Joining Agudas Shemita
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I read an advertisement on observing the mitzvah of shemitah through Agudas Shmita. You sign up on the website, and appoint the organization as your agent to purchase land on your behalf. That is, you buy land in Israel (starting from 1X1 amah to 4X4 amot) for the duration of the shemitah year. The land is officially registered under your name and you relinquish ownership of the crops during the shemitah year. In this way, you observe two mitzvot: "During the seventh year you will remit it and abandon it" and "The land will rest a sabbatical unto G-d." Each person receives a precise map noting the piece of land they purchased. This parcel is privately-owned land (it does not belong to the Israel Land Administration) between Yavniel and Tiberius. It says that Agudas Shmita has the support of many rabbis from the Ashkenazi and Sephardi Chareidi community, and also has legal guidance.
This land is worked during the sixth year; in this way, donors will merit the blessing "and I command my blessing to you during the sixth year." At the beginning of the shemitah year, a sign will be put up that the produce is ownerless. They also write that women are obligated in the mitzvah of shemitah. The rabbi heading the organization is Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Stern, rabbi of western Benei Berak and the av beit din of Sha'arei Hora'ah.
How does Torah VeHa'aretz Institute view this project?
In principle, I prefer not to express my opinion about initiatives of other organizations, and to talk only in general terms. However, here I feel I need to express my feelings. I highly esteem the great Torah scholars who support this initiative, and whoever wants to participate, of course I will not say anything negative about it. However, in my humble opinion, there are many things lacking.
The mitzvot of the Torah are meant for us to live by. Here there is a trick that makes it possible for people to observe the mitzvah, while it is clear that this is something fictitious. The true observance of the mitzvah of shemitah is that a farmer either raises crops based on the guidelines of a rabbinical court based on what is permitted by halachah (otzar beit din), or allows his land to lie fallow; not for people to buy land for a year and have it lie fallow. This is the psak of Rabbi Asher Wais (Minchat Asher, Shevi'it 21) and Rabbi Shterenbuch (Teshuvot VeHanhagot 5,305).
Furthermore, the assumption that "and I will command my blessing" will rest on the donors is incorrect, in my opinion. First, many posekim maintain that this blessing does not apply today while shemitah is only rabbinic; other posekim hold that the blessing will affect the general public, not the individual. Additionally, it is clear that the Torah's intent in this blessing is that the farmer who relinquishes the produce of his fields in the seventh year will merit a double (or even triple) yield during the sixth year, so the farmers will not lose money and will even have what to eat (relevant for produce that can be stored long-term only, such as grain). It does not mean that someone who relinquishes produce growing on 4 square amot will merit blessing in his other business dealings.
Unfortunately, this is a part of a wide-spread phenomenon, especially prevalent in specific societies, where many take Biblical verses and Talmudic statements out of their context and apply them in an imprecise way; namely, whoever donates a specific amount will certainly merit various types of heavenly salvations—such as taking challah to merit a personal salvation, and there are many more examples (note that the true significance of challah is giving a nice-sized gift to a kohen, [1/24th of the dough], which is one of the 24 priestly gifts. Its purpose is giving and lovingkindness to others. There are those who turn this mitzvah into a symbolic act whose main goal is to enrich themselves and receive personal gain instead of giving to others). We are charged with observing the mitzvot not in order to receive a prize. I believe that this phenomenon is not the Torah way and I would rather not go into this any further here.
There are other organizations, such as the Keren Hashviis, a fund that raises money and gives it to farmers who deliberate whether to let their land lie fallow, providing them with a significant economic anchor. This is something different entirely, and certainly is closer to the Torah's intent. Albeit there are also issues with this, specifically on the public level: if all of the Jews avoid working the land, what will we eat? Does the Torah want us to buy produce from non-Jews living in Israel and/or import all of our grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables? What about farmers that produce crops for export and cannot stop exporting for an entire year? And farmers who do not observe Torah and mitzvot who would otherwise continue working their land in a forbidden fashion? For this reason, in my opinion, and in the opinion of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, heter mechirah is a leniency that is still very much needed today.
In my opinion, someone who wants to observe shemitah today in a mehudar fashion should do three things:
- Learn the laws of shemitah that pertain to the private garden—what is permitted and what is forbidden—and declare ownerless the fruits and vegetables that grow in their yard, allowing anyone to come and pick them, and handle the produce following the laws of kedushat shevi'it.
- Support and buy produce of the otzar beit din, which provides produce with kedushat shevi'it, even if it is more expensive and it involves more effort to buy (the stores are further away, or only available through online purchase, etc.). For this purpose, we at Torah VeHa'aretz Institute founded Otzar Ha'aretz: this enables farmers to remit ownership of their crops and work the land in permissible ways, and facilitates bringing produce with kedushat shevi'it to the public. In my opinion, this is the best way to observe shemitah! Even when there is no otzar beit din, one should prefer other mehudar options (sixth-year produce, stored/canned vegetables, vegetables grown on detached platforms, produce grown in Olei Mitzraim: Arava and Western Negev), and not crops grown by non-Jews or imports, which undermines our Jewish farmers.
Even those who rely on heter mechirah and buy this type of produce, we certainly cannot say that they transgress shemitah, just as we would not say that those who buy chametz after Pesach that was sold by supermarkets to a non-Jew transgress eating chametz she-avar alav ha-Pesach.
Of course, it is important to make sure not to buy produce from farmers that grow it in a forbidden fashion. We should also attempt to buy flowers only from nurseries that observe shemitah (sixth year produce, detached platforms, flowers planted before shemitah, or in special need heter mechirah).
- Learn the laws of kedushat shevi'it and observe them in their entirety; try to eat food (the edible part) as much as possible fruits and vegetables with kedushat shevi'it.