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Enabling agriculture during Shemitah. Why do Haredi rabbis object?

The year of shemitah, the sabbatical for agricultural activity and the remission of debt is winding down. The laws governing debt remission apply universally. The laws of agricultural shemitah apply only in Israel.

In a modern economy if all Israeli farms were to shut down for the year we would be confronting either famine or the absurd cost of importing all of our grains, fruits and vegetables. This year especially, with the war in Ukraine and the resulting inflation, feeding the Israeli population would be well nigh impossible.

Two thousand years ago Hillel the Elder created a way to circumvent the issue of debt remission. It was called Pruzbul. However, the prohibition on agriculture stayed in place until the early 20th century when Zionist rabbis introduced a solution to that as well. It was called Heter Mechirah, whereby Jewish-owned fields in Israel would be sold to a gentile, thereby making it legal to plant and harvest on what is technically gentile-owned land.

As a young advertising executive several shemitahs ago, I thought the Pruzbul ceremony might make for an interesting business article in the Wall Street Journal.

My client at the time was the New York subsidiary of Israel’s orthodox-owned Mizrahi Bank. The WSJ editor was keen, and agreed to dispatch a reporter to cover the event that took place at Yeshiva University under a Bet Din comprising three of the most prominent rosh yeshivas.

In an effort to explain what was about to transpire, the senior rabbi began by saying “What is happening today is a legal fiction.” I saw a cloud pass over the non-Jewish reporter’s face, and knew instantly that the entire subject had soured for him. He had come not to witness a religious ceremony but an act of Talmudic hocus-pocus.

Needless to say, I was relieved when the Journal decided not to run any story, as it would not have reflected positively on my client.

Talmudic law proffers several legal fictions that fly in the face of basic Torah law. All of these seem to be designed for the benefit of the wealthy. Pruzbul is one, of course, as it empowers a lender to collect on a debt that the Torah nullifies in the shemitah year.

There is also Heter Iska which allows a lender to charge interest, again something clearly prohibited by the Torah.

Another legal fiction is Heter Mechirah the technical selling of a business over Shabbat so that it can continue to operate on the day of rest mandated by no less than the Ten Commandments. This was not intended for the impecunious owner of a neighborhood kiosk, but for vastly bigger businesses whose owners are, coincidentally, supporters of Torah and Hasidic institutions, and have cozy relations with rabbinic figures, assuming they are not the rabbinic figures themselves.

And finally we have Mechirat Hametz, the legal fiction for selling one’s leavened inventory over the Passover. This was never intended for the poor household hoping to salvage a half box of Cheerios, but rather to help a beer baron, like the amoraic sage Rav Pappa, who preferred to stash his brews until the summer when prices were high, rather than sell in winter when beer was sold cheap.

A more recent legal fiction would allow Israeli farmers to plant and harvest during the shemitah year. Known as Heter Mechirah, this legal fiction was adamantly shot down by all haredi rabbinic authorities. But, then, none of them were farmers or likely to even know a farmer. Farmers were not exactly the source of their rabbinical revenues. Nor were they looking to marry their dowry-endowed daughters to the sons of these sages. And it is rather unlikely that any farmer in Israel would even have a dowry-endowed daughter that would make a tempting catch for the son of a rosh yeshiva or a hasidic rebbe.

Our rabbis over the past two millennia have had no problem compounding rigor upon rigor, and enforcing draconian interpretations of halachah that govern every aspect of one’s life. Yet when it comes to the financial interests of tycoons then, mirabile dictu, legal fictions materialize. That these are all fiction is clear. The question, and it is rhetorical, is why they are legal. And if they can be justified, surely Heter Mechirah should top the list as we all have to eat.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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