Monday, October 22, 2007

Shmitta Pragmatism


This year is a shmita year - a sabbatical during which, according to the Bible, all Jewish-owned fields in the Land of Israel are to lie fallow.

In its day, this was one of Judaism's progressive practices, a measure that allowed the land to recuperate from over-cultivation, not dissimilar to the scientific concepts that underlie modern crop-rotation.

Now, every shmita year there is controversy. Last time, then-chief rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron was ostracized by the haredi leadership for personally providing Jerusalem and other cities with the option of heter mechira - a legal solution involving the sale of Jewish-owned land to non-Jews. He paid a hefty price for his move and lost the respect of the haredi establishment.

This year, the clashes are shaping up to be even worse. The Supreme Court has already questioned the Chief Rabbinate's granting of a free hand to local rabbinates to foil circumventions of the ancient shmita limitations, even though these circumventions are formally sponsored by none other than the Chief Rabbinate itself. Meanwhile, Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon has announced that he will forbid a flood of imports designed to compete with Israeli farmers and thus enable the ultra-Orthodox to shun all Jewish-grown produce for the next year.

This is no niggling matter. Many Jewish farmers in Israel face ruin if their produce is eschewed.

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