“But in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of the Lord…” (Leviticus 25:4)
Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel 63 years ago presented a challenge to its Jews committed to halacha (Jewish law). Jewish sovereignty (for the first time in 2,000 years) now required observance of commandments tied to the Land of Israel.
Parashat B’har introduces shmita (Sabbatical Year), when the land is to lie fallow and debts are cancelled every seventh year. After seven cycles of shmita, the 50th year shall be a Jubilee, in which land reverts to its original owner and slaves are set free. B’har describes the shmita as being “Shabbat ladonai,” as a Sabbath for God (Leviticus 25:2). This can be interpreted to mean that ultimately, God owns the land and we are merely stewards, or tenants, safeguarding the land.
Some view shmita as an early form of environmental awareness. Classic commentators see shmita as an instrument for social cohesion: during the shmita year the rich learn what it is like to be poor, and hopefully, are encouraged to support the poor. Zionism required new responses to shmita, because of the economic, social, and spiritual changes since Biblical times. So, in 1888, Rabbi Elhanan Spector instituted the “heter mechira,” a temporary sale of land to non-Jews for one year. In that way, Jewish farmers could still work the land, sell their produce, and make a living during a shmita year.
Land ownership in Israel remains a sensitive issue today. Israel’s Supreme Court determined in 2000 that it was illegal for the Israel Lands Administration to lease JNF land only to Jewish people. This case is a good example of the tension between the two goals of the Zionist dream: to create a Jewish state, and to create a state like every other.
Good Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom,