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Fallow Fields, Rich Tradition

Gail Lichtman

For a growing number of farmers, observing the agricultural sabbatical is a natural act, rooted in faith.

In the Haggada, we are told that the Children of Israel went forth out of Egypt in such great haste that they took with them no provisions, save unleavened bread. They ventured into the uncertainty of the wilderness armed with nothing more than a great faith in G-d and a profound trust that He would provide for them. And they received manna.

This same great faith and profound trust in G-d can be found today in an ever-growing number of farmers in this country who defy economic logic and leave their lands fallow for the Shmita (agricultural sabbatical) year. According to the Torah (Exodus 23:10-11, Leviticus 25:1-7 and Leviticus 25:18-24), every seventh year, Jewish-owned fields in Eretz Yisrael must remain fallow. Agricultural work is prohibited, especially sowing, pruning, plowing and harvesting.

In modern times, a solution to the economic problems posed by keeping the Shmita was found through use of the "heter mechira," the symbolic sale by Jewish farmers of their land to non-Jews for the duration of the seventh year. Yet, despite the halachic "out" offered by the heter mechira, and the fact that Israeli farming is increasingly an agro-business, more farmers than ever before are keeping Shmita this year.

According to figures released by the National Center for Shmita Observing Farmers, a Bnei Brak-based organization which promotes the observance of Shmita as well as providing practical assistance to farmers undertaking this mitzvah, 4,000 farmers, in 250 farms covering a quarter of a million dunams - from Nov in the north to Neot Hakikar in the south - have chosen to observe the Shmita. This is an increase of some 14 percent in the number of farmers (up from 3,500) in the 1993-94 Shmita year, and an increase of 56% (up from 160,000 dunams) in the amount of land left fallow.

"Can you imagine going to a manufacturer and telling him that he has to lay off his workers, close his plant, cut off his suppliers and forfeit his customers for one year, while at the same time he still has to cover the rent on his premises, pay off his loans, maintain his equipment and feed his family? And on top of all that, expect him to be able to bounce back into business at the end of that year?" asks Jerusalem businessman Yaakov Kiel, a member of the board of directors of the National Center. "Yet this is precisely what the Torah commands farmers to do."

Adding to the burden is the fact that local agriculture has undergone a dramatic transformation over the past seven years. The "mom-and-pop" farm, where one family tilled a small plot, has virtually disappeared from the landscape. It has been replaced by large-scale operators who work thousands of dunams, much of which they lease from small landowners. These farms have modern, expensive equipment that is generally paid for in installments over a number of years. And they employ both Arab and foreign workers.

"From an economic point of view, keeping Shmita is insanity," Kiel continues.

"The sacrifice of these farmers is unbelievable. Yet thousands are making it because the Torah says they should. No other business I know could do this. That is what I am impressed by."

Who are the farmers who can muster such total faith as to keep Shmita? Havat Na'ama is about as far off the beaten track as one could imagine for an Israeli farm. Located between Ofakim and Netivot in the south, it is a good 15-minute drive over dirt paths from the main highway.

Baruch (Buki) Adiri has the weathered look of a secular kibbutznik. Only his kippa is proof of his religious belief. His wife, Geula, does not cover her head and wears slacks.

Adiri is hardly your typical farmer. Born in Tel Aviv, he grew up in Rishon Lezion in a secular family and studied economics at Tel Aviv University. He started Havat Na'ama, which is an acronym for the names of his five children, in 1986.

Today, together with his partner of two years, Dan Bolotin, the 55-year-old Adiri has 3,000 dunams of land for growing wheat and barley, which accounts for 30% of his annual income. The other 70% he obtains from raising sheep for slaughter and from tourism - giving tractor tours for schoolchildren and kindergarten groups.

In 2000, he sold 300 tons of wheat for a total income of $54,000. The barley is used mainly to feed the sheep. This is the third Shmita he is observing. "I started keeping Shmita before I even began to keep Shabbat," Adiri explains. "It was 1987, and I was still secular. I only began to keep Shabbat in 1991. A farmer lives in intimate relationship with the land. For me, keeping Shmita was the most meaningful way of expressing my connection to Judaism."

Adiri's return to Judaism has been a long process. In the early morning of Yom Kippur, October 6, 1973, the 27-year-old Adiri received a telephone call from his brother, serving in a tank unit on the Golan Heights. "My brother said: 'Buki, something is going down here. Do you want to see some action?' I got in my car, drove to the Golan and joined his tank unit." When the war broke out that afternoon, Adiri found himself leading four armored vehicles and facing a multitude of Syrian tanks.

"There was no way we could have emerged from such an encounter. The Syrians were poised to annihilate us. Then, for no logical reason whatsoever, the Syrian tanks withdrew.

"I couldn't explain it. No one could.

"I grew up in a social milieu so far removed from Judaism that there was no room for a Creator, and suddenly, on that Yom Kippur, I found G-d. Today, it is difficult for me to remember how I was and what triggered my return to Judaism," he remarks.

