Every seventh year, the shmittah or sabbatical year, initiates a question of observance for Israelis who depend on farming.
In the beginning of Parshat Behar, we learn of the commandment of shmittah — the sabbatical year. Hashem tells us, “When you come into the land that I am giving you, the land shall have a Sabbath to Hashem.” (Vayikra 25:2) In the verses that follow we learn that shmittah occurs after six years of working the land. During the seventh year, most agricultural work is forbidden. After seven shmittah cycles, the following year is the Jubilee year. All slaves go free and all land goes back to the original owners. The lesson is clear. Although Hashem is giving us the land, ultimately the land — and everything else — belongs to Hashem.
Because of the connection between shmittah and the Jubilee year, the sages understood that the Torah’s mitzvah of shmittah only applies when the Jubilee year can be observed — which is the case when the majority of the Jewish people are on their tribal lands in the Land of Israel. Sadly, after the destruction of the First Temple, this is no longer the case. Yet, the sages instructed us that we should continue to observe this commandment.
When the Jewish people began returning to the Land of Israel, the question arose as to how to observe the commandment of shmittah. On the one hand, the sages had long ago decreed that we should continue to observe shmittah. On the other hand, if we would spend the entire year without farming, the entire Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel would be at risk of poverty and starvation.
Therefore, some leading rabbis of the time, including Rabbi Yitzchak Elchonon Spector, determined that the top soil of farmland could be temporarily sold to non-Jews — similar to how we sell chametz to a non-Jew prior to Passover. This would allow for Jewish agriculture to continue. Later rabbis continued this practice and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel does such a sale every seven years. The next shmittah year begins this coming Rosh Hashanah.
This sale is a source of great controversy. Some argue that though the laws of shmittah are today rabbinic, it is not proper to sell the farmland to avoid their observance. Others argue that though this may have been necessary in the early years of our return to the Land of Israel, current economic conditions do not require this leniency. However, the Chief Rabbinate still utilizes this technique because without it, the Israeli agricultural industry would suffer and there would not be sufficient produce for Jews living in Israel.
Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, head of the Ateret Yerushalayim Yeshiva and chief rabbi of Beit El, notes that it is still important to use the heter mechira and to purchase Israeli products grown each and every year. First, we must be concerned for the livelihood of Israeli farmers. Second, there needs to be sufficient produce in Israel. For Jews to purchase produce grown by our enemies is not being strict. Rather, it strengthens those who seek to harm us. Third, even Jews living in America — where there is plenty of produce grown by non-Jews who are our friends — should purchase produce from Israel as doing so strengthens the land, state and people of Israel. That way we strengthen our hold on the Land of Israel — that land that Hashem gave us — while still recognizing that Hashem is the owner of the entire universe.
Rabbi Shmuel Jablon is the menahel (principal) of Torah Academy, a former executive committee member of the Rabbinical Council of America and the host of www.rabbijablon.com.