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A Window into the Chareidi World

16 Kislev 5761 - December 13, 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

This is the second of a three-part series on the background of shmittah observance in modern times. An understanding of the historical background to the issues of modern times is very helpful in following the controversies that are still with us, and gives important perspective.

Now there is a widespread sensitivity to the laws of shmittah and broad efforts to keep them fully. 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" mechirah 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. Here we discuss his efforts in greater detail.

IV. The Question Of Machane Yisrael

We now begin our description of the events of the Chazon Ish's first shmittah in Eretz Yisroel. There were three Agudah settlements in Eretz Yisroel at the time. These were the kibbutzim, HaNoar Ha'Agudati in Kfar Saba, Chofetz Chaim in Gedera in the south and Machane Yisrael in the Yizrael Valley in the north. Those who sought advice from Reb Chaim Ozer were referred to the Chazon Ish, who until then resided in relative anonymity in Bnei Brak, as the address for practical guidance for the approaching shmittah of 5698 (1938).

The financial situation in Machane Yisrael was precarious enough even without having to worry about shmittah. In the summer of 5697, the settlement's secretary, Yehuda Ya'acobi, published a statement in the chareidi newspaper Kol Yisrael denying the circulating rumors and a report that had appeared in the secular paper Davar, that their land had been sold to a non-Jew so that they could continue to work it the following year. The rumors were baseless, he wrote and must have originated with one of the settlement's creditors who they had tried to pacify by assuring him that they would be continuing working.

A messenger was despatched to seek counsel on the question of what to do about shmittah. Rav Chaim Schnur, (author of Ma'ayan Chaim -- Otzar Agados Chazal) was a member of Machane Yisrael at the time. He was the representative sent to the Agudah leader Dr. Yitzchok Breuer, and he met also with one of the gedolim of Yerushalayim and with the Rebbe of Husiatin. Rav Schnur published an account of these first meetings in an article in Tiferes Yisroel, Kislev-Teves 5745 and described his subsequent trip to see the Chazon Ish, on Dr. Breuer's recommendation, in an article for the journal Halichos Sadeh, #37, the bulletin of the Institute For Agricultural Research According To Torah, from where we quote Rav Schnur's own account, with kind permission of HaRav Yosef Efrati, head of the institute.

I parted from the Admor of Husiatin, Rav Yisroel Friedman, with a blessing for success in my quest on behalf of the kibbutz Machane Yisrael. On my journey to Tel Aviv's Central Bus Station, the question occurred to me, "Was I fit to come to the prince of Torah in our generation, the Chazon Ish (to whom I had been sent by Dr. Breuer), and ask for a heter to work the land during shmittah when the Torah clearly spells out the issur in doing so?" On the other hand, I was aware of the responsibility I carried as messenger of the kibbutz to bring back a heter to cultivate the two thousand three hundred dunams of arable land that were under our control, to enable us to survive there and strengthen the new yishuv of Agudas Yisroel into which so much toil and such incredible strength had already been invested -- "domim" in both its meanings (i.e. both money and blood). It was a difficult and complicated problem.

With hours of daylight still remaining, I arrived in Bnei Brak and enquired as to where the Chazon Ish lived. I slowly walked over to Givat Rokach, in one of whose houses he resided. A boy pointed the direction to his house -- a house that stood alone, partly built of stone and part shack. The door to the shack was wide open. I went inside and found myself in a proper shul. It was spacious, with bare tables, around which stood long, plain benches. All was silent, nobody was there. I snatched a brief glance at the hundreds of seforim, standing on the shelves as if they were awaiting the people who learned from them. Returning to the entrance, I saw that next to the amud that was near the aron hakodesh, sat a thin Jew, of short stature, his eyes burning, completely engrossed in thought, without any sefer next to him. Although I had never seen the Chazon Ish before, I had a feeling that this was the man through whom, be'ezras Hashem, I would receive help.

I went over to him and greeted him. He gave me a signal and I understood that he meant that I was allowed to be seated. I sat down, as I was very tired. I introduced myself as the treasurer of Kibbutz Machane Yisrael and told him that that morning I had visited Dr. Yitzchok Breuer in Yerushalayim about the approaching shmittah year, may it be favorable, and that it was he who had sent me to him. I described to him our strained and unstable financial position. I explained further that our budget was based on the grain crop: produce that was harvested at the beginning of the summer was sold to two flour mills in the city of Afula. With the money we received, we repaid the debts we had run up during the previous year at the grocery and butcher's stores. I said to the Chazon Ish, "If it becomes known to the store owners and the butchers that we are not working the land, the obvious conclusion is that Machane Yisrael will have no crop in the following year, and they will stop our credit. We will then be left with no choice but to leave Machane Yisrael, with heavy hearts and deep regrets after we put into it so much of our labor and our hopes for the future."

