Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Emor

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Behar-Behukotai 5761/May 19, 2001

Ideological Issues in the Shemitta Controversy
Dr. Amnon Shapira
Dept. of Bible


"When you enter the land ... the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord... But you may eat whatever the land during its sabbath will produce - you, your male and female slaves, the hired and bound laborers who live with you (Lev. 25:2-6).

Two rationales are given for the commandment of shemitta (the sabbatical year): a social one and a religious one, precisely in this order, as Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli rightly noted:[1]

What stands out first is the social aspect. The sabbath of the land is a renunciation of private ownership of all the fruits of this year... If in the course of the year class conflicts have arisen, they become null and void... The master has no more rights than the slave... Whoever follows the Torah, observing this commandment ... would bring about an entire social revolution, quietly and without violent means, wiping out with a stroke of the hand all the social conflicts that human society has struggled with since time immemorial... Here we have a commandment that concerns relations between our fellow human beings. How remarkable is the might of the Torah, skillfully providing a solution by means of these commandments of shemitta and jubilee year to the problem of social inequality, regulating relations between rich and poor - something which economic experts have long been trying to do without success.

It follows from his remarks that shemitta is first and foremost a social law designed to solve basic problems of Jewish and even universal society by doing away with private ownership on the national level, if only for a single year.

The second reason given for shemitta is religious: the "sabbath of the land" is defined here as a "sabbath of the Lord." The demand that private ownership be cancelled for this year can only have justification and validity on the grounds that the land is the Lord's ("for the land is Mine," Lev. 25:23). In other words, the land does not belong to us, but to G-d; and on the seventh year we return ownership over it to Him to whom it belongs. This is a great test of faith.

The radical conclusion that follows from Rabbi Yisraeli's remarks is that there is no logic or rationality to technical-halakhic "solutions" of the "problem" of shemitta by such techniques as platform farming (matza' menuttaq), and that all such attempts are "contrary to the spirit and objectives of the commandment itself. The shemitta is not a 'problem' given us in order that we find ways to overcome it by circumventing it. It is an extremely valuable test, a test of faith and trust" (Rabbi Yisraeli, loc. sit.).

What we read in this week's parasha attests to the enormous importance of this valuable commandment. Indeed, banishment from the land is ascribed to the failure to observe it: "Then shall the land make up for its sabbath years throughout the time that it is desolate" (Lev. 26:34). II Chronicles (36:21) attests that the Babylonian exile resulted, among other things, from failure to observe shemitta. Hence the remark of our Sages: "The sin of [not observing] shemitta results in being exiled" (Shabbat 33a).

In this context we now ask whether or not one ought to search for a rationale (ta'ama de-Qra)[2] behind this commandment, like other commandments of the Torah. That is to say, when rabbis who rule on Halakhah set out to "translate" a commandment into practical terms, should they only take into consideration the commandment itself, or should they also consider its rationale (i.e. its "Torah ideology"), whether or not its rationale is explicitly given in the Torah. The gemara mentions that Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai always looked for the reasons behind the commandments, whereas Rabbi Judah believed that one should not seek to explain the commandments. This controversy continued between early rabbinic authorities (Rishonim). Notwithstanding the principle that "in a controversy between Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Simeon, the Halakhah follows Rabbi Judah," one could generalize and say that the posekim were inclined to attempt explanations of the rationale behind the commandments.[3]

An example of a commandment that is given an explicit rationale is the commandment concerning a king: "And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray" (Deut. 17:17). Regarding this law Rabbi Judah agreed with Rabbi Simeon that one can explain the rationale of commandments, since the reason is explicitly stated in the Torah. Therefore, a king over Israel is permitted to have many wives, notwithstanding the Torah's proscription, if the wives are known to be fitting. For the Torah only forbade him to have many wives who are not known to be fitting or who are wicked and who presumably would cause his heart to be led astray.

An example of a commandment whose rationale is not given in the Torah is, "You shall not muzzle an ox while it is threshing" (Deut. 25:4). The rationale for this can be interpreted simply as the Torah having pity on the beast (seeing the grain but not being able to eat it). If so, then one could argue that putting a muzzle on an animal with intestinal problems is not a violation of the law against muzzling, even though the animal sees the food and is saddened, since the Torah only had in mind the well-being of the animal and such an animal would not benefit [from being able to eat the grain] (B.M. 90a).

