Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk 


Throughout history most of us have been farmers.  At the time of the American Revolution ninety-seven percent of Americans were farmers of some sort.  Today, less than two per cent of workers in the States are farmers.  The biggest change took place during World War I, when mechanization took the place of all those going into the army or producing the material of war.  Over the past few decades we've seen a similar change in Israel, from tillers of soil to producers of high tech.  But it's clear that the history of technology began with the development of agriculture. There's an Israeli historian/anthropologist, named Yuval Harari who has suggested in a book, entitled Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, that humanity has suffered from this development.  Grain based diets allowed the great growth of populations and empires, but at the cost of personal freedom and periodic disasters of drought and famine.  Be that as it may, the history of humanity has unfolded together with the saga of food production.  So, it should come as no shock that Jewish law and tradition has a lot to say about agriculture.  Starting with Adam and Eve and continuing through the 39 prohibited activities of Shabbat, producing bread through the sweat of the brow is a major concern.  This symbiosis of Torah and agriculture reaches its apex this week, with the laws of shmitta or sabbatical years. 

There's a famous debate about the reason behind this rule that no farming infrastructure should be improved every seventh year.  Probably the most famous and reasonable position is that of Maimonides, who wrote that this year of fallow allows the fields to recover their fertility.  It allows the recovery of nutrients to make the fields even more productive.  The spiritual side of this practical position is that the farmer, too, can recharge batteries by Torah study and spiritual growth during this year of agricultural hiatus.  This extends the famous metaphor of humans as trees of the field.  Our work, rest and growth is firmly tied to the fields of our beloved homeland.  Remember, Maimonides quite often explains mitzvot not only in rational terms, but also practical terms.  He is teaching for both the times of exile and the, sadly, rare periods of normalcy, when Jews live in Israel.  

As powerful as this approach may be, there are many rabbis who attack it fiercely.  The arguments against this position are both physical and sacred.  Practically, they argue, this isn't the best way to give the fields rest.  Specifically, the Kli Yakar avers that the best system of fallow is a rotation of fields and crops based on three year cycles.  Okay, if you say so.  What does a city boy like me know?  Then these dissenters, point out that, if the purpose of the mitzva was increased output, then the punishment should be crop failure and famine.  However, that's not what the verses say.  The Torah calls for exile from our home land as the proper punishment.  It seems that the major issue of this precept is spiritual in nature.  It has to with the holy bond between the Jews and the Holy Land under the aegis of God. 

There may be an elegant compromise to this debate, based on a fascinating point raised by the Ohr Hachaim.  He raises the question:  How come this mitzva is communicated with the double introduction of both v'amarta (and He said) and v'dibarta (and He spoke)?  The holy rabbi explains that amira is a soft and encouraging language, while dibur is a more demanding and intimidating expression.  Is shmitta a soft, embracing mitzva or a harsh, difficult command?  He answers that there are both aspects to this mitzva.  For the well to do farmer, this is a harsh command.  He gives up a lot during the year of fallow, he is addressed with dibur.  On the other hand, the poor and the landless benefit greatly from the hefker (ownerless) status of the fields.  They can freely enter the fields of anyone and collect produce for the personal use of their families.  For the indigent, shmitta is a major economic boon; they are addressed with a gentle amira. 

Let's utilize this linguistic twist noticed by the Ohr Hachaim to help resolve the earlier argument.  According to Maimonides, shmitta  is a boon and opportunity for the farmer to replenish the nutrients of the fields and to recharge internal batteries as well. Judaism was the first civilization to recognize the benefits of rest for the body and soul.  Shmitta is shabbat for the land, as our weekly shabbat works  for us.  However, the majority of commentaries see this as a more difficult test of our faith in God as the true source of our sustenance and prosperity.  This test can sometimes be harsh and difficult.  It takes tremendous faith to resist the temptation of cheating a little and working the fields a bit, just a little trimming here and a bit of irrigating there.  The lessons of shmitta are lessons of faith, not agribusiness doctrine. 

Look, I don't know if the world is better or worse off, because of the intense cultivation of grains.  Personally, though, my opinion is that the lessons learned through the agricultural revolution of thousands of years ago have given humanity the tools of organization and innovation to account for much of what we call progress.  But I don't believe this debate much affects the Torah and its laws.  Through the Torah, God instructs us how to best make a moral society in common with our conditions. The Rav often said that the Torah is an evolutionary document, not a revolutionary one. 

So, shmitta doesn't teach about the benefits of grain as opposed to gathering berries and hunting prey.  But the Torah does inform us how to best relate to our Maker and our fellow human.  Shmita teaches great reverence and faith in God and great concern and consideration  for each other.