lose all their income during the coming year.
I have to say I really do love the purity of the original idea and if there are people willing to support Orthodox farmers and give them a well-earned Sabbatical, how wonderful. And if it means religious consumers pay more, well what’s new? And if it makes us appreciate the great spiritual lessons of the Shmita and of nature and if it helps us redouble the time we spend on our study and spiritual exercise, why should anyone complain? But why is it that there remains an uneasy niggling at the back of my mind that, rather like kosher supplies in general, someone is going to make a killing out of all this???