By Dave Matkowsky
Many people assume that Shmitah, the Torah-mandated sabbatical year during which planting, harvesting, and other agricultural activities are prohibited in the Land of Israel, is a 12-month endeavor, beginning with Rosh Hashanah of the seventh year and concluding with Rosh Hashanah of the eighth year. The Torah seems to indicate as much, stating that fields and vineyards may be cultivated for six years, and must be allowed to rest during the seventh year of the cycle; in the eighth year, planting may begin anew. But the Torah recognizes that crops planted in the eighth year will not yield a harvest for some months, and sustenance will need to come from another source prior to the eighth year’s harvest.
The Talmud explains that planting is often not possible until well into the eighth year, depending on the agricultural cycles of different crops. This calculation is complicated by modern agricultural technology, and the shift from broad-based subsistence farming to a small agricultural sector (2% of Israel’s contemporary workforce) within a larger, post-industrial economy. Today’s Shmitah-observant farmers will not begin to earn post-Shmitah income until anywhere from March 2016 to January 2017! Israel’s farmers need our help to complete the cycle during this upcoming “eighth year” of Shmitah.
Currently, 3,453 Israeli farmers are fulfilling the mitzvah of Shmitah on behalf of the entire Jewish people. Shmitah is a communal mitzvah, yet in today’s economy, the financial burden is not equitably spread across the Jewish polity. Farmers cultivate the land in fulfillment of 2,000 years of our collective hopes and prayers, feed the nation, preserve its pioneering spirit, fulfill the mitzvot hateluyot ba’aretz, and are left to bear the economic hardship of Shmitah on their own.
To observe this foundational mitzvah on our collective behalf, they forgo 18 months or more of income; they struggle to meet their ongoing lease payments for farmland and equipment; and, ironically, they struggle to feed their own families. They make this sacrifice in order to fulfill a mitzvah our people waited 2,000 years to have the privilege of fulfilling. Their sacrifice is a declaration of emunah that the land belongs to Gâ€‘d, and all productivity and livelihood are determined by Gâ€‘d. They struggle in the hope that the merit of their actions will bring prosperity and security to Israel and the Jewish people as a whole.
Who are these farmers, these families, who sacrifice so much to fulfill the mitzvah of Shmitah on behalf of all Jews? Many of them are from the Religious Zionist and mesorati (traditional) communities; they are veterans of the religious kibbutz and moshav movements and IDF service, and they farm the Land of Israel as a fulfillment of the reestablishment of Jewish religious national life. In observing Shmitah as intended, they draw inspiration from the words of Rav Kook, Rav Lichtenstein, and other leading rabbinic luminaries who wrote about Shmitah as a foundational Torah value, and about heter mechirah (the legal “workaround” to avoid Shmitah-observance with halachic sanction) as a tragic–though halachically valid and often unavoidable–concession to expediency.
The personal sacrifice of 3,453 farmers and their families in keeping Shmitah is what allows the Jewish people to avoid the unacceptable alternative of letting Shmitah fall into obsolescence and fade to the margins of Jewish consciousness. These farmers are heroes of Torah and heroes of Israel, representing the noblest values and loftiest aspirations of the Religious Zionist enterprise.
And yet, the cause of Shmitah and the heroic farmers on the frontlines of its observance has remained off the radar screen of the broader Religious Zionist, Modern Orthodox, and traditional Jewish communities. For the past ten Shmitah cycles, support for shomer Shmitah farmers has come almost exclusively from the chareidi community, in support of Keren Hashvi’is, the organization working “on the ground,” with the sanction of Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture, to provide financial and moral support to the farmers. The rest of us have been missing out on the opportunity to take part in this important religious, Zionist, agricultural, and societal mitzvah which speaks to our deeply held values of faith, return to the land, social and environmental responsibility, and Jewish unity. The Shmitah Fund was created to share this opportunity, this sacred obligation, with the Modern Orthodox, Religious Zionist, and broader Jewish community, to do our part in supporting the farmers keeping Shmitah on behalf of Am Yisrael.
The budget for helping support the farmers this Shmitah cycle is $22.5Â million–which averages under $7,000 per farmer. It’s not nearly enough to support the farmers at a level they would earn in a regular year, but instead helps them cover certain basic expenses such as land-lease and equipment payments so they don’t literally lose their farms as a cost of keeping Shmitah. They still bear most of the burden. Thanks to the efforts of Keren Hashvi’is, all but $6Â million of the target budget has been raised. The chareidi community has done its part and more–it’s time for the rest of us to do ours. We have 6—8 months to raise the remaining $6Â million. The farmers will not make it without our help, and they should not have to. It is no less our mitzvah than theirs.
In our tefillot on Rosh Hashanah, we acknowledge and proclaim Hashem as King over all Creation, and that the world and everything in it belong to Him. For 3,453 Israeli farmers, this is not merely a two-day declaration of faith, but a two-year sacrifice. We owe it to them–and to our own core values and beliefs–to learn from their example and to play our part in making their valiant sacrifice possible.
Learn more about Israel’s Shmitah-observant farmers at www.shmitahfund.org.
Dave Matkowsky is the founding director of the Shmitah Fund.