The Chazon Ish thought for a moment and said to me, "The problem is really not straightforward, and for this reason we have a duty to make a supreme effort to guard the kedusha of the shmittah as we are commanded by the Torah." He lifted his eyes and, looking straight into mine, he continued, "And you should know, that we must make the call of shmittah ring throughout the land, and beyond too. Furthermore, the call which emanates from a whole settlement, where all the inhabitants are meticulous in their observance of shmittah, bears no comparison to that which comes from a single person, or from the few odd shmittah observers scattered about the country, who are hardly heard of here, let alone in the rest of the world. If then, people in Machane Yisroel, chas vesholom, work the land during shmittah, who will there be to sound the call of this mitzva which we have not kept now for two thousand years? You have a duty to observe the shmittah year according to halacha and by doing so you will spread awareness of the mitzva throughout the country and through your efforts it will echo around the world."

His holy words, which could have penetrated even a flaming fire, were spoken out of such pure and convincing emunah as to leave no possibility whatsoever of any doubt. A shudder passed through my body -- what would I say to my friends on Machane Yisroel? They had not heard the Chazon Ish's words whereas I had. In my situation, I had no choice but to raise the point I had thought about before entering the Chazon Ish's presence.

"But in the last resort," I said to the Chazon Ish, "shmittah nowadays applies miderabonon so the hetter of selling the top layer of the soil to a non- Jew can be used, as some Rabbonim do. [I did not specify any names.] There would then be no need for us to desert the place and we will also prevent the chilul Hashem of people saying that religious Jews are incapable of being farmers and of founding settlements on the soil of our land."

"To start with," said the Chazon Ish, "in my opinion, selling the land to a non-Jew (which is an issur of lo sechoneim) is more serious than working it without selling it. Second, as to what you said about it ultimately only applying miderabonon -- eating a piece of chicken smeared with butter is also only forbidden miderabonon, but would anybody dream of eating such a thing?"

I said to him, "Eating chicken with butter is a question of a desire that a Jew is able to refrain from and if he can't overcome it entirely, he can eat them separately. In our situation, it's a matter of life itself as our very existence in Machane Yisroel is dependent on our farming the land. We have no cattle stalls or chicken coops, nor do we have the possibility of seeking outside work. Our holdings are right in the middle of Arab territory, between the Arab villages of Iskal and Daburiya and we have to guard our people and property, night and day. If we can obtain no arrangement at all for farming the land, we will be forced to abandon the place entirely, which would bring us great anguish after all our work and all the hopes we had for it."

Just then, I saw Reb Yaakov Halperin sitting not far from us. (I was acquainted with him and also with his brother Rav Shmuel Halperin, who I knew from the time I was in Holland.)

[Reb Yaakov Halperin zt'l, who arrived in Eretz Yisroel from Vienna in 5693 (1933), was one of the Chazon Ish's most devoted followers. A man of considerable means, he built the Zichron Meir area in the center of Bnei Brak, donating the entire hill where Ponovezh Yeshiva stands to the Ponovezher Rav for the purpose of erecting the Yeshiva. From the moment he reached Eretz Yisroel until the end of his life, he channeled tremendous sums into a wide range of projects aimed at strengthening Torah life in the new yishuv.]

I had not noticed when he came in even though we were sitting by the shul's main entrance. He had apparently heard some of what I said and turned to me straight away with the following words, "You have forgotten what you learned and it's very important to refresh the memory, so use the shmittah year for learning deeply and thoroughly, in all parts of Torah - - Agudas Yisroel will organize a worldwide fundraising appeal for the Keren Hashmittah and you will receive a monthly stipend. Let the sounds of Torah be heard in Machane Yisroel and the sounds of shmittah, throughout the land."

