As the year of shmita, also called the sabbatical year, is approaching, Jerusalem’s chief rabbi, Rabbi Aryeh Stern, last week came out in support of the “heter mechira”—the mechanism devised in the late 19th century by the Russian posek Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor under which the Holy Land could be sold to a non-Jew for the duration of the sabbatical year through a trust agreement. Rabbi Stern called on Israeli consumers to continue buying their fruits and vegetables from Jewish farmers who have sold their plots to Gentiles through the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.
Rabbi Stern’s call followed letters from “srugim” rabbis, who prefer the Tosefta-designed device of Otzar Beit Din (storehouse of the rabbinical court) – a community-based rabbinical court that supervises the harvest by hiring workers to crop, store, and distribute food to the community. Community members pay the court, but the payment is seen as compensation for the court’s trouble and not for purchasing the food. The court then passes the money to the farmers.
Both methods were devised as legal fictions to go around the literal wording of the mitzvah of shmita (Leviticus 25:4), which states: “But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest unto the land, a sabbath for God: you shall neither sow your field nor prune your vineyard.” The land sale solution means the farmer no longer owns his land, so that the field he sows and the vineyard he prunes are not his. The rabbinical court solution also takes the land out of the farmer’s hands.
Religious Zionist rabbis have been advocating for the Otzar Beit Din option because it does not involve the fictitious undoing of the Zionist enterprise by handing the land back to the gentiles after returning from the diaspora. Supporters of the wholesale sale of the land point to the fact that the most revered Religious Zionist scholar, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, supported it.
Rabbi Stern addressed all the residents of Jerusalem in his letter, saying:
“On the eve of the year of the Shmita that comes upon us for good, I would like to announce that this year, too, the sale permit has been arranged by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, as instructed by the great ones of the generations, led by our great teacher Rabbi Kook Ztz’l. Therefore everyone can buy the agricultural produce that has the certificates of sale, and it is permissible without any apprehension and doubt.”
The land sale ceremony ahead of the shmita year took place last week at the Chief Rabbinate, as 6,200 farmers from all over the country signed a sale permit with the Chief Rabbinate’s shmita inspectors. The sale permit allows the sale of their land to a non-Jew in the shmita year so that they can perform the four agricultural labors forbidden by the Torah during the shmita: plowing, planting, pruning, and harvesting.
At the ceremony, the sale permit for one year was signed by Wesley Schmidt, a resident of the State of Israel who follows the Seven Laws of Noah, which will allow farmers to continue to cultivate their land even during the shmita year. The farmers will be issued marketing permits they will use to market their produce as kosher during the shmita year.
The Seven Laws of Noah include prohibitions against worshiping idols, cursing God, murder, adultery, and sexual immorality, theft, eating flesh torn from a living animal, as well as the obligation to establish courts of justice.