'Shmita' Year Controversy in Israel Israel is celebrating a shmita year, when the Torah bans farming on Jewish-owned lands. A new ruling by the chief rabbinate has left the level of observance to local religious leaders, embroiling this shmita in controversy.
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From Oct. 10, Rabbi Julian Sinclair explains the shmita year

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'Shmita' Year Controversy in Israel

From Oct. 10, Rabbi Julian Sinclair explains the shmita year

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Recently, Jews around the world celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year - L'Sanah Tovah to everybody - but it's not just any New Year.

This year is what's known as a shmita, or sabbatical year, which occurs every seventh year. Now, the Torah states for this year, all Jewish-owned land in Israel is not to be worked, to be left fallow. Anything that grows there should be given away. Also, at the end of the year, the shmita, all debts are to be forgiven. Well, you could see why this might be a problem for some farmers and those who want to buy produce.

Well, where there's a problem, there's often a solution even if it's not one that makes everyone happy. And over the years, rabbis have found ways for Israeli Jews to technically observe the shmita, loopholes if you will. It wasn't really a big deal until a new law by the chief rabbinate - it ruled on the shmita and it caused a splintering of opinion about how strictly to observe.

Joining us now from Jerusalem to discuss this is Rabbi Julian Sinclair. He's the author of "Let's Schmooze: Jewish Words Today."

Hi, Rabbi.

Rabbi JULIAN SINCLAIR (Author, "Let's Schmooze: Jewish Words Today"): Hi. How are you?

STEWART: I'm doing great. Can you tell us what was the original purpose for the shmita year?

Rabbi SINCLAIR: Yeah. The original purpose of the shmita year in the Bible was the give the land a break once every seven years. We don't farm it or sow or reap, and so it has a strong ecological value to it. And it's also - there's a strong social justice purpose to it as well.

In the law, which you referred to, once in seven years, debts would be forgiven so people who have gotten themselves in over their head in debt would be able to make a new start once every seven years.


Rabbi SINCLAIR: So it serves - social justice and ecology were very much at the heart of it.

STEWART: So once upon a time, perhaps that wasn't as big an issue economically for people, but it became a problem in the late 19th century and there started to be ways that some Israeli Jews figured out how to get around the rule in the past. Can you explain that to us?

Rabbi SINCLAIR: Yes. When Jews started to return to the land of Israel in the late 19th to early 20th century and became involved in agriculture for the first time in a couple of thousand years, it suddenly became difficult to practically observe the shmita years because they were poor struggling farmers, who were just trying to get themselves established and they didn't know so much about farming anyway and they found once every seven years, they had to give up the job and that it wasn't manageable economically.

So a great rabbi at that time, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who was the first chief rabbi of Mandate for Palestine, came up with a following solutions, which was that the Jewish farmers in the land could sell the land every - for the whole year to non-Jews. And so technically, it wouldn't be Jewish-owned land and so they'd be able to continue farming during the seventh year.

Now, he came up with this that makes seem like kind of a dodge or a loophole, but it's really for - for two main reasons. First, for him, Jews returning to the land of Israel and farming the land was tremendous value for him. They thought it was almost the fulfillment of biblical prophecy and so he was willing to find a solution to them for them to carry on farming.

And, it goes along with the tradition in Jewish law to find compassionate legal solutions when there's real economic hardship at stake as it certainly was in this case.

STEWART: Another example of how people sort of got around it or existed during this year was something like you don't actually farm in the ground, you could farm above the ground. You could create something on stilts and farm that way as long as it wasn't touching the ground?

Rabbi SINCLAIR: Yeah, that's another solution which has been adopted over the last 40, 50 years. You know, there, I mean, for example, hydrophonic production of vegetables, tomatoes, for example, tomato as you say it. You can grow them just in water, which is not actually rooted in the ground, and so that's another possible solution although that's doesn't work for all kinds of fruit or vegetables.

STEWART: Well, you can say tomatoes because it sounds great when you do. So let's discuss…

Rabbi SINCLAIR: Okay, tomatoes, tomatoes.

STEWART: Let's discuss this year. Tell me about this new law by the chief rabbinate that's making things difficult - that people are having a difficult time deciding what to do this shmita year.

Rabbi SINCLAIR: Well, yes. The situation's really changed this year and I'll tell you how.

For the last 59 years, the chief rabbinate of Israel sponsored the sale of the land to non-Jews during the shmita year - the Heter Mechira as they called it - enabling Jews who wanted to farm to farm and Jews who wanted to eat fruit and vegetables which had been grown in this way to eat it.

Now, throughout this period, there were small minority of Jews, some were called ultra-orthodox Jews - although I prefer the word Haredi, which is how they define themselves - who said while we don't want to rely on this Heter Mechira, this device of selling the land, we really feel it's a bit, you know…

It's a bit of a loophole. We really like - prefer to observe it, the shmita properly as we think it should or always should have been and not - any food, which has grown the land of Israel at all. And of course, you know, it's they're right to accept upon themselves the extra stringent convention and bear the costs of doing so.

What changed this year is that the chief rabbinate had said, well, it seems to be a very inconsistent position. On the one hand, they said, yes, we'll continue to sponsor the Heter Mechira. But, on the other hand, they said, but any regional rabbinates who are under our jurisdiction in a particular town or city who decide that they don't want to support the Heter Mechira, they will be free not to give kosher certification to food which is grown under the provision of the Heter Mechira. So on the one hand, they're saying, yes, we're sponsoring the sale of the land, on the other hand, they're saying but, you know, any rabbi who wants to say that food based on this sale of land is not kosher is free to do so.

STEWART: So there's no real clear direction and that's - that must be causing adverse reactions among Israeli Jews because there's no clear, which way to go?

Rabbi SINCLAIR: It's causing tremendous adverse reaction amongst a few different groups for a few different reasons.

First, most obviously, the farmers are up in arms because, you know, if they can't get kosher certification for food which they grow this year, then retailers and hoteliers and patrons and supermarkets won't buy it and so their livelihood is seriously at risk.

It's causing this severe unhappiness in the religious Zionist community because for them, you know, the Heter Mechira was a kind of a pillar of their ideology. To the religious Zionist, it's very important to be able to be viable Jewish farmers in the land of Israel and at the same time, to observe the Torah law. And these new rules are undercutting the possibility of doing that. They're going to put a lot of farmers out of business if they observe the shmita laws. And also politically, there's a good deal of opposition to it because a lot of their - the food which in the sabbatical year, which is not grown in the land of Israel, has always come from Gaza…

STEWART: Oh, boy.

Rabbi SINCLAIR: …and, yeah, quite. And becasue Gaza is technically not part of the biblical land of Israel. And so the last shmita year, there were Jewish farmers growing a lot of fruits and vegetables in Gaza saying, you know, you could eat the stuff which they grew.

This shmita year, things have changed a little bit.

STEWART: Obviously.

Rabbi SINCLAIR: Hamas is now in charge in Gaza and so people think with some justification that, you know, if you're too religious to eat things which are grown in the land of Israel then you're actually putting money in the pocket of people who are shooting rockets at us. So there's a lot of opposition to this move by the chief rabbinate.

STEWART: Rabbi Julian Sinclair is the author of "Let's Schmooze: Jewish Words Today." Well, we want to talk to you about your book sometime in the future.

Rabbi, thank you so much for explaining all of that to us.

Rabbi SINCLAIR: Thank very much, Alison. Nice to speak to you. Bye-bye.


Coming up on the BPP - excuse me - Tivo, DVR, the whole way we're watching TV is changing and that means a lot for the kind of shows that get on the air. We're going to find out about that.

STEWART: It's all coming up on THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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