Sunday, May 11, 2008

A Musing: B'har 2008

“For six years you may sow your field and for six years you may prune your vineyard; and you may gather in its crop. But the seventh year shall be a complete rest for the land, a Sabbath for God, your field you shall not sow and your vineyard you shall not prune. The aftergrowth of your harvest you shall not reap and the grapes you had set aside for yourself you shall not pick; it shall be a year of rest for the land. The Sabbath produce of the land shall be yours to eat, for you for your slaves and for your maidservant; and for your laborer and for your resident who dwell with you”. (Leviticus 25:3-7)

Many read into this mitzvah of shmitah a fundamental social norm; the land owner commanded to concern himself with the weak and the poor and as such reinforce our understanding of tikun olam. Many of our leading commentaries however understood this mitzvah as more of a religious concern and less of a social issue.

Once in seven years man is to cease working, stop being self reliant, and put himself at the mercy of God. In such a way does man demonstrate his complete faith and trust in God. In observing shmitah man demonstrates his abiding faith in God as the ultimate provider. God, accordingly, will make sure that in the sixth year there will be a bumper crop that will help get man through his seventh year and eighth years.

In theory this religious commitment and trust was admirable. However, when the aliyot to Israel began at the end of the 19th century it became unreasonable to believe that the nascent and fragile agricultural industry would be sustainable and at the same time observe this commandment. In the shmitah of 1889, those religious settlers turned to the rabbis for a solution and they were provided with a remedy that in effect was “fiction”. They were allowed to sell their lands to non Jews and to work the lands in every way except for four prohibitions of the torah. The heter referred too as “heter mechirah” was approved later by Harav Kook since he believed that the experiment of yeshuv Erertz Yisrael cannot fail. His reasoning was that to abandon the laws of shemitah wasn’t possible, nor was it possible to put at risk the production and the success of the yeshuv. Hence the compromise fiction of “heter mechirah” was justified. The Haredi community never accepted the heter so when Harav Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz (1878-1953), better known as the “Chazonn Ish” arrived in Israel they turned to him for a solution.

The Chazon Ish believed that the “heter mechirah” was in deed fiction and ought not to be given currency. He also objected to the heter because the sale of land to non Jews was also forbidden by halachah. He ruled however that if the loss was economically devastating to the yeshuv than it was necessary to disregard rabbinic laws of shemitah. For the Chazon Ish, a trumped up fictitious heter wasn’t necessary-just the knowledge that doom and devastation would be the result was enough for him to put on hold rabbinic laws.

However the question still remains: If our rabbis believed that shmitah was designed not for social mores but for religious purpose, to test our faith in God how is it that the Chazon Ish provided a heter? The Chazon Ish made a distinction between personal faith and halachic practice. If picuach nefesh became a real and present threat to the collective than the halacha would trump the metaphysical dimension of personal faith.