89. The Sabbatical Year for the Farming Movement

Don Stanley

(This article, in three parts, describes a piece of research that was done in Israel, working with farmers who are attempting to live according to the biblical sabbatical year for the land (Shmita, in Hebrew). First, however, I will tell you a little about myself, because I have discovered that my own journey of faith is related to the research.)

Part 1

The Christian life is a journey and within the journey there is invariably a range of wonderful stories. Of course, the Lord himself is often behind the beauty within our stories and the main story for each of us as believers concerns the Lord as our Redeemer. This three-part article about the sabbatical year farming movement reflects a range of stories which flow out of my own personal journey. The main theme throughout is that of redemption, and I have chosen to begin this first part of the article with some stories about myself.

I was raised in rural Australia in what we call “the bush” and life in the bush gave me a great love of the land. My early life involved church with my parents and it was as a teenager at a church camp that I committed my life to the Lord. Of course, at that stage of the journey, I had absolutely no idea of the path ahead. Life on the land proved very hard for my parents who, when I was seventeen, lost our farm due to bankruptcy. My regular schooling patterns were disrupted due to the family moving away from the area where I was raised and it seems clear that this disruption was a key factor in my never successfully graduating from high school.

As an eighteen year old, ineligible to enter university, I joined Australia’s national broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) as a mail boy. Here we see the Lord’s blessing on my life in this most interesting work environment because, from this bottom rung of the ladder, my ABC career blossomed to the extent that by my mid-thirties I had become a senior executive, a State Manager in ABC Television. However I should add that it was in those years when most of my contemporaries in management were university graduates, that I knew I had the capacity for study at university level, but I had never had the opportunity.

In my late teens and early twenties the romantic side of my life saw a range of relationships (many of which were not God-honouring) but in another act of God’s redemption, in my mid twenties I met and married Caroline, who as a teenager had migrated with her family from England. When I was attending a Baptist church as a youngster in the Australian bush, Caroline was attending a Baptist church in rural England. The Lord is truly remarkable in the way he brings people together. Caroline and I continue to have a beautiful marriage and have raised three wonderful children and now have a lovely daughter-in-law and a grandson.

On my journey the Lord had given me a passion for Israel and the Jewish people. This passion led me to leaving my ABC career after twelve years in senior management and becoming a student at the Centre for Jewish History and Culture at the University of Melbourne. After graduating with a BA in Jewish Studies and History, I went on in 2000 to complete a Ph.D., graduating in 2003. For my Ph.D. I was greatly privileged to have received a full scholarship from the Australian government, thus my tuition did not cost one cent! As I look back and consider the struggles of my high school days, these are extraordinary examples of God’s redemption.

In my Ph.D. I explored Israeli nationalism through a range of themes which included the Jewish agricultural pioneering movement. It was during my doctoral research that I discovered that there is a remarkable phenomenon occurring in modern Israel. This is the movement of Israeli farmers who observe the sabbatical year according to the Bible. I found this piece of research absolutely amazing. I was deeply attracted to discovering more. It had strong connections with my own journey, including my connections with the land, my love of the Bible, and my passion to see people living Biblically.

On discovering this movement about the sabbatical year, I told Caroline that I really wanted to go to Israel to research this modern phenomenon. But how? I needed someone to fund me. I needed a scholarship. One day in June 2003 I visited the Melbourne offices of the Australian Friends of the Hebrew University enquiring about a scholarship. They couldn’t help me at that stage but their representative gave me the business card of the coordinator of the National Australia Bank Yachad Fund. I hadn’t heard of this fund previously. It was established in 2002 by one of Australia’s largest banks, working in ideological tandem with the Australian Jewish community. The Fund’s purpose is to send Australians to Israel to research projects of special interest (Yachad is a Hebrew word meaning “together”).

I immediately called the coordinator and told her about my project. She gave me two weeks to apply (I believe this short notice was given because she was squeezing me into their May applications round). Applications are competitive and the process is rather like a beauty contest. First, one is selected as the State Representative. Then each State representative is considered by the National Committee. Well, praise the Lord, in December 2003 Caroline and I learned that my application had been successful and so in mid 2004 we headed off to Israel to spend five months researching the sabbatical year farming movement. How the project unfolded is the subject of the second and third parts of this article.

As a final comment – this article is very timely because the land of Israel is currently experiencing a sabbatical year. It began with Rosh Hashana last September.

Part 2

In this second article about the modern phenomenon of the Israeli sabbatical year farming movement (shmita), we’re going to consider some important background context. Understanding the background is important because modern shmita observance is more complex than what it may seem to be on the surface. Complexities largely occur because shmita observance today represents the adoption of an ancient Biblical practice into a modern society. Added to this, it is the Rabbis of modern Israel, the nation’s religious authorities, who determine the nature of shmita observance and among the Rabbis there is a diverse range of views.

