The ’shmita’ debate: A clash of utopias

The rules of the sabbatical year require farmers to desist from working and open up their fields, with all their produce, to anyone.

Ben Rosenberg will let his organic farm rest during the Jewish sabbatical year. Credit: Ben’s Farm.
Ben Rosenberg will let his organic farm rest during the Jewish sabbatical year. Credit: Ben’s Farm.
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz
Chaim Steinmetz

The proper observance of shmita has been a topic of perennial debate among Israel’s Orthodox community for the last 130 years. The rules of the sabbatical year—shmita—require farmers to desist from working and open up their fields, and all their produce, to anyone. But the Jewish agricultural communities established in the late 1800s were worried that shmita could undermine their viability. They felt they simply could not afford to shut down for the entire year.

At the time, the idea of a heter mechira was first proposed by several religious Zionist rabbis and endorsed by Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spector, the chief halachic authority of the time. The heter mechira means “permission through a sale.” It employs a mechanism where the fields are sold to non-Jews for the shmita year, and the Jewish farmer continues to work the very same field. After the conclusion of the shmita year, the Jewish farmer buys the field back. Even within the religious Zionist community there have been harsh opponents of the heter mechira. The religious Zionist pioneer Rabbi Yechiel Michel Pines wrote about the observance of shmita in 1889:

The commandment of shmita has been an essential limb of our religion, one without which we cannot live. And now comes the first shmita in our settlements, and suddenly there appear the merciful ones, the sons of merciful ones, who have compassion on the colonists without even asking their opinions, and make a great tumult searching the world for a way to offer a halachic permission (to work the fields on) shmita, and cut a limb off the Jewish people.

These passionate words underline how important shmita is to Judaism. But why is shmita so significant? There are four theories in the commentaries on the purpose of shmita: To recognize God’s sovereignty, to support the poor, to offer the farmer a sabbatical year of contemplation and to honor and protect the land. What is most fascinating is that there is a strong biblical basis for all four theories.

In this week’s parshah, the Torah describes the shmita year as a Sabbath; shmita is also the seventh year, a “seven” just like Shabbat. This suggests that similar to Shabbat, the purpose of shmita is to recognize God’s sovereignty over the world He created. The Talmud emphasizes this point when it says, “The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to the Jewish people: Plant for six years, and withhold during the seventh year so that you will know that the land is Mine.”

Shmita centers on the importance of care for the poor as well. In Exodus 23:11, the Torah says that the shmita is a time when farmers open their fields to everyone, and “let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat.” Another rule of the shmita year also concerns the poor: The forgiveness of unpaid loans in order to enable the bankrupt to get out of debt. Charity is one of the chief purposes of shmita.

The Torah also associates the shmita year with study and contemplation. The mitzvah of Hakhel follows the shmita year; at Hakhel, the entire nation gathers at the Temple to hear the King read the entire Torah. Hakhel’s connection to shmita has to do with the importance of learning. Ibn Ezra offers the theory that Hakhel occurs at the start of the shmita year and inaugurates a year of communal learning; and like Shabbat, shmita is meant to be dedicated to learning. (In contrast to Ibn Ezra, the Talmud says Hakhel takes place right after the end of the shmita year. Even so, the connection between shmita and learning is clear.)

Finally, the Torah describes the land of Israel as “desiring” the shmita (Lev. 26:34), and the land as “observing” the shmita. Abravanel sees this as intended to highlight the unique holiness of the Land of Israel. As a holy land, it too must be distinguished by a holy year of shmita. The holiness of the land of Israel requires the land itself to have its own Sabbath and to rest in a sabbatical year. A very different land-centered explanation is offered by the Rambam. He explains that the rest has a very practical purpose because the land “improves when it remains fallow for some time.” To the Rambam, shmita is simply good agronomy.

Why does the Torah give so many different purposes for shmita? Perhaps because, taken together, these four ideas represent a vision of a return to utopia. The farming life is bone-crushing and competitive, and alienates the farmer socially and spiritually. In the shmita year, farmers are able to reclaim their true selves. In this year, they connect more deeply to God, their fellow man and even the very land they farm each day. Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook described the utopian beauty of shmita this way: “What Shabbat does for the individual, shmita does for the nation as a whole. … Our mundane lives, with their toil, anxiety, anger and competition cannot entirely extinguish (our) creative force. On the shmita, our pure, inner spirit may be revealed as it truly is.”

Yet despite such a profound appreciation of the beauty of shmita, Rabbi Kook and many others supported the heter mechira because of the practical issues involved. In the earliest years of the agricultural settlements, there was a real concern that to shut the farms for a year might cause those settlements to fail. There is some debate today whether those concerns are still relevant in 2022 in a country that has a well-developed agricultural sector. But there is a strong case to be made that they remain a serious issue. Today, only a small percentage of the population, and an even smaller percentage of farmers, observe shmita. If shmita were a reality for the entire country, it would wreak havoc on the economy. Consider the supply chain implications of shutting down all of Israel’s farms for an entire year, and finding new sources for all agricultural products. Those who are stringent on shmita actually have to give thanks to those who are not; otherwise, there would be runaway inflation and persistent shortages every shmita.

While practical concerns motivated the rabbis who proposed the heter mechira, their ruling stood on solid halachic ground. The status of shmita in contemporary times is not completely clear. The majority of medieval authorities consider it to be only rabbinic in nature, coming after the destruction of the Temple, and some even see it as a mere custom. In addition, after years of exile, it became unclear which year is actually the shmita year, and there is more than one way to reckon the count of seven years. Because of this, each shmita year carries the status of doubt. Because of these factors, the supporters of the heter mechira felt it was acceptable to circumvent shmita by selling farmland to a non-Jew. But this ruling attracted controversy from the start and the debate continues to rage until this very day.

The heter mechira debate is intertwined with multiple other debates within the Orthodox community. Should practical concerns shape how one relates to important religious goals? How significant are Jewish nationalism and a secular Jewish state in halachah? How do we relate to farmers who are secular and unwilling to follow halachah? All of these debates stand on the foundation of prior medieval debates on body vs. soul: “If there is no flour there is no Torah, and if there is no Torah there is no flour.”

But I would argue that the heter mechira debate is also something else. It is a clash between two utopias: the utopia of the Tanakh, and the utopia of the simple Jew. The biblical utopia is the shmita, in which humanity returns to the Garden of Eden and achieves the original ideals of creation. This is an inspiring goal, but in reality, it remains out of our grasp. Today, shmita is only practiced by a tiny group of farmers, who are supported by charity. The sad irony is that instead of wealthy farmers supporting the poor during shmita, it is now the farmers who need the support of others during shmita.

However, there is another utopia—that of the simple Jew. For 2,000 years, he dreamed of returning from exile and having his own home in his own homeland. But this practical nationalist vision is in actuality a profoundly religious one. It represents a messianic vision of v’shavu banim l’gvulam, “the children shall return home.” To walk in the streets of Israel and see a thriving, living Jewish state was only a dream in the 1800s; and for the simple Jew, Israel is a true utopia. After a journey of two millennia, the simple Jew embraces Israel as a slice of heaven, where every fruit tastes sweeter, every day is more beautiful than the next and every child is exceptional. The heter mechira is there to support and strengthen the State of Israel, the utopia of the simple Jew.

For those of us who rely on the heter mechira, it is critical that we don’t allow pragmatism to douse our idealism. Even if the utopia of shmita eludes us, we must embrace a utopia we all too often take for granted: the State of Israel.

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the senior rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York.

This article was originally published by the Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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