The Shmitah Year

(YD 331:19)

How are we, a recently established kibbutz, to observe the Shmitah Year? Being a young agricultural community, we must now already plan next year’s crops. We are also in the process of developing our public gardens, lawns and flowerbeds; this is not merely for our pleasure, but also in order to strengthen the ground, thus preventing erosion during the rainy season, which could damage our houses’ sidewalks. Is it permissible to plant gardens and to build an irrigation system during the Shmitah Year? To what extent may one water the ground during a Shmitah Year? What is the argument in favor of observing the Shmitah Year in our time, and is the fact that our kibbutz was established a mere two years ago of any relevance?

In the late nineteenth century, upon the resettling of the Land of Israel, similar questions were raised. As a result, many responsa, articles and books were written (for references, see the end of the Hebrew responsum). In this responsum we shall describe the two methods of observing the Shmitah Year in Israel today. We shall demonstrate the difficulties these methods involve, and suggest a new alternative.

The two methods of observing the Shmitah Year in Israel today derive from the Hazon Ish and from Rabbi Kook. Both presume that the laws of Shmitah in our time are of rabbinical origin, derabanan, rather than biblical, mide’oraita. The Shmitah method of the Hazon Ish abides by the Talmud, but is lenient in early sowing of the winter crops, hydroponics, etc. The farmers who follow this method are supported by Jews in the Diaspora, and benefit from financial subsidies during the Shmitah Year. Rabbi Kook’s method, on the other hand, consists of selling the Land of Israel to a gentile for a period of two years, thus enabling it to be cultivated, even if only indirectly, and preferably by gentiles.

Both methods are unsatisfactory, and are in contradiction to the vision of Zionism. The State of Israel was not founded in order to be supported by, and financially benefit from, Diaspora Jewry. Thus, the first method is in accord with the ultra-orthodox tradition of the Haluka subsidies. The second method is even more surprising, coming from a religious-zionist public – sell the Land of Israel to gentiles?!

A significant historical factor was completely ignored by the Hazon Ish, and only briefly mentioned by Rabbi Kook. He noted that at the early stages of the Zionist renewal in the Land of Israel, agricultural products served mainly for private use. In those days, abandoning the crops in the fields allowed for the poor to benefit from them. As times changed, agricultural cultivation became a considerable factor in the economic development and growth of the young State. Deserting the soil for a whole year would now entail severe economic hardships to large groups of Jews.

Since the vast majority of Israeli society today lives in urban centers and far from agricultural areas, and since agricultural products are grown mainly for export, the Shmitah restrictions of ancient times which reflect a simple, small-scale agricultural society, cannot serve us appropriately in our time. Moreover, both methods used in Israel today owe their success to the vast, secular majority of Israeli farmers, who serve as a Shabbess Goy for the religious public. This is an unacceptable situation, especially for the Religious Zionist and Masorti populations.

An investigation of the Rishonim reveals that a large group of Rishonim – those of Provence – ruled that Shmitah in our day is neither biblical nor rabbinic but a midat hassidut, an act of piety. Therefore, we rule that the Shmitah Year be observed as a midat hassidut, as follows:

1. Sowing the winter crop before Rosh Hashanah;
2. Sowing grass and trees for gardens before Rosh Hashanah;
3. Whenever possible, avoid Biblically forbidden work, such as sowing, pruning, harvesting and ploughing. However, if one must carry out any of these tasks, one should try to do them with a Shinui, i.e by a different method than otherwise used;
4. Avoiding the planting or tending of gardens which are not otherwise required for preventing erosion during the rainy season.

It is also advisable to perform various symbolic and educational acts to enhance the awareness of the year being a Shmitah Year, such as:
– Planning the agricultural cycle to fit the six years between two Shmitah years.
– Leave one field as a “Shmitah corner” where all the laws of Shmitah will be observed.
– Hold public study sessions of the laws of Shmitah in the Mishnah, Maimonides and other sources.
– One of the ultimate goals of the Shmitah year is “that the poor of thy people may eat” (Exodus 23:11). It would be most appropriate for the Kibbutz to donate a part of the Shmitah year’s profits to indigent people.

Rabbi David Golinkin
Approved Unanimously 5746