Why We Observe the Torah When We Don’t Have To
Jews have lived in the biblical Land of Israel, uninterrupted, for thousands of years. For much of that time, Jewish life was confined to small communities of pious families who braved poverty and hardship, sometimes relying on charitable support from coreligionist communities in North Africa, Asia and Europe. But starting in the 1870s, things began to change, and Jews ventured out into the largely uncultivated, semi-arid land, and founded agricultural settlements, such as Petah Tikva and Zichron Yaakov.
Although the success of these communities was celebrated by Jews the world over, the newly opened farms and orchards also became the subject of fierce religious debate. Why? Because Jewish laws relating to land cultivation that had been dormant for millennia suddenly became relevant and controversial. The most famous of these controversies centered on the observance of “Shemitta” — the Sabbatical year mandated in this week’s Torah portion (Lev. 25:1-7) for agricultural land in Israel.
In 1888, the rabbinical authorities of Europe vigorously debated whether or not struggling farmers in nascent Israeli settlements would need to cease farming the land during the Shemitta year of 1888-9. This discussion took place before the true launch of the Zionist Movement, and the rabbis were not swayed by ideology; rather, their arguments focused on halachic precedent. Everyone agreed that without the existence of a fully functioning Temple in Jerusalem, Shemitta observance was a rabbinically imposed stringency — and not a full-blown Torah obligation. But while this allowed for greater leniency, Shemitta was still considered by many to be a compulsory requirement, not an elective option.
Nevertheless, with the farmers complaining that they were barely able to sustain their livelihoods, the leading Ashkenazi rabbinic authority of the day, Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor of Kovno, Lithuania, issued a ruling referred to as the Heter Mechira (‘sale dispensation’). His edict permitted the “sale” of the farmland to non-Jews, so that the Jewish owners could work for the gentile “owners,” and that the money earned from the sale of produce could be paid to them as “salary.” Rabbi Spektor’s dispensation was fiercely challenged by some of his colleagues in Europe, and also by the fanatical leadership of the Ashkenazi Jewish community in Jerusalem, who despised the financial independence of the new agricultural communities.
But despite the vehement opposition — recorded in publications that were so incendiary most were destroyed — the “sale” went ahead, and the grateful, Orthodox farmers were able to work the land. By the time of the next Shemitta year, in 1895-6, disapproval towards the Heter Mechira in the Jewish centers of Europe had abated, and it seemed that the controversy was over.
But that changed when the secular-led Zionist movement was launched in 1897, and agricultural settlements in Ottoman Palestine that were mainly run by militantly non-observant Jews increased in number. Religious opposition to the activities of secular Zionists crystallized during the Shemitta year of 1909-10, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and those who defended the “sale” dispensationwere vilified and maligned. And many farmers refused to adhere to this policy.
Interestingly, however, in recent Shemitta years, more and more farmers, even those who are less religious, have opted to observe Shemitta rather than to rely on the Heter Mechira. During the last Shemitta year, in 2014-15, almost 3,500 Israeli farmers left their land fallow, and were supported by a non-partisan organization called Keren Hasheviis.
One of the farmers, Ira Zimmerman, a grape grower from a farm near Meron, in northern Israel, went on a tour of the United States and Europe to report on the tremendous growth of Shemitta observance. Zimmerman explained how with each passing sabbatical year, the number of religious farmers who are choosing not to work their land grows exponentially. Remarkably, he says that if you ask them why they are doing it, they shrug their shoulders and answer simply: “because the Torah says so.”
Yet perhaps it is not so remarkable after all. The passage that introduces us to the Shemitta practice begins with the verse, “God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai” — which is strange, as Mount Sinai is never mentioned in the introduction to any Torah commandment.
Rabbi Zadok Hacohen of Lublin offers a compelling explanation. Obviously there were two distinct moments during the wilderness sojourn after the Exodus from Egypt. One took place at Mount Sinai, when the Torah was given, and during the years that followed. And the other moment took place almost 40 years later, in the plains of Moab, when Moses reiterated the Torah for the next generation, who were about to inherit the Promised Land, with Joshua as their leader.
It was not just the passage of time that separated these two moments; it was also existential realities. The Sinai group had lived in an era during which their every need was personally taken care of by God, unlike the Moab group, who needed to be trained for land conquest and land cultivation. Clearly the observance of Shemitta was of no direct concern to the first group, only to the second. In which case, why is Mount Sinai mentioned in association with Shemitta?
It seems that even when Shemitta had no direct relevance to the Jews, they were still interested in knowing about it, aware of the fact that every facet of God’s Torah, and the commandments it contained, was somehow relevant to them. And that is why Jews are returning to Shemitta today. That lesson of love for Torah, even when it does not really apply, is a lesson that we have all inherited from the Jews of Sinai.