WHAT makes the land of Israel special?
It’s not just that the history and identity of the Jewish people are rooted there.
It’s not just that the land is holy; that, for example, the Tabernacle stood in Shilo for 369 years or the two holy Temples stood in Jerusalem.
It’s not just that Israel is the “Promised Land.”
It is also this: Certain agricultural laws in the Torah are observed only in Israel.
Two primary ones figure prominently in this week’s Torah portion, with an unusual implication: May the entire land of Israel be sold?
People are still aware of the sale of Manhattan for $24. What would an entire country be worth?
The two primary agricultural laws in this week’s Torah portion of Behar are shmittah, the Sabbatical year; and yovel, the Jubilee (50th) year.
The count of the Jubilee year has been lost; the count of the Sabbatical year, which occurs once every seven years, has not. We know which year is the Sabbatical year.
After seven Sabbatical years — 49 years — comes the Jubilee year. We no longer know which year is a Jubilee year.
During the Sabbatical year, the land is rested — unplowed, unsown, unworked. During the 50th year, property bought and sold over the past 50 years its returned to its original owner.
For 1,800 years, all this was theory, since Jewish farms did not exist on the land of Israel. Among many spiritual losses, the exile of the Jews from Israel meant the suspension of the Sabbatical year. The land, in effect, was resting permanently.
ALL this changed with the birth of the proto-Zionist movement in the 1880s. A few intrepid settlers left the East European shtetl for Palestine. The first Jewish-owned farms in some 1,800 years were established by Baron Rothschild.
To found a farm, especially after a hiatus of centuries, was extremely difficult. Jews had forgotten how to farm, at least in the rugged conditions of Palestine. Plus, there was no surrounding, supportive economy, little rain and no drip irrigation and no proven system of delivery to market.
Six years into these fledgling farms’ existence, a daunting question loomed: What do we do for the upcoming Sabbatical year, in 1889?
On the one hand, the Torah is clear: Rest the land. Do not farm it. On the other hand, the reality was clear: If these farms rest, will they survive? Will the fledgling rebirth of the Jewish community in Palestine — whose economy was primarily agricultural — make it? If not, is there a solution?
Great rabbinic scholars of the day debated this issue. The question was both abstract, rooted in an analysis of Torah law, and practical, a pressing concern.
The great rabbis came down on both sides.
Some said: Let the land lay fallow. The Torah promises survival. It is never easy to lose a year’s worth of livelihood, whether now or in antiquity. If G-d said to rest the land, and if He promised survival, so it will be.
Others said: A community accustomed to centuries of observance of the Sabbatical year could cope. Now, with the rebirth of Jewish farms in Palestine after an absence of almost two millennia, and with these farms barely hanging on, it is an emergency.
An emergency requires that Jewish law allow the entire land of Israel to be sold to a non-Jew, who is not obligated to follow the Torah’s Sabbatical laws. Sell the land for one year, then it is permitted for the Jew to work it and reap the fruits thereof.
It was a raging debate, arising every seven years for the first decades of the Zionist enterprise — and it still arises. Permit me to cite Prof. Yehudah Mirsky’s summary of the debate in 1910.
PROF. Mirsky recently published a biography of Rabbi Abraham I. Kuk, the rabbi of Jaffa and environs, 1904-1914. Mirsky outlines the original debate in 1889 and the way it played out three Sabbatical cycles later in 1910.
During the original debate in 1889, there were just a few Jewish farmers, and many of them were Orthodox. By 1910 Jewish farming in Palestine had both grown and changed. The main change was in the ideology of most of the farmers — avowedly secularist and socialist.
Rabbi Kuk argued for the sale of the land to a gentile. To quote his position, as formulated by Mirsky:
“Since most Jews were not living on the Land of Israel, the biblical prohibitions were not in full force; thus, in technical halachic terms, the contemporary Sabbatical year was not of biblical but rabbinic writ, a second-order obligation providing greater room for leniency; in pressing and unfamiliar circumstances there is well-established precedent for stretching the law or relying on minority views; residence in the Land of Israel is itself a mitzvah of the first order, and so to perform the mitzvah of the Sabbatical year at the cost of genuine socioeconomic injury to those living in the land is to set the Torah at cross-purposes with itself.”
Rabbi Yaakov David Wilovsky (the “Ridbaz”) argued against the sale of the land to a gentile.
His position was that the sale of the entire land of Israel was entirely fictitious and hence achieved nothing; that the claims by heretical Zionists who plead desperation were cynical; and that faithful Jews working the land who faced hardship deserved a different strategy: Jews should raise funds to support the G-d-fearing Jewish farmers.
Even rabbinic supporters of the sale preferred that the land rest and that Jews raise money to help the Jewish farmers sustain themselves; but this would not be sufficient. And the sale would be a provisional solution, until the settlements could better establish themselves.
THE debate today?
In a sense, the positions on both sides have not changed, but the reality has. Many more Jewish farmers observe the laws of the Sabbatical year as laid down in the Torah than in the past, due mainly to four factors:
• There are substantial, worldwide efforts to raise money to support Jewish farmers in Israel who observe the Sabbatical year laws.
• Very close to a majority of the Jewish people now live in the Land of Israel, and when that majority line is crossed — and who knows exactly when it will be, or whether it already has been — many of the halachic leniencies are cast in doubt, even on their own terms.
• The standard of living of some Jewish farmers has risen dramatically, making it more possible for at least some Jewish farmers to observe the Sabbatical laws.
• Greater quantities of food are available from neighboring Arab farms and from imports abroad.
This last change is a particularly bitter sticking point. Those who favor selling the entire country ask why Jews should support an Arab economy. Others counter: the Torah’s instructions trump all other considerations.
One thing is clear: Perhaps in a very uneven line, the observance of the Sabbatical year is becoming more and more a reality in Israel. For the details, check out this week’s Torah portion.
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