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9 Kislev 5761 - December 6, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







The "First" Modern Shmittah: The Chazon Ish's Role In The Renewal Of Shmittah Observance

Compiled by Moshe Musman

The laws of zeraim were not studied much during the thousand years that there was no significant Jewish community in Israel, since they were not relevant. Even after there was a significant community, it was not one that had much to do with farming the land. Though the gedolim of that time did study and debate the laws, there was not that much application of them.

This situation began to change about a hundred and fifty years ago with the founding of farming settlements by the Jerusalem yishuv in Petach Tikva and elsewhere. Still, it was not until the arrival of the Chazon Ish in Eretz Yisroel more than sixty years ago that the halachos were given new life. With his halachic scholarship and inspirational leadership, the Chazon Ish was a key factor in the return to life of the mitzvos hateluyos ba'aretz.

Part I


According to the accepted calculations, 5761 is a shmittah year. Each successive shmittah year sees a blessed increase in the observance of the laws. Shmittah will be fully observed on no less than eleven religious settlements, and tens of thousands of families in cities will be taking care to obtain only foods that are free of any shmittah-related prohibitions.

Just 63 years (or nine shmittos) ago in 5698 (1937- 8), things were very different. Then, only a handful of individuals kept shmittah fully, and the prevailing opinion was that any attempt to keep shmittah without resort to the "heter" mechira was completely unrealistic and doomed to failure.

The transformation that has taken place over the last nine shmittos is the result of a process that was largely set in motion by the Chazon Ish zt'l. During the twenty years he lived in Eretz Yisroel--which included the three shmittah years of 5698, 5705 and 5712--he laid the foundations for the observance of all the mitzvos hateluyos ba'aretz under modern agricultural conditions, including shmittah. Through his seforim, through the guidelines he laid down for the chareidi settlements and the rulings he issued, and through his gentle but forceful insistence that if only the will was there, it was indeed possible to work the land in accordance with all the Torah's requirements, he literally established the modern observance of those mitzvos of life in Eretz Yisroel that had been long neglected due to the exile.

The Chazon Ish worked to strengthen shmittah on three fronts. The first of these was his sefer, Chazon Ish Al Shevi'is, which appeared in 5697 (1937), the year before his first shmittah in Eretz Yisroel, wherein he clearly spelled out his unequivocal halachic objections to the heter mechira as well as set forth positive proposals for the full observance of shmittah.

The second area of his endeavors was the help he extended to members of the kibbutzim of Agudas Yisroel who approached him with the request that he provide them with practical guidance in keeping shmittah. Subsequent editions of Chazon Ish contain lengthy discussions of many of the problems and sheilos encountered by the chareidi kibbutzniks. The Chazon Ish also offered encouragement to those who expressed the willingness to make the necessary sacrifice in order to keep shmittah and, in a departure from his usual avoidance of involvement in public affairs, he took active steps to help raise the funds that were needed by the shmittah observers.

Third, he brought the prohibition of eating sefichin (generally, produce which grows during shmitta, not including fruits) to the public's attention, providing the impetus for the setting up of organized supplies of Arab produce to the towns. Slowly, he nurtured the love of this "forgotten" mitzvah amongst the wider public, encouraging the study of hilchos shevi'is during the sixth and seventh years.

A closer look at some of the events that took place just before and during the Chazon Ish's first shmittah in Eretz Yisroel, reveals much of this godol's outlook on kiyum hamitzvos and the new yishuv in Eretz Yisroel in general, and his hashkofoh on shmittah in particular. In order to fully appreciate the significance of this agricultural revolution, we begin with a brief survey of the state of shmittah observance in the decades before the Chazon Ish's aliya.

More than a Century Ago

One hundred and twenty years ago, hardly any practical questions about shmittah needed addressing. The shmittah of 5642 (1882) saw very few Jews involved in agriculture in Eretz Yisroel. There were a few farmers in Petach Tikva--which had been founded four years previously in 5638 (1878)--and several Yerushalmi families had settled in Motza, to the west of Yerushalaim, even earlier in 5620 (1860). There were also a number of students at the Mikveh Yisroel agricultural college, founded in 5630 (1870) near the old town of Yaffo. These small-scale farmers were not overly concerned about leaving their fields fallow for one year and they turned to the rabbonim of Yerushalayim for guidance in dealing with problems of sefichin.

By 5649 (1889) however, Petach Tikva had grown and six new agricultural settlements had been founded under the auspices of Baron Rothschild. The farmers on these new settlements were not willing to refrain from farming their land for a full year. Officials employed by the Baron approached HaRav Shmuel Salant and HaRav Yehoshua Leib Diskin for a ruling on the question of shmittah. Of course they received the reply that cultivating the land was forbidden for the duration of the seventh year -- a ruling that they were not happy with.