"Even now, when I look at myself in the mirror and see a kippa on my head, I still don't believe it."

When he first came to the Negev, Adiri was in contact with a former kibbutznik and air-force pilot who was a ba'al tshuva (a penitent who has returned to Judaism). He explained the importance of Shmita to Adiri and got him interested in keeping the mitzva. The first year, he kept Shmita with no outside assistance. By his second Shmita, Adiri was put in contact with the National Center and its Keren Shvi'it (Shmita fund), which provides modest monetary assistance to farmers keeping Shmita.

This year, the fund has at its disposal $13 million. About $250,000 goes for administrative expenses and advisers in the field, while the rest is distributed to farmers.

The Agriculture Ministry also gives payments directly to farmers, on the recommendation of the fund, but according to Kiel, fewer than 300 Shmita-observant farmers nationwide qualify for ministry funds and they get only a third of what they would have earned by working their land.

"For many people, money is the real test of faith, and one of the hardest. But for me, the hardest part about keeping Shmita is not the physical or economic difficulties, but the psychological ones," Adiri notes. "Six years you struggle with the land and then you have to take a guarantee that, in the seventh, everything will be okay."

Respect for Adiri's great faith has led his partner Bolotin to also keep Shmita. A pony-tailed ex-Tel Avivan, Bolotin proudly claims, "I am the only secular farmer in Israel who keeps Shmita and it is only because of Buki. When I entered into partnership with Buki, we agreed that we would not do any work on Shabbat. But I didn't realize that in two years' time it would be Shmita. It came upon me as a surprise. But there was never any question that I would not accommodate him on this. We are partners. He affixed a mezuzah to my home. I never had one before. We are on completely different wavelengths, but I respect him and his beliefs."

"[Bolotin's] consideration for my feelings really touches me," Adiri says. "The fact that my wife doesn't object is also important."

"I am used to Baruch doing crazy things," Geula states. "We don't always see eye to eye. He has discovered the light, I haven't. I don't see the miracles that he sees. But I grew up in a traditional Yemenite home, so religion is not foreign to me and I understand it."

Shmita is one of the few mitzvot in which the blessing for observance and the punishment for not observing are clearly stated in the Torah. "And I will direct my blessing to you in the sixth year" (Leviticus 25:21). "Then [when you will be exiled for not observing Shmita] the land will rest" (Leviticus 26:34-5).

Adiri claims that he has been privileged to see the blessing. "This year, the first rains fell early in the Negev. This was excellent for me. The same thing happened the last Shmita. I sowed my barley before Rosh Hashana so as to have natural pasture for the sheep. But then, it didn't rain again and the barley started to shrivel and turn yellow. If this were not a Shmita year, I would have plowed it all under. At that time, I went to the US to attend the Agudat Israel convention and speak about Shmita.

"When I returned, I took one look at the fields and I couldn't believe my eyes. More rain had fallen and the barley had come back to life and was growing." Adiri also claims that his sheep have given birth to 30% more lambs. "This is my compensation. I will have 30% more to sell for meat."

Half an hour south and west of Havat Na'ama lies Moshav Amioz. Moshe Danino is one of only two farmers out of 60 on the moshav who is keeping Shmita this year. (The other is a pensioner with only a small plot of land.)

The 34-year-old Danino derives his entire income from 60 dunams of hothouse tomatoes and 200 dunams of open fields of squash. In 2000, he employed 25 workers - 10 Thais and 15 Arabs from nearby Gaza. His annual sales for 2000 totaled NIS 3.5 million. He was the exclusive supplier for McDonald's in Israel for cherry and regular tomatoes, and had a lucrative contract to supply Blue Square Co-op with both tomatoes and squash.

Danino was born in Amioz. He went to a Bnei Akiva yeshiva in Beersheba and hesder yeshiva in Kiryat Arba, serving in Givati. When he finished his army service in 1990, he returned to the moshav. A year later, he married Osnat, a local girl, who today works as a secretary in the regional council offices. The couple has two children, aged 10 and four. This is the first time he has observed Shmita.

"My parents came to Amioz from Morocco in 1963," he relates. "In those days, they were never told the importance of Shmita. Someone from the government came and they signed for a heter mechira. I am the only one of nine children still on the moshav and farming. I decided that I want to fulfill the mitzva in its entirety."

Danino is well aware of the problems. "I had meetings with the marketing managers of both McDonald's and Blue Square Co-op. They made no promises concerning renewing my contract at the end of the Shmita year. My Thai workers live on my farm. I have found other places for them. But it is a problem for me to renew their visas and I could lose them entirely. I also have invested heavily in the farm and have loans to pay off.

"It is really more than a year that I am losing," he continues. "Weeds have grown in the hothouses and the fields. From Rosh Hashana 2001, I will only begin to clear the land. Other farmers will plant their winter crops in July. I will only begin on September 17 and it will take me until October to prepare the land.

