Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Thoughts About Shemittah

R. Aharon Lichtenstein, Leave of Faith, vol. 2 pp. 179, 181-183 (originally published as a Hebrew article in 1973, translated and updated in 1994):

The simple fact is that the shemittah year of 5733 constitutes a halakhic tragedy...

Obviously, the subject of shemittah is first and foremost a body of Halakhah covering several areas... But the halakhic rules regarding shemittah reflect a multitude of values and serve to inculcate them in the body politic of K'lal Yisrael...

What remains for us today of this enchanting vision? Nothing but a hollow shell! The transition from an agricultural economy to an industrial one has taken most of the prohibitions of work off the agenda for nearly everyone... What options are available to the people who are anxious to observe the kedushah of shemittah with careful attention to all the details? They can rely on the legal fiction that -- woe to the ear that hear this! -- the fields of Eretz Yisrael, from Lebanon to Egypt and from the Mediterranean to the Jordan, have been sold or leased to non-Jews. I have no intention of questioning the halakhic validity of this sale, or the ability of a non-Jew's purchase to release the land from its kedushah. Let us assume that those who permitted this were correct in doing so; it is the phenomenon itself that we should examine.

Those who do not wish to rely on this heter have the option of going to the trouble of importing produce from abroad. If they are willing to rely on the ruling of the Bet Yosef that the kedushah of shemittah does not apply to produce grown by a non-Jew, even if the non-Jew's purchase cannot release the land from its kedushah, they may purchase produce from fields cultivated by Arabs. But what of this running to a lone fruit-and-vegetable seller in order to pay exorbitant prices for produce grown by non-Jews, when the people doing so are annoyed by the bother of the trip and the expense, on the one hand, and half-proud of themselves for their great righteousness, on the other? What has this to do with the biblical rule that "you may eat whatever the land produces during its sabbath"? Is there any recognizable connection between this (perhaps overweening) pride and the feeling of man's subservience and the Creator's supremacy that lies at the heart of the mizvah of shemittah, and is engendered by performing it? Among those who are punctilious about observing the prohibition on uncultivated produce, how many of them accept and live the shemittah year in simple joy, as opposed to the many who are waiting, with all but bated breath, for it to end?

I do not want to give the wrong impression; I am not criticizing those who rely on the heter of selling the land or the Chief Rabbinate for implementing it. If I were chief rabbi, I would most probably do the same... On the other hand, I am not suggesting, God forbid, that we should ignore our halakhic obligations, however unpalatable they may seem to us...

The reality is that there is no practical solution that can quiet our consciences... We take medicine -- but without a berakhah. We must not be seduced into believing that the bone stuck in our throats is actually candy. Perhaps there is no alternative -- but that is precisely the problem! That is the root of the halakhic tragedy.

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