In Eastern Europe too, members of the Chibat Tsion movement (who were anti-religious) wished to find a way that farming could continue during shmittah. To this end they portrayed the situation in Eretz Yisroel as far more serious than it actually was, claiming that refraining from a year's farming would endanger the lives of hundreds of families of settlers.

Out of concern for the inhabitants of the land, three rabbonim agreed to a sale of Jewish-owned land to a non-Jew in order to render the land free of shmitta laws and the produce free of kedushas shevi'is, in accordance with the opinion of the Beis Yosef. They made a strict condition that all agricultural work during the shmittah year be done by non-Jews. Their consent to this solution was on condition that it receive the approval of HaRav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector of Kovna, the leading poseik of the time.

Reb Yitzchok Elchonon gave his consent, but stipulated that it was for one shmittah only and he further made his approval conditional on the agreement of the rabbonim in Yerushalaim who, as we have seen, were opposed to any such kind of sale. The other gedolim of Lithuania, led by the Netziv and the Beis Halevi, were also against a solution of this nature. It was understood that the future of shmittah observance in Eretz Yisroel was dependent on the outcome of this first confrontation.

During the shmittah year, the heads of Chibat Tsion brought financial and other pressures to bear on settlers who wanted to keep shmittah and, while several individuals in Petach Tikva and Ekron did hold out, most capitulated to the threat of withholding vital funds. The dominant policy was to rely on the mechira, and from then on, the hetter mechira became the generally accepted solution to the problems posed by shmittah.

The controversy erupted again in 5670 (1910), with the geonim of Yerushalaim, headed by HaRav Chaim Berlin, (the Netziv's son) and HaRav Yitzchok Yeruchom Diskin, who were against the "hetter", issuing a stirring call to world Jewry to support the farmers who were prepared to lay their tools aside in shmittah. HaRav Avrohom Yitzchok Kook, on the other hand, strengthened and extended the hetter. His position was strongly opposed by many gedolim of the time, chiefly the Ridvaz from Slutsk who then resided in Tzfas and who took active steps to enable farmers on the Rothschild settlements to keep shmittah, with considerable success.

While a full discussion of the "hetter" is not possible in the context of this brief account, it is worth noting that in the introduction to his commentary on the sefer Pe'as Hashulchan, the Ridvaz describes the tremendous pressures that were brought to bear on Rav Kook at this time. Much more material related to the shmittah of 5670 is also to be found in this introduction.

A detailed treatment of HaRav Kook's own outlook on the issue can be found in HaRav Kalman Kahane's Shnas Hasheva. Quoting extensively from HaRav Kook's own writings, HaRav Kahane proposes that rather than undermine the mitzva of shmittah, HaRav Kook tried to accommodate the entire population--including those who were going to continue farming in shmittah anyway--within the bounds of halacha until such time as conditions facilitated the proper and full observance of shmittah, which was his ultimate aim. HaRav Kook himself joined the rabbonim who strongly objected to the practice of Mizrachi kibbutzim of leaving a "pinat hashmittah" (a small plot of land that was left fallow during shmittah as a "zecher" of the mitzva) while on all the rest of the land it was "business as usual," fearing that this would merely serve to formalize the complete abandonment of shmittah.

The First World War wreaked havoc on the life of the yishuv generally, causing great difficulty with the transfer of funds from chutz la'aretz upon which the yishuv in Eretz Yisroel depended. The Zionist movement also interfered with the traditional sources of support for the community in Jerusalem. Under the circumstances, the shmittah of 5677 (1917) was observed to a greater extent than the previous ones had been.

By 5684 (1924) however, the hetter was even more firmly established and was being invoked to enable even the practice of melochos de'Orayso by Jews (not non- Jewish laborers as stipulated originally by R' Yitzchok Elchonon) on land that had been "sold." This was the situation in 5691 (1931) as well.

Two years later in Elul 5693 (1933), the Chazon Ish arrived in Eretz Yisroel and soon discovered the sad state of affairs. In the center of the orange-growing areas around Petach Tikva, for example, there were only one or two solitary individuals who had left their orchards alone during shmittah, even amongst the religious community.

Objections to the Sale

The sefer Chazon Ish Al Shevi'is appeared in 5697 (1937) and there the author took issue with the hetter mechira on three main points (based on Chazon Ish, Zeraim pp. 298 and 306). 1] He maintained that the psak halacha is according to the opinions that it is impossible to cancel the kedusha of Eretz Yisroel by selling the land to a non-Jew. Thus even if the sale practiced by the authorities to non-Jews for shmittah had been valid (see below) he argued that it would have achieved nothing.