As serious scholars we need to begin our journey into the background of shmita observance with the primary source, which not surprisingly, is the Hebrew Bible. In the Torah, the nature of shmita observance is outlined in three key passages. These are found within Chapter 23 of Exodus, Chapter 25 of Leviticus and Chapter 15 of Deuteronomy. The first two passages discuss shmita observance in terms of leaving farming land fallow. The third reference in Deuteronomy extends the commandment to include the canceling of debts. Due to time limitations in my research program, I was unable to investigate fully the extent to which shmita-based debt cancellation has been adopted into modern Israeli society. However the prima facie evidence suggests that whereas farmers are attempting to observe shmita on the land, there is no serious effort on the part of individuals or institutions to invoke debt cancellation as part of the shmita process.

In Biblical history, the shmita seven-year cycle was also linked to the year of Jubilee falling every fifty years. As well as land remaining fallow, observance of the fiftieth year (the year immediately following seven shmita year cycles) involved the compulsory restoration of agricultural lands to their original owners. Again, this practice is not observed in modern Israel. In fact scholars believe that because of the great difficulty of reverting to the original land allocations, the Jubilee year has not been observed since the Babylonian exile in 586BCE.

The text within Leviticus Chapter 25, specifically verses 1-7, underlies the main focus of my research. It is the essential thrust of this particular text which speaks most clearly about the observance of shmita in Israel today. The historical context of this text is the famous account in the Judeo-Christian tradition of God speaking through Moses to his “chosen people” on Mount Sinai, prior to their entrance into the “Promised Land”:

The Lord said to Moses on Mount Sinai, ‘Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the Lord. For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a sabbath of rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest. Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you – for yourself, your manservant and maidservant, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you, as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. Whatever the land produces may be eaten’. (NIV)

So what does this text actually mean in practice? Well in practice there are four main agricultural prohibitions here, and these are: no sowing (essentially of vegetables and grains, but also planting of trees); no pruning (of vines or fruit trees); no large-scale harvesting (of produce that grows in the soil by itself); and no picking (of fruit that grows by itself from year to year). It is also evident from the text above that in the shmita year the land is considered “ownerless” (in effect, public property) with provision for people and animals to derive sustenance from produce which grows by itself – but only sufficient for daily needs.

Evidence suggests that the shmita year was observed in Israel during both the First and Second Temple periods. However what is not clear is the number of people who observed shmita, nor the frequency of observance. As the Jewish population faded from what was then called Palestine during the early centuries of the Common Era, so too faded any substantial interest in the practical observance of shmitaShmita became a largely theoretical issue, discussed by Talmudic scholars. Also, of the small Jewish population which remained in Israel, few people were involved in agriculture.

It was the modern Zionist movement of the late nineteenth century – the movement of various waves of immigration (aliyot) which saw Jewish people returning to work the soil of the ancient homeland, which brought shmita observance back onto centre stage. The early pioneers who came to Palestine in the late nineteenth century regarded settlement of the land as a religious duty, and an important dimension of this duty was shmita observance. Yet, for these first fledgling agricultural colonies of the new aliyotshmita seemed totally impractical. How could they possibly leave land fallow when their whole agricultural/economic status was already extraordinarily fragile?

For the Zionist pioneers, shmita observance became a much-debated issue in the sabbatical year of 1889/1890. The Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine) sought rulings from the then most influential Rabbis based in Europe and ultimately, the spiritual head of Russian Jewry, Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Spector, developed the concept of shmita observance known as the heter mechira. This heter represented a special dispensation which, for the duration of the shmita year, allowed the fictional sale of the Jewish-controlled agricultural land of Palestine to a non-Jew. Because the land was “owned” by a non-Jew, it was no longer considered sanctified. Thus shmita observance was maintained in theory under Rabbinic decree, but the land continued to be worked by Jewish farmers. While meant to be a temporary measure only, the heter has proven to be a highly significant precedent because believe it or not, it continues to represent the major form of shmita observance in Israel today.

While the heter mechira is the most widespread form of shmita observance in Israel, there are two other forms of observance. One is through the concept of an Otzar Beit Din (a Rabbinical Court warehouse or clearing house), with the Otzar Beit Din representing the modern-day answer to the Biblical idea of shmita produce being ownerless and public property. Here the Otzar Beit Din is a representative of the public. It pays the wages of farmers and others in getting produce to consumers (but there is no payment for the produce itself), with the aim of the public having access to shmita-grown produce at discounted prices.

And at a third level of observance, some farmers just choose to leave farming land fallow in the shmita year. Both of these latter methods represent greater levels of religious piety, sacrifice and acts of faith than with the heter mechira, with the last method of leaving land fallow obviously representing the greatest sacrifice. In the shmita year of 1972-1973 the then Rabbi of Moshav Komemiyut in the Negev, the late Rabbi Binyamin Mendelsohn, led shmita observance across all the farms of the Komemiyut settlement. This event proved influential within the Israeli farming community to the extent that, in subsequent shmita years, the pious, sacrificial observance of shmita has become more widespread.

