The first part of the Portion of Behar pertains to the commandment of Shemitta – an agricultural Sabbatical Year. Every seven years, the land of Israel must lie fallow. We are forbidden from sowing and from reaping what was sown. Anything that grows remains “hefker”, a word usually translated as “ownerless”. Avi Bergmann, a contemporary rabbi and investor living in New York, suggests that the land is not “ownerless” per se. Rather, it is owned by everyone. No individual has more rights to the land than any other.
After introducing the Shemitta, the Torah segues to the Yovel, the Jubilee Year. As far as working the land is concerned, the laws of Yovel are identical to the laws of Shemitta. While Shemitta operates on a seven-year cycle, Yovel operates on a fifty-year cycle, meaning that every so often, Shemitta and Yovel will occur over two consecutive years. This eventuality is a cause for concern for the landowner: leaving one’s crops fallow for two consecutive years could have dire consequences. The Torah tells us that we should fear not [Vayikra 25:18-19]: “You shall observe My laws [of Shemitta and Yovel] and faithfully keep My rules, that you may live upon the land in security; the land shall yield its fruit and you shall eat your fill, and you shall live upon it in security.” The Torah then goes on to explain how a person can “eat his fill” while not harvesting his crops for two years [Vayikra 25:20-22]: “And should you ask, ‘What are we to eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?’ I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years. When you sow in the eighth year, you will still be eating old grain of that crop; you will be eating the old until the ninth year, until its crops come in.” G-d will ensure that the crops that grow in the year before the two-year hiatus are so bountiful that they will last until new crops can be grown and harvested. The Torah’s solution is somewhat problematic. The Talmud in Tractate Pesachim [64b] warns us not to rely upon a miracle. But isn’t relying upon G-d to provide a bumper crop a prime example of relying upon a miracle?
In order to address this problem, we return to the Torah’s promise that in reward for keeping the laws of Shemitta and Yovel, we will live in security. Rashi, the most eminent of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, makes two comments. Regarding the phrase “The land shall yield its fruit”, Rashi explains, “This implies that you shall not worry about drought”. Regarding the phrase “You shall eat your fill”, Rashi comments, “Even if you eat only a little, the food will be blessed in your stomach”.
Rabbi Binyamin Sofer, known as the “Ktav Sofer”, who lived in the nineteenth century in Pressburg (Bratislava), where he succeeded his father, Rabbi Moshe Sofer, the “Hatam Sofer”, as the Headmaster of the prestigious Pressburg Yeshiva, has trouble with both of Rashi’s elucidations. First, if a person’s crops are growing in the field, why should he eat only a small portion of them? He does not need his food to be “blessed in his stomach”. Why shouldn’t he eat as much as his heart desires? Next, what does Rashi mean by “not worrying about drought”? Some people are natural worriers, no matter how much they do or do not own. Moreover, a certain amount of worrying can be beneficial in that it encourages a person to recognize and mitigate potential sources of risk. A black swan – an unpredictable event beyond what is normally expected of a situation that has potentially severe consequences – can wreak havoc on global economics. The recent COVID-19 pandemic is only one example. A person who does not worry about drought could find himself destitute if a drought does occur. Finally, in order to truly experience a sense of financial security, a person must trust in G-d. Worrying is irrelevant if it does not lead to prayer.
Rabbi Sofer guides us forward with help from a verse in Ecclesiastes [5:11]: “A worker’s sleep is sweet, whether he has much or little to eat; but the rich man’s abundance does not let him sleep.” A person with an abundance of food soon becomes accustomed to his affluence. If, for some reason, his wealth is reduced, then he will have less to eat. While objectively speaking he may still have sufficient food to get by, in his own mind he is starving. On the other hand, one who trains himself to make due with less will not be impacted by transitory changes in his financial status. His sleep will always remain sweet. Reflecting this understanding back on to Rashi’s explanation, G-d is telling us that the Shemitta-Yovel conjunction is addressed jointly by man and by G-d: G-d will increase the output of the field but man must learn to make the most with whatever G-d gives him.
Let’s proceed further down this path. When the Torah was given more than three thousand years ago, the average person was a land-owner who grew what he ate. An inability to raise crops would have personal repercussions: He and his family would have to search for alternate sources of food. When Yovel followed Shemitta, the problem was compounded but it still remained a personal problem, albeit one shared by an entire nation. Fast forward three thousand years and the situation is very different. Farms are few and far between. Most people purchase their produce in the supermarket. Those who do engage in agriculture sell their produce on the national and global markets – much of the produce grown in Israel today is sold overseas. If the laws of Shemitta and Yovel were difficult to observe when the Torah was given, then today their observance is orders of magnitude more difficult. Imagine a grower of dates who decides to bite the bullet for one year and fully observe the laws of Shemitta. Let us assume that during the year in which he does not work, he is supported by some philanthropic organization. While he may survive Shemitta, his business will not. The global supply chain at Tesco, Woolworths, and Publix will find alternate suppliers and our observant farmer will never be able to regain his market share.
When the Jewish People began to return to the Land of Israel towards the end of the 19th century, rabbis began to look for creative halachic solutions that would enable farmers to thrive, year in and year out. One of the more popular solutions, the “Heter Mechira (Leniency of Sale)”, involves selling one’s land to non-Jews for the entire year of Shemitta. While the Heter Mechira is similar to the yearly sale of chametz before Pesach, even its most ardent supporters admit that it is only a stopgap measure. Another solution, the “Otzar Beit Din (Court Storage)”, enables the courts to cultivate fields with minimal profit. The problem with the Otzar Beit Din is that it solves the national problem but not the international problem: if a farmer cannot turn a profit on the global market, his business may fail.
If halacha cannot adequately address the challenges of Shemitta, then perhaps modern science should step in. According to most halachic authorities, produce that does not grow from the ground is not affected by the laws of Shemitta. Over the past twenty years, there has been an explosion in soilless farming techniques such as hydroponics (“mata menutak”) and vertical farming. Hydroponic farming is a system in which plant roots grow in a liquid nutrient solution or in some moist inert material. Vertical farming is a scaled-up version of hydroponic farming, in which produce, which no longer require soil, is grown in stacked levels. Imagine skyscrapers that contain layer upon layer of crops. Indoors, the crops are immune from pests and from weather. The use of land is more efficient. Carbon dioxide released by the plants can be harvested before it reaches the atmosphere. Vertical farming requires high-tech sensors and water systems, in a small volume with acceptable power requirements. Only now is vertical farming beginning to gain traction. Just in time for our return from exile.
Shemitta must not be a cause for worry. Shemitta must prod us forward to make use of everything G-d has given us – science, technology and halacha – in order to get the most out of the land, and by doing so, to nurture trust in G-d and faith in ourselves.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Geisha bat Sara.
 Strangely, Rashi addresses this phrase first even though it appears later in the verse than the second phrase.
 Other than the forty years the Jewish People spent in the desert immediately after receiving the Torah..