I looked at the Chazon Ish and saw that his face was shining with joy. He turned to me and said, "It seems that Reb Yaakov Halperin came in at just the right moment. Through an appeal on behalf of Keren Hashmittah it will be possible to solve your problems in the very best way, as well as those of other places. Let us hope that, be'ezras Hashem, that is how things will work out. I recommend you travel to Gedera where nearby, Kibbutz Chofetz Chaim is situated. The members there are grappling with the same problem. Turn to Reb Moshe Sheinfeld; talk things over and you will hear from him various ideas and solutions for dealing with the problem of shmittah."

I decided to take the Chazon Ish's advice. I left him and received his blessing to the people at Machane Yisroel to strengthen ourselves in emunah and in our conduct in accordance with the holy Torah. Our discussion had gone on for about two and a half hours and the sun was in the west. As I left the shul I said to myself, "Ribono Shel Olom! You have a Jew who is physically so feeble, yet who is the embodiment of emes and da'as Torah. He entertains no doubts, everything is crystal clear and definite, and he is totally devoted to You!"

Arriving at Kibbutz Chofetz Chaim in the evening, I approached Reb Moshe Sheinfeld and told him that I had been sent to him by the maran the Chazon Ish concerning shmittah. Reb Moshe calmly explained to me that they farmed a grand total of (if I remember correctly) twenty- three dunams (an area only one- percent of the size of the area under our control). Similarly, he noted that most of their budget came from members' outside work in Gedera and that they would certainly be observing the holiness of shmittah. We parted amicably and I hurried, as I wanted to reach Machane Yisrael that same night. I estimated that Chofetz Chaim's situation was easier than ours. Their proximity to Gedera enabled them to earn money from outside work while we lived in an area of Arab villages. It was late at night when I reached Machane Yisrael.

V. The Yeshiva Of The Seventh Year

What were the origins of the idea mentioned by Reb Yaakov Halperin, that the kibbutzniks sit down to learn during shmittah, and how was the suggestion received by chareidi Jewry?

Actually, there was little new in the proposition itself. Some fifty years previously, the Netziv had written to the heads of the Chovevei Tzion movement, urging them to help, not hinder, those settlers in Baron Rothschild's new settlements, who wished to keep shmittah. "In order to prevent the corruption which develops from idleness (the fear of which had perhaps been invoked as an argument for discouraging shmittah observance) Torah disseminators and lectures should be organized. Let the Baron support spiritual pursuits as well" (ShuT Meishiv Dovor, Warsaw 5654, end of Yore De'ah section).

In the early spring of 5697, the announcement that, in the coming shmittah, chareidi farmers would be laying down their tools and entering the beis hamedrash, came in the form of a brilliant and inspiring article by Reb Moshe Sheinfeld in the Kol Yisrael weekly. The article movingly portrays the strangeness and unfamiliarity felt by religious Jews who had settled in Eretz Yisroel towards mitzvos hateluyos ba'aretz as one of the tragic consequences of our two thousand year separation from the land.

After dwelling briefly on the great inspiration that was to be drawn from the ideals embodied in the mitzva of shmittah, he stated that the founding policy of the Agudah kibbutzim was to construct communities where Torah reigned supreme and to show that even a society composed of working people, whose principal involvement was with the practical, mundane affairs of this world, set the Torah's laws as its guiding light. Would it not be a chilul Hashem, he asked rhetorically, if those who had assumed the role of the pioneers of Torah Jewry were to subscribe to a fictitious sale so as to enable their farming to carry on as normal?

The coming shmittah would be observed in the full spirit of the mitzva, he concluded. It would be a year of rest for the kibbutz fields and a source of spiritual renewal for the members: "During shmittah, our land will be seen sprouting thistles and aftergrowth, while the sounds of Torah will be breaking forth and ascending from the windows of our houses, even on weekdays, during normal working hours -- the name of Heaven will be sanctified and elevated, and the glory of Torah will grow greater and mightier."

In reality, the article sounded as though it carried more authority than it actually did. The sentiments it expressed were Reb Moshe Sheinfeld's own and the information that the kibbutzim would be keeping shmittah came as something of a surprise even to some of the members. Heated internal debates now began about the feasibility of the idea with very few members convinced that keeping shmittah was a practical proposition. The article also appeared in Yiddish translation in the Agudah newspaper Dos Yiddishe Togblatt published in Warsaw, and in the journal Der Israelit, published in Frankfurt, translated into German by the editor Reb Yaakov Rosenheim.

