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Keeping Shmita in San Francisco

I was asked by Dave Matkowsky, the founding director of The Shmitah Fund, to share with you the following information and to request your support for a very important cause.

Many people assume that shmitah, the Torah-mandated sabbatical year during which planting, harvesting and other agricultural activities are prohibited in the Land of Israel, is a 12 month endeavor, beginning with Rosh Hashanah of the seventh year and concluding with Rosh Hashanah of the eighth year. The Torah seems to indicate as much, stating that fields and vineyards may be cultivated for six years and must be allowed to rest during the seventh year of the cycle. In the eighth year, planting may begin anew. 

However, the Torah recognizes that crops planted in the eighth year will not yield a harvest for some months hence, and sustenance will need to come from another source prior to the eighth year’s harvest. The Talmud explains that planting itself is often not possible until well into the eighth year, depending on the agricultural cycles of different crops. This calculuation is complicated by modern agricultural technology and the shift from broad-based subsistence farming to a small agricultural sector (which today, makes up 2% of Israel’s contemporary workforce) within a larger, post-industrial economy. Today’s shmitah-observant farmers will not begin to earn post-shmitah income until anywhere from March 2016 to January 2017! All of this means that Israel’s farmers need our help to complete the cycle during this upcoming “Eighth Year of Shmitah.”

Currently, 3,453 Israeli farmers are fulfilling the mitzvah of shmitah on behalf of the entire Jewish people. Shmitah is a communal mitzvah, yet in today’s economy, the financial burden is not equitably spread across the Jewish polity. For the most part, it is the farmers who cultivate the land in fulfillment of 2000 years of our collective hopes and prayers, who feed the nation, who preserve its pioneering spirit and who fulfill the mitzvot hat’luyot ba’aretz. These farmers are left to bear the economic hardship of shmitah on their own. To observe this foundational mitzvah on our collective behalf, they forgo eighteen months or more of income, they struggle to meet their ongoing lease payments for farmland and equipment and even, ironically, to feed their own families. They make this sacrifice in order to perform a mitzvah our people waited 2000 years to have the privilege of fulfilling. Their sacrifice is a declaration of emunah that the land belongs to G-d and all productivity and livelihood are determined by G-d. They struggle in the hope that the merit of their actions will bring prosperity and security to Israel and the Jewish people as a whole.

Who are these farmers and their families who sacrifice so much to fulfill the mitzvah of shmitah on behalf of all Jews? The vast majority are from the Religious Zionist and mesorati (traditional) communities. They are veterans of the religious kibbutz and moshav movements, they served in the IDF, and they farm the Land of Israel as a fulfillment of the reestablishment of Jewish religious national life. In observing shmitah as intended, they draw inspiration from the words of Rav Kook, Rav Lichtenstein and other leading rabbinic luminaries, who wrote about shmitah as a foundational Torah value, and heter mechira (the legal “workaround” to avoid shmitah-observance with halachic sanction) as a tragic concession to expediency, though halachically valid and often unavoidable. For 3,453 farmers and their families, their personal sacrifice in keeping shmitah is what allows the Jewish people to avoid the unacceptable sacrifice of letting shmitah fall into obsolescence and fade to the margins of Jewish consciousness. These farmers are heroes of Torah and heroes of Israel, representing the noblest values and loftiest aspirations of the religious Zionist enterprise.

And yet, the heroic farmers in the front lines of shmitah observance have remained off the radar screen of the broader Religious Zionist, Modern Orthodox and traditional Jewish communities. For the past ten shmitah cycles, support for shomer-shmitah farmers has come almost exclusively from the Charedi community, through Keren Hashviis, the organization working under  the mandate of Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture  to provide financial and moral support to the farmers. The rest of us have been missing out on the opportunity to take part in this important religious, Zionist, agricultural and societal mitzvah, which speaks to our deeply held values of faith, return to the land, Jewish unity, social and environmental responsibility. The Shmitah Fund was created to share this opportunity, this sacred obligation, with the Modern Orthodox, Religious Zionist and broader Jewish community, in order to do our part in supporting the farmers keeping shmitah on behalf of Am Yisrael.

The budget for helping support the farmers this shmitah cycle is $22.5 million – which averages under $7,000 per farmer. It’s not nearly enough to support the farmers at a level they would earn in a regular year, but rather to help them cover certain basic expenses such as land lease and equipment payments. Without these funds, these farmers are at risk of losing their farms at the cost of keeping shmitah.  They still bear the lion’s share of the burden. Thanks to the efforts of Keren Hashviis, all but $6 million of the target budget has been raised. The Charedi community has done its part and more – it’s time for the rest of us to do ours. We have 6-8 months to raise the remaining $6 million. The farmers will not make it without our help and they should not have to do this alone. It is our mitzvah, no less than theirs.

In our tefillot on Rosh Hashanah we acknowledge and proclaim Hashem as King over all Creation, and that the world and everything in it belongs to Him. For 3,453 Israeli farmers, this is not merely a 2-day declaration of faith, but a 2-year sacrifice. We owe it to them – and to our own core values and beliefs – to learn from their example, and play our part in making their valiant sacrifice possible.

Learn more about Israel’s shmitah-observant farmers.