At the height of the ongoing controversy over shmita observance, an editorial appeared in this paper ("Shmita pragmatism," Sept. 18) celebrating the heter mechira as the essential manifestation "of the religious Zionist ethos." The editorial described the heter mechira as a "circumvention" of "the ancient shmita limitations" using "pro forma bills of sale [whereby] farmers ostensibly turn over their land to non-Jews for the duration of the sabbatical [year]."
To call the heter mechira the essential manifestation of the national-religious ethos constitutes a huge slander against that community. It attributes to religious Zionism an attitude toward Halacha more generally associated with the Conservative movement: Halacha must be brought up to date, and is infinitely malleable in light of new "realities" and the emerging zeitgeist.
Shmita is no more difficult to observe today than in biblical times, when the entire society was agrarian and there was no possibility of importing food. Then too observance of the sabbatical year was a tremendous test of faith, as the Torah explicitly recognizes: "If you will say, 'What will we eat in the seventh year' - behold we will not sow and not gather in our crops?" (Leviticus 25:20).
A proper modern approach to shmita observance would seek new agricultural techniques that do not run afoul of the Torah's requirement that the land lie fallow. And some leading figures in the national-religious world have indeed devoted themselves to that quest.
But wiping the observance of shmita off the books, as the heter mechira effectively does today, is no cause for celebration, and would have been anathema to Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, the rabbinical figure most associated with the original heter mechira. Rabbi Kook's heter was formulated in advance of the sabbatical year of 1909-10, after he had been informed that widespread starvation would likely result from observance of shmita.
Opponents of the heter - and even then there were many - in addition to pointing out the dubious halachic validity of the sale of the Land to non-Jews (itself a transgression of a specific Torah prohibition, according to most authorities), charged that it would result in the mitzva being forgotten entirely. Rabbi Kook responded to one of those critics, Rabbi Yaakov David Wilovsky (the Ridbaz) by insisting that his ruling was "temporary, given only because of necessity and extreme compulsion . . . chalila, chalila that we should set our hand against what is holy and usurp the Land's holiness."
Rabbi Kook made it clear that without the threat to life he would not support the heter.
Whatever the justification for the heter mechira at that time, history has proven Rabbi Kook's critics right. The heter mechira has been renewed every shmita since, with little attention to changing circumstances. Once farmers sign their pro-forma bill of sale, work goes on exactly as if there were no shmita.
That is an essential difference between the heter mechira and the sale of chametz on Pessah, to which it is often, and wrongly, compared. Jews who sell their chametz refrain from all contact with it, and exercise none of the indicia of ownership; farmers who sell their lands continue to farm as if nothing changed, and the land does not "rest."
The stringencies that Rabbi Kook imposed to ensure that the mitzva of shmita not be forgotten - e.g., produce grown on land "sold" to Arabs should still be treated as if it possessed the sanctity of the seventh year; Jewish farmers should perform none of the forms of labor forbidden by the Torah - are almost totally ignored. In addition, Rabbi Kook had written that the sale of the land could only be effected when most of the land in Eretz Yisrael is in non-Jewish hands, which has not been true at least since 1948.
THE FIGURE most responsible for the renewed observance of shmita in our day is the Chazon Ish. With single-minded determination, he set out to prove that it remains possible to observe every mitzva commanded by the Torah. (Shmita observance today, according to most authorities, is a rabbinic, not Torah, requirement.) He delved deeply into the halachic sources and, in the case of disputes among the earlier authorities, usually adopted the lenient view to make observance easier.
He personally convinced the religious farmers of Moshav Komemiyut to observe shmita fully, and under the direction of Rabbi Binyamin Mendelson, rav of Komemiyut, the movement spread from there. This shmita year, an estimated 340,000 dunams of land (85,000 acres) lie fallow - more than double the number just two cycles ago.
The challenges faced by thousands of shomer shmita farmers are beyond the comprehension of any city-dweller. Not only are they without income for an entire year. Many are carrying huge bank loans on which payments still have to be made. Those who have long-term supply contracts endanger their relationship with their largest purchasers. And farmers with many Thai agricultural workers risk losing them and having to start the process of attaining permits for new ones anew.
Yet the number of such farmers grows from cycle to cycle. This year most of the farmers from Gush Katif who have obtained new plots are observing shmita, even though in most cases they just recently received their plots. Almost all of these farmers can relate stories of how they personally witnessed the Torah's promise of a double bounty in the sixth year.
In a famous story, preserved on film, a horde of locusts stopped at the boundaries of Komemiyut during the first shmita after the creation of the state, after having laid the surrounding farmland waste.
The Torah specifically links our dwelling securely in the Land to the observance of shmita (Leviticus 25:18). Who knows if the brave farmers upholding shmita - as well as those who strive to develop new agronomic techniques fully consistent with shmita's restrictions - are not the best protection of our security.
This article appeared in the Jerusalem Post on November 29 2007.