Reactions ranged from the enthusiastic -- "The idea is grandiose and definitely doable" -- to the more sober -- "A beautiful idea, a successful fantasy which could take form only in the mind and soul of a youth as enthusiastic as Moshe Sheinfeld..." (Dos Yiddishe Togblatt #146, 29 Adar 5697). In spite of all the doubts though, the internal bulletin of the Poalei Agudas Yisroel Movement (#37, 16 Adar 5697) reported that consultations with the Chazon Ish and other gedolei Torah had been held and that plans were going ahead for the three Agudas Yisroel kibbutzim to be transformed into yeshivos for their members during the approaching shmittah.

VI. In Yerushalayim . . . And Antwerp

During the month of Nisan, 5697, events gathered momentum. The Chazon Ish rejoiced on hearing of the growing support for the idea of keeping shmittah without resort to the heter mechirah. He moved to enlist the help of the chareidim in Eretz Yisroel, instructing Reb Yaakov Halperin to place a notice in the Kol Yisrael newspaper. This appeared in the erev Pesach, 5697 edition and set forth the Chazon Ish's views.

The notice explained that even the originators of the heter mechirah had only allowed work on land that had been sold to be done by Arabs, an arrangement that the Arab violence of the years 5697-99 (1937-9) rendered impossible. There really was no other alternative to the massive chilul Hashem that would result, except for the response of the handful of "mighty of strength" who had announced their preparedness to stand up to the trial of ceasing work for a whole year. The notice ended with a call for the setting up of Keren Hashmittah to come to their aid and for a meeting to be held in Yerushalayim during Pesach, under the auspices of the Av Beis Din of the Eida HaChareidis, HaRav Yosef Tzvi Dushinsky zt'l.

During Pesach, Reb Yaakov Halperin was despatched by the Chazon Ish to Gedera to find out exactly how much was needed to enable them to survive during shmittah without resort to any forbidden melochos. From there, Reb Yaakov continued on to Yerushalayim, to organize the meeting, accompanied by Reb Moshe Sheinfeld who then served as the kibbutz's external secretary. The committee which was set up as a result of this meeting was headed by HaRav Dushinsky himself, with the gaon HaRav Shimshon Aharon Polansky, av beis din of Teplik as deputy, HaRav Shmuel Zanvil Spitzer as treasurer and included the Yerushalmi Rav Eliyahu Nochum Porush who was the moving force behind all of the Va'ad's activities.

The Va'ad set as its target the collection of one thousand Palestine liras, then a very large sum, for Kibbutz HaNoar Ha'agudati in Kfar Saba. The enthusiasm of the Yerushalmi chareidim, most of whom were impoverished Torah scholars themselves in need of help, in supporting the kibbutzniks, was incredible. Collection boxes were issued to every family and HaRav Dushinsky agreed that the cheder teachers release their pupils early every Friday to go around collecting for Keren Hashmittah. The heads of the Eida HaChareidis went down to Kfar Saba themselves to see how they could help the chaveirim.

There were fifty members, mostly young men from Eastern Europe but also including several families. They were described by HaRav Dushinsky (in a declaration issued at the beginning of 5698) as "all are beloved and choice ("kulom ahuvim uverurim") workers of the land, who live a Torah life, in purity." On another occasion, HaRav Dushinsky said in a public address, "If we have workers such as these, we are assured of our future."

Each member was made to sign a document, arranged by a notary to be legally binding, in which he pledged to keep the coming shmittah in accordance with halacha. The document stated that any member to break this undertaking, would be obliged to leave the kibbutz, forfeiting forever all his rights of membership.

The Central Committee of the European Agudah also held a meeting during Nisan 5697, in Antwerp, Belgium and the issue of shmittah was one of the items on the agenda. The announcement that the chareidi kibbutzim were preparing to keep shmittah with great self sacrifice was confirmed by the delegates Auerbach and Gross from the kibbutzim at Kfar Saba and Gedera (although full agreement had not yet been reached and they had not been empowered to make such declarations by the other members). Rav Moshe Blau, the leader of Agudas Yisroel in Eretz Yisroel, later said of this occasion, "My eyes filled with tears to see our workers' dedication to upholding Torah."

At this meeting, the Agudah leadership decided to set up a world Keren Hashevi'is fund (that continues today) and to launch an appeal to Agudah members all over the world to support the kibbutzim that undertook full observance of shmittah. A few weeks later, on Lag B'omer 5697, Reb Chaim Ozer issued his famous letter, entitled "Dvar Hashmittah," in which he called for financial support for the attempts of the P.A.I. kibbutzim to keep shmittah.


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