"Because I will be planting so late, it will take my tomatoes and squash 90 to 100 days to ripen instead of the usual 60.

"Nevertheless, I am glad that I decided to keep Shmita."

Last Shmita (1993-94), Danino didn't keep the mitzva and he is sorry. "I had losses. I hesitated. My tomatoes got a virus and were ruined. That never happened to me before."

Even so, until almost the beginning of this Shmita year, Danino remained ambivalent.

"In the last three months of the growing season, I was blessed. Most farmers were running around in circles, unable to make ends meet and for reasons that I cannot explain, I had this bumper crop. I made a profit that was enough for me to live on for an entire year. I am living on this money now. In addition, the tax authorities discovered that I paid too much in my advance payments and gave me a refund of NIS 20,000. I saw these two things as signs from Heaven and decided to keep Shmita."

However, his neighbors thought he was crazy. Today, with the price of tomatoes hovering around a little more than NIS 1 a kilo, they are not so sure.

"My neighbors are all losing money," Danino states. "They cannot cover their growing costs because prices are so low. In addition, the [Palestinian] violence started on Rosh Hashana, and they are without [Arab] workers. Those who laughed at me are now saying it is too bad they didn't keep Shmita. If I had planted, I would be losing more money. It is more profitable this year to just sit at home. I see this as the miracle of Shmita."

Not farming has given Danino an opportunity to spend time with his family. "For years, I had no time to breathe. I was so busy with the farm. Now, I can actually do things with my wife and children."

In addition, although he has always studied in the kollel at nearby Moshav Talmei Eliahu, this year he has more time to devote to Jewish learning. This, by the way, is one of original purposes of the mitzva, to give farmers time for spiritual development.

"Thank G-d, the money earned in the last three months of growing, plus the subsidy I receive from the Ministry of Agriculture and the Keren Shvi'it is enough," Danino explains. "I need NIS 100,000 for the year just to keep my farm on hold and not let it deteriorate. This is for the Thai workers, investments made on my hothouses, my truck and my equipment. The profits are not coming in, but I am able to meet my payments. There is less but, it is still a lot for someone who is not working."

"I did this for the mitzvah, for kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d's name). My faith has been greatly strengthened. My example is well known in this area. It makes people more aware of keeping Shmita. Once people thought the heter mechira was the only option. Now, they know there is another way," Danino exclaims.

Rabbi Yehuda Peyner is the National Center's coordinator for the southern region. He acts as adviser and front line support system for some 900 Shmita-observant farmers in moshavim extending from Beit Kama to Neot Hakikar in the Arava. In addition, he is also a farmer from Talmei Eliahu, with 10 dunams of hothouses for tomatoes. He is personally observing his fourth Shmita.

"Although Shmita-observant farmers are located throughout the country, most of the farms are in the south and the fruit orchards in the north,"b Peyner states.

"Therefore, in the south, we have a larger percentage of farmers keeping Shmita. This comes to about 20% of the overall total of farmers, excluding kibbutzim. If you are talking about the number of dunams, the percentage is even more. Of the 900 farmers who keep Shmita, only about 200 are large-scale farmers. The rest are small farmers, for whom farming is not a main income. But even for a pensioner growing his little plot, the loss of NIS 5,000 in one year is a sacrifice."

Peyner is responsible for providing advice about what is permissible and what is not during the Shmita year. He receives questions such as: Can weeds be uprooted or cut? Can the plastic sheeting on the hothouses be fixed? What about flowers? He is constantly "in the field," visiting farmers and dealing with their problems and questions.

"Each question has to be weighed on an individual basis," he says. "There is always a matter of intent. The difficult questions, I refer to the rabbinical court in Komemiyut."

Peyner believes that there is no "typical" farmer who keeps Shmita. "It is a matter of neshama. There are even those who are not so observant who keep Shmita. It is very hard for us farmers to separate ourselves from working the land. For many of us, this is the most meaningful way in which we can express our connection to the Holy One and to demonstrate that the land is not ours, but rather the Creator's. Nowhere else do people leave their land fallow for a full year. In some places it is done for a few months. But to leave the land fallow for a full year has no logical or scientific basis. It is only because of the commandment of the Creator. And the Creator will provide for us. If for one year we do not grow, He will take care of us. This is the promise."

Peyner has his own personal story of the Shmita blessing. "When I began the Shmita 14 years ago, I entered into the year with debts. At the end of the year, I waited until other farmers already had saplings before planting my cherry tomatoes. I planted only one dunam. But even with such a late planting, I had an amazing bumper crop. And by the time I finished harvesting, there were no more cherry tomatoes on the market. The price I got was so high, that from my one dunam I made enough money to cover all my debts.

"But the blessing is not just in the money. It is in the time that we get to spend with our families. It is in our health. If you go into Shmita with all your heart, then you will see the blessing. It will come to you from places you never thought about," Peyner concludes.


Gail Lichtman is a correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, where this article first appeared.


 






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