2] His second point of dissension was that in fact, the sale had no legal--let alone halachic--validity. It was well-known that the entire sale was nothing more than a legal fiction and that nobody had the slightest intention of genuinely selling the land. Furthermore, the sale was deliberately not recorded in the Tabu (the Land Registry Office) and the vendors could and would certainly use this fact to invalidate any attempt by the buyer to uphold his purchase.

3] Finally, he maintained further that if the sale itself had validity, selling the land was a violation of the mitzva of lo sechoneim, which prohibits any sale of land in Eretz Yisroel to gentiles. Therefore, concluded the Chazon Ish, the sale which was effected by an agent (shaliach) on behalf of all the farmers (most of whom were not religious and did not give any explicit authorization for the sale), was null and void because of the rule that "ein shaliach lidevar aveira." Since the entire sale was an aveira, the emissary could not represent anybody but himself.

In their attempt to seek a way out of transgressing the mitzva of shmittah which is a derabbonon today, chided the Chazon Ish, the proponents of the "hetter" were running afoul of a Torah prohibition of selling the land to non-Jews. Though many rishonim hold that even today shmittah applies mide'Orayso, the accepted opinion amongst the acharonim is that, since yovel does not apply nowadays, shmittah itself is a medirabbonon. See also the Netziv's "Kuntras HaShemittah" printed at the end of ShU"T Meishiv Dovor, where the above point is made.

The Chazon Ish had expressed his views earlier, in 5696 (1936). With the founding of the first Agudas Yisroel settlements in the winter of that year, HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky was approached by Aguda leaders for guidance with regard to the question of shmittah observance which would be confronted two years later. Reb Chaim Ozer turned to the Chazon Ish and asked his opinion. The reply he received was that reliance on the "hetter" was unacceptable. This much is clear from a letter Reb Chaim Ozer wrote to the Chazon Ish a year later where he referred to their previous correspondence: "In truth, the question of shmittah is a very difficult one, according to what . . . your Torah honor . . . writes, that this (situation), that it has become permitted, was not according to any decision taken by the chachomim, but force of circumstances alone caused it." (The letters are printed in Kovetz Igros Chazon Ish II pp. 177 and 183.)

Being "Realistic"

But the "force of circumstances" is formidable and, besides the sacrifice that keeping shmittah demands, an extra measure of mesiras nefesh was necessary to act contrary to what was almost universally seen as an "obvious" fact, namely, that keeping shmittah was simply impossible today. While the Chazon Ish encouraged any initiative to accept the full observance of shevi'is, he was well aware of the pressures that could and would be exerted on individuals who challenged the accepted norm.

On the eve of the shmittah of 5698, when several such Jews, whose occupations were in agriculture, came in to him seeking instruction for the coming year, he provided them with detailed directions for keeping all the halachos of shmittah. But after they had left the room he waved his hand in an expression of despair as to the general situation, as if to say, "They will never manage to keep shmittah anyway!"

In a sharp attack on the prevailing attitude, the Chazon Ish publicized the following proclamation (six months into the shmittah year, as stated in the text), entitled, "Reality," in which he incisively (and sarcastically) showed that perception of "facts" is subjective, and is a function of the wishes and willpower of the observer.

"I am a farming man, supported by my own hard work. As I stood at the threshold of the shmittah year, being a son of a stiff-necked people, the idea crept into my mind of obstinately keeping shmittah according to the halacha. I was deserted and alone, the laughing stock of all my neighbors. `Can it be? Not to sow or gather in? But it's impossible to fight reality!'

"However, my stubbornness stood me in good stead and despite the fact that anybody with a brain in his skull `knows' that it's impossible to observe shmittah--the commandment of shmittah being only for someone who already has three years supply of grain in his granary-- and it being `impossible' to compare (our) later generations with the earlier ones, nevertheless, despite all this, we are already halfway through shmittah and reality and I are the best of friends. I sowed everything before Rosh Hashanah, in the sixth year, and in shmittah I rested, neither plowing nor sowing. I treat the produce of the sixth year which entered the seventh with kedushas shevi'is and consume it in accordance with those dinim, and I remain hopeful of maintaining my truce with reality--or, more correctly, reality's truce with me--for the remaining six months of the year.

"My neighbors, who poked fun at me, plowed and sowed in shmittah but reality waged a ferocious battle with them and destroyed all their crops with its torrential, driving rain. Now, I tender my request to the lenient authorities, to forgive me for disobeying them and to be so good as to review the matter a second time. Maybe that brain in their skulls will repent and understand that the Torah will never be changed, and that keeping shmittah is purely a matter of resolution" (Kovetz Igros pt. II pg. 74).