We have gone into these questions at greater length because they provide the underpinnings of the controversy that arose regarding the practical significance of the proscriptions of shemitta in our times. One approach is to apply the principle of the rationale for the commandment, which in our case is explicitly stated in Scripture, thereby seeking practical solutions for performance of this commandment that take into account the condition of the people and the land (as we shall explain below). The other approach is to observe this commandment literally, primarily seeking solutions to the problems it raises for the consumer during the shemitta year.[4] The consequences of this approach, which ignores the general public, are brought out in the Derisha commentary on the Tur. With regard to instructing a dayyan, the Tur wrote (Hoshen Mishpat, par. 1): "This was the intention of our Rabbis when they said that whoever judges by true justice indeed is like one who becomes a partner with the Holy One, blessed be He, in the act of creation." To this the Derisha responded:

It seems to me that when they said "judging by true justice indeed" they meant judging according to the time and place, as the case truly stands, and not always judging by the actual law of the Torah, for sometimes a dayyan must stretch the law to be more lenient according to the time and issue; when he does not do so, even if he judges truly, it is not truth indeed. As the Sages said, Jerusalem was destroyed for no other reason than that they based their judgments on the law of the Torah, and were not lenient in their dispensation of justice.

These stern words mean that a view of the world which is based only on one vantage point, no matter how important it may be, is likely to lead to the destruction of the entire world,[5] since sometimes it is necessary to take the times and issues into consideration as well.

This shemitta year, 5761, marks close to the 110th anniversary of heter 5649, otherwise known as heter mekhira [selling the land of Israel to a gentile for the duration of the sabbatical year], the legal arrangement that applied to the first Jewish colonists in the land of Israel during the era of the Hovevei Zion movement. This heter was signed by three of the greatest rabbis of the time: Rabbi Samuel Mohilewer, Rabbi Israel Joshua of Kutna, and Rabbi Isaac Elhanan of Kovno. Underlying the heter mekhira was an approach that considered not only the proscriptions of the sabbatical year themselves, but, as a Torah-true consideration of the first degree and in accordance with the explicit reason given for the commandment, also saw the need to consider a variety of ideological factors in the Torah, taking into account the arguments for shemitta mentioned there. It followed that the shemitta was not a private concern of the consumer, but a matter of social ideals on the national level, as Rabbi Saul Israeli expounded at length. The rulings stemming from this approach saw fit to focus on Torah solutions that actually placed the community at the center. For example, this approach took into consideration "hafrashat Yehudim me-issur" (without the heter mekhira, most farmers and consumers would be violating proscriptions of the sabbatical year); the condition of the yishuv (early Jewish settlement in the modern era; the economic ability of the Jewish community to observe shemitta); the condition of the land of Israel (the risk of gentiles taking over agricultural land and production quotas, especially in view of the trend for Jews to leave agriculture), etc.

When the principle of heter mekhira, an arrangement by which the land of Israel is sold to a gentile for the duration of the sabbatical year, was first accepted, it was adopted as a temporary measure (as was emphasized by Rav Kook and others), for several reasons: 1) spiritually and halakhically it is very difficult to sell the land of Israel to a gentile in order to cancel its sanctity, even if this is done as a halakhic fiction; 2) unlike selling hametz, the heter mekhira implicitly abrogates the gist of the commandment, whose great importance and severe punishment for violating it were discussed above. Nevertheless, this ruling was passed out of a double sense of responsibility towards the yishuv as a whole: nationally, since otherwise most of the Jews, both producers and consumers, would be violating the laws of shemitta; and agriculturally, since otherwise the trend for Jews to leave agriculture would increase and gentiles would take over the field. Another significant consideration was that shemitta in our day and age is not a commandment mi-d-Oraitha (from the Torah), rather mi-d-Rabbanan (from the Rabbis), because shemitta is contingent on the Jubilee year, and the Jubilee year is contingent on most of the Jewish people living in their own land. When a majority of the Jewish people do not live in Israel, as is the case today, there is no sabbatical year from the Torah.

One must add that hand in hand with the agricultural laws of shemitta, the Torah also commands a remission of debts: "Every seventh year you shall practice remission of debts. This shall be the nature of the remission: every creditor shall remit the due that he claims from his fellow; he shall not dun his fellow or kinsman, for the remission proclaimed is of the Lord" (Deut. 15:1). Interpreting the nature of the relationship between the sabbatical of the land and remission of debts poses a fundamental problem, as we see from the remarks of Rabbi in the gemara (Gittin 36a). Once Hillel's Prosbul was accepted as a "solution" to the problem posed by remission of debts (essentially eliminating such remission by handing collection of debts over to the courts), the justification of a sabbatical for the land became undermined. According to the laws of the Torah, if a farmer borrowed money in the middle of the sixth year so that he and his family could survive, in the seventh year he would let his fields rest but his debt would also be cancelled, so that thus he could still manage (just barely); but how could a farmer pay his debt (which remained because of the Prosbul) if he had to abstain from farming his field? Rabbi Jacob Ariel wrote in this regard, "The urban consumer has no moral right to sign a Prosbul and at the same time preach to his brethren in the field on account of their signing a heter mekhira."[6] The Netziv wrote as follows:[7]

When the Jews lived peacefully in their land ... and a person had not the means to sow his field, then he would borrow grain for sowing and would repay the loan from the yield ... That is why the courts were cautioned "not to dun"; because the sabbatical year had come and [the farmer] was not tilling his field, so that when the [lender] came to collect his debt, he would be forced to sell his field.[8]

Here we see an entire socio-economic vision: an agricultural society cannot let the land lay fallow without also having remission of debts (=credit for farmers); otherwise the farmer would lose his field and be forced to sell it to others. The founding articles written by the leaders of the Torah ve-Avodah Movement about seventy years ago stressed the vast importance of shemitta as a socio-religious concept providing a foundation for an egalitarian Jewish society (i.e., a society championing the idea of social equality) dwelling on its own soil, where the fiscal and the agricultural aspects of shemitta are interrelated.[9]

Rav Kook's book, Shevah ha-Aretz, is highly informative about the wonderful ideal of shemitta and its far-reaching impact on life in Israel: "It shall be a year of rest, a year of quiet and serenity, without private property and acquisitiveness, a time when man returns to his pristine nature." This book was printed over sixty years ago. During the intervening years it has become increasingly evident that the gap between this wonderful ideal and the actual ability to realize it has been steadily growing wider and deeper.

In my humble opinion, the "condition of Jewish settlement" today is tenfold more critical than it was in 1889. Agriculture, both private and cooperative, is in a deep state of crisis. A way was found around the prohibition against charging interest for loans by means of the well-known heter iska; the remission of debts in the sabbatical year was circumvented by the Prosbul (which even the Sages called the "most offensive of laws"); and only the "sabbath of the land" remained, weighing down on the shoulders of less than 3% of the Jewish community of Israel - the farmers. Under such circumstances agriculture, especially without export, has no chance of survival. In view of this it seems that under present conditions there is no way to apply the proscriptions of shemitta literally; indeed, even today the Chief Rabbinate relies on heter mekhira. This clear and acute dilemma must be resolved, either in favor of the well-being of the general Jewish community and the halakhic consideration of settling the land of Israel, or in favor of ignoring the "condition of Jewish settlement in Israel" out of a desire to strictly adhere to the letter of the law in the commandment of shemitta.

The resolution of this dilemma is undoubtedly influenced to a large extent by the world-outlook of various groups of religious Jews and of the posekim that these communities accept as their leaders. From the works of the Sages it is evident that they were aware of the issue of ethical priorities and often decided in favor of what one might call "social" issues, giving them precedence over the commandments "between man and G-d." This is evident, for example, from the comparison that is made between David's generation and Ahab's generation: in David's time all studied the Torah, but they fell in battle because there were informers amongst them; whereas in Ahab's time all were idolaters, but since there were no informers amongst them and there was national unity, they were victorious (Jerusalem Talmud, Pe'ah 1.1). In a similar vein Meshekh Hokhmah interprets the verse, "the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left" (Ex. 14:29):

When the public is corrupted by idolatry and illicit sexual practices, about this it is said: "[the Shekhina] which abides with them in the midst of their uncleanness" (Lev. 16:16). But [when corrupted] by discourtesy, slander, and controversy, about this it is said: "Exalt Yourself over the heavens, O G-d" (Ps. 57:12), as it were removing His divine presence from them.

As a general rule the Halakhah deals extensively with conflicting values and dilemmas, such as justice vs. mercy, respect for human life vs. acts of hostility. Also purely economic considerations, such as great financial loss, are at times incorporated within the Halakhah itself.[10]

Otzar bet din is another halakhic solution recognized today. A similar solution to the one developed in modern times dates back to the Tosefta, Shevi'it, according to which responsibility for growing and marketing agricultural produce during shemitta passed from the individual farmer to the Bet Din, the Bet Din making the farmer its emissary. This halakhic procedure was reinstated in modern times on the initiative of religious farmers (such as the religious kibbutz movement) and with the support of the Chief Rabbinate.[11] The advantage of such a solution lies in its national approach, reflecting the commandment of the Torah, which is patently "national." In this respect it comes closest to a "true" shemitta. Its disadvantage is that it, too, does not provide for true distribution of the land's produce among all consumers and that it is founded on a legal fiction (albeit as favorable a one as possible).

In conclusion, in this shemitta year we recommend:

1) That one give precedence specifically to buying agricultural produce grown in the land of Israel by Jewish farmers.

2) That as the best Torah-true solution one accept, albeit with sadness, the Chief Rabbinate's heter mekhira (as an emergency measure), comprising three parts: the land of Israel, the people of Israel, and the Torah.

3) That one buy produce approved through otzar bet din, regarding those crops where this solution applies, as published by the Chief Rabbinate.[12]

4) That not only shall we "expound (derosh) and receive reward" as the Rabbis said, but that we also pass appropriate legislation in the Knesset. The underlying idea of the commandments of shemitta and the Jubilee year is the aspiration to form a Jewish society that is devout, moral and just. Nevertheless, we regretfully admit that no other commandment in the Torah (ranging from the Sabbath to the commandments concerning personal status) is so utopian in its vision yet so pathetically far from ideal in its practical realization, both at present and in the foreseeable future, as the commandment of shemitta. Therefore, one must work to promote social equality and minimize societal gaps in Israel by means of progressive legislation that will lend expression to this aspect of the law of shemitta.

Fifty years ago Israel was noted for its absence of socio-economic gaps. Today, however, we find ourselves at the opposite extreme, leading the list of countries with vast gaps between rich and poor. Perhaps we have made progress over the years in terms of refining techniques for solving the problem of shemitta, but we have regressed greatly in terms of the Torah's original intentions in this important commandment. Therefore, until the coming of Redemption, fitting ways to observe the sabbatical year in our time include theoretical study of the law of shemitta alongside practical observance of this law as far as possible, and tikkun olam -improving the world through the way we lead our lives in a Jewish society.

[1] Be-Tzet ha-Shanah, Jerusalem 1960; this article was republished in the book Be-Ma'agalei ha-Shevi'it, ed. R. Yigal Ariel, Midreshet ha-Golan 1994.
[2] See entry ta'ama de-qra in the Talmudic Encyclopedia (Encylopedia Talmudit), vol. 20, p. 568.
[3] See note 33, loc. sit.
[4] See R. Heiman's book, Ha-Mitbah ba-Shemitta, Benei Berak 1993.
[5] Preceding the Derishah were Abarbanel, Ba'al ha-Aqedah (on parashat Shofetim), the Ran (Derashot ha-Ran, 11), and others. Also cf. Menahem Elon, Jewish Law: History, Sources, Principles (Philadelphia, 1994), vol. I, pp. 46-48.
[6] Cf. his article, "Ha-Shemitta - Mitzvah Mamlakhtit," Ha-Tzofe, 3 Elul 5753 (1993), p. 4.
[7] Rabbi Naphtali Zevi Judah Berlin, after whose son, Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan (Berlin), Bar Ilan University is named.
[8] See his commentary on the Torah, Ha'amek Davar, Deut. 15:2.
[9] Cf. Ha-Admor he-Halutz, Rabbi Isaiah Shapira, Netivah 1929; Isaiah Bernstein, "Le-Ra'ayon Torah ve-Avodah," Poland 1933.
[10] Thus educational-psychological methods, such as the Piaget-Colberg method for teaching ethics through dilemmas, are not new; rather, they were anticipated by the wisdom of the Sages.
[11] For greater detail, see Rabbi Ze'ev Whitman, formerly rabbi of Kibbutz Kefar Etzyon and presently rabbi of Tnuvah [ Israel's largest dairy cooperative], in his comprehensive book, Likrat Shemitta Mamlakhtit be-Medinat Yisrael.
[12] The solution proposed by Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun and Dr. Yoel Elitzur for a nation-wide program of individual sabbaticals for all farmers in the state of Israel during shemitta is interesting and merits comprehensive discussion. Rabbi Bin-Nun's proposal was published in Nekudah 18 (1981), and Dr. Elitzur's in Nekudah 114 (1988).