In a similar vein, he observed that those who searched for leniencies and compromises, adducing support for their positions from Shas and poskim, "rule leniently because that is what they really want. If they negate their own wishes before they open up the sifrei halacha, and are guided only by the standard of absolute truth, their conclusions would be very different from what they have extracted" (quoted in Michtav MeEliyahu Vol. III Pg. 250).

The Chazon Ish also bore great bitterness towards some who were overly stringent in their rulings about what was and what was not permitted during shmittah in cases where the land had not been sold to a non-Jew. In many such cases he had ruled leniently. He recognized that this was a ploy designed to force the conclusion that it really was impossible to keep shmittah properly under modern conditions and that the hetter mechira was therefore a necessity.

"In the Viduy of Rav Nissim Gaon," he once remarked in a conversation with close associates, "appears the confession `that which You have made stringent, I have made lenient and what You have made lenient, I have made severe . . . what You have forbidden, I permitted and what You permitted, I forbade.' Being lenient where one should be severe or permitting the forbidden are obviously sinful, but what is blameworthy about being severe instead of being lenient or forbidding the permitted, if one wishes to refrain from what is allowed?

"These phrases however," he explained, "refer to those rabbonim who support the easing of the prohibitions of shmittah if the land was sold to a non-Jew, while at the same time strongly protesting each and every lenient halachic ruling that is given to the shmittah observers. Their intentions are clear: to prove that keeping shmittah properly is impossible and that resort to a heter mechira is unavoidable. For stringencies of this nature, viduy is certainly required."

Proof From the Gemora

One of the most commonly adduced "proofs" against the Chazon Ish's uncompromising stance was the gemora (Sanhedrin 26) which relates: "Rav Yanai announced, `Go and sow your fields in shmittah--because of the arnona!'" Rashi explains that this was a tax on each fields' produce that was levied by the king.

Here, claimed the supporters of the sale, was a precedent for overriding shmittah when a difficult situation demanded it. In his sefer, the Chazon Ish commented briefly that the arnona then was not simply a matter of hardship, rather "it was close to (constituting) danger to life because of the poverty and the (methods of) collecting the taxes." (Chazon Ish, Shevi'is, siman 18:4, 5697 ed.)

On another occasion he explained further that the pressures of the brutal collection of taxes were exerted in order to wring as much as possible from each household. These pressures included imprisonment or other such severe punishments. Such merciless persecution of entire communities by the ruling power is always regarded as a danger to life, even before actual loss of life is imminent. According to the judgment of the Chachamim of the times, rabbinical laws can be permitted, and even Torah laws if necessary. It was because of the danger to life that Rav Yanai was swift to announce that people should not act strictly and wait but be quick to sow, considering it insufficient to merely respond to those who approached him privately for guidance.

The Chazon Ish even turned the question around, wondering how his opponents themselves could explain what was plainly obvious from the gemora, namely, that even the threat of desolation of the land, of fields and vineyards and of the lack of fruits and produce during a period of poverty-- the general economic difficulties facing the people at the time-- were unable to budge the mitzva of shmittah. Only in view of the excessive suffering caused by the Roman decree was anything permitted. The catastrophe was not the mitzva, cholila, but the insatiable demands of the ruling powers. (Shnas HaSheva, pg. 185, 5719 ed.)

Not Like Selling Chometz

Another question that was raised regarded the sale of chometz before Pesach. What was the difference between arranging a sale to a non-Jew in order to avoid the prohibition of owning chometz -- which everyone more or less allows -- and doing so to avoid the prohibitions of shmittah?

One answer was provided by the Chazon Ish in a letter where he explained why the sale of chometz was halachically valid while selling the land was not. When selling chometz, the vendor is genuinely anxious not to be the owner of any chometz and thus certainly has a sincere intention to uphold the validity of the sale. With shmittah, on the other hand, nobody would really sell his land merely in order to usurp the mitzva of shmittah. They would certainly prefer to observe shmittah rather than to make a genuine sale of their land (from a letter by the Chazon Ish, printed in Chazon Ish, Zeroim pg. 306).

Indeed, when he was approached by officials of the Rabbinate and asked to sign a petition to the Peel Commission which was examining the question of the partition of Palestine for the United Nations, he reflected on the irony of the hue and cry that was being raised over a division of the land while the sale of all the land prior to every shmittah bothered nobody. When one of the rabbonim of the new yishuv, in a discussion with the Chazon Ish concerning the problems posed by keeping shmittah, suggested the idea of declaring the land hefker, the Chazon Ish retorted sharply, "Why certainly! The Torah, however, is not hefker!"


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