To conclude this second part of the article concerning the religious and historical background to shmita observance, I want to tell you a story which proved very defining for my wife Caroline and me. The first month of my time in Israel was set aside for background research with academics, Rabbis, agricultural scientists and agronomists. My scholarship benefactors, the National Australia Bank Yachad Fund, has representatives “on the ground” in Israel who had prepared for me a list of people and organizations they felt would be important contacts for my background research. In this first month, as I worked through the list of contacts, I came to the name of an agronomist located in Kfar Darom. I had no idea of the whereabouts of Kfar Darom and after checking a map I discovered that it was in fact a moshav settlement in Gush Katif (Gush Katif being the name of the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip – the settlements later being removed from the Gaza Strip in that highly controversial “disengagement” operation of August 2005).

I knew that visiting the settlement could be dangerous and I didn’t really know how to get there so I thought I’d better check with our scholarship representatives. I told our contact that I thought we would go there via taxi. She said: “Well Don, the taxis are not bulletproof, but the bus from Ashkelon to Gush Katif is”. Soon after, having arranged to meet with our agronomist contact, Caroline and I took the bullet proof bus into Kfar Darom. There we were taken to an agricultural research centre and it was demonstrated to us in very proud terms how at this facility highly innovative methods of vegetable growing were developed in the last shmita year of 2000-2001. Indeed the results had proved so highly productive that the innovations had been adopted for each subsequent year.

What were these innovations? Well as we saw for ourselves, vegetables such as lettuces were being grown in sterilized sand in plastic pots; the pots were sitting well above the ground on trestle tables; fertilizer was being fed by overhead sprinklers; and under the trestle tables, the sandy soil of the Gaza area was covered in black plastic. Thus the produce was not really growing in the “land” of Israel, and beneath the black plastic, the land was resting!

We came away from that experience quite perplexed. Clearly we had gone to considerable trouble to visit Kfar Darom. We thought: “This isn’t what we came here for. Surely this doesn’t represent the true spirit of shmita. There must be farmers around who observe shmita according to the Torah”. At that time, the first month of our background research was coming to an end. We were about to enter into the practical phase where we would meet with farmers who left their land completely fallow. But we didn’t really have a solid list of farmer contacts. There was no data base of farmers who observed shmita in a serious way. Thus we had to bring things before the Lord and draw on our prayer supporters in Australia, to seek the Lord in leading us to such farmers.

What happened? Well that’s the subject of the third and final installment of this article coming in the next edition of Tishrei.

Part 3

You’ll recall that in the conclusion of part two of this article about the Israeli sabbatical year farming movement (the sabbatical year known in Hebrew as shmita) my wife Caroline I were eager to meet with farmers who observed shmita in the true spirit of the Torah. At that point it was a struggle for us. We had just experienced first-hand an understanding of shmita observance which was really quite disappointing. We did not have a list of the names of farmers who observe the sabbatical year in a truly sacrificial way – the people we had come so far to meet. And so, as mentioned in the previous part of this article, we called on our prayer partners to join us in seeking the Lord for a way forward.

Those of you who have walked with the Lord through the mountains and valleys know that you can trust him, and this proved to be true in our case. Mostly through a series of word-of-mouth leads (sometimes one lead leading directly to another) we did in fact meet a range of strongly Torah-believing farmers who told us wonderful personal accounts about shmita observance. Our benefactors had provided us with a rental car and thus, over the hot Israeli summer, leading into the October-November rains, Caroline and I traveled all kinds of roads throughout the agricultural land of Israel. Our travels took us to the extremities of the Land, from agricultural settlements in the South near the borders of both the Sinai and Jordan, to settlements in the North such the high country of the Golan right next to the Syrian border.

The stories we gathered generally reflected two particular motifs, and these are the motifs of the Lord’s economic provision and blessing on the one hand, to stories of rest and renewal, on the other. A striking feature of these stories about the Lord’s provision is the manner in which he provided for people in all kinds of creative ways. There was great variety in the way he looked after those who trusted his faithfulness. I now want to quote from a selection of stories which reflects these two motifs. I am quoting from my National Australia Bank Yachad Fund research report and the first selection considers the Lord’s provision and blessing through the personal experiences of three farmers.

On a private farm near Ofakim in the south-western Negev, Baruch Adiri raises sheep for meat and milk and has 1200 dunams under barley and wheat. In the shmita year he leaves his cropping land completely fallow. Baruch is one of many farmers in Israel who tend mixed farms which include livestock. Shmita, of course, only applies to things growing in the soil, and so Baruch’s story is particularly interesting because it shows the creativity of the Lord’s provision through Baruch’s livestock:

“We have been living here for about thirty years…I began to keep shmita before I began to keep Shabbat, maybe because of the connection to the land and because I’m a farmer and I really like being a farmer. My father was a farmer here in Israel and my grandfather before him, so maybe it’s in the blood.

In the shmita year when I don’t plant my barley and wheat, I lose a lot of income. Yet – let’s say that each 100 ewes normally give me 125 to 130 lambs, in the shmita year they actually give birth to about 180 lambs. This compensates for the income I lose when I don’t plant my barley and wheat.

In the year before the last shmita all my sheep were eating out in the fields. In late summer the first rain damaged the grass so I had to move all the sheep inside to feed them via a feed lot for about 100 days. In the shmita year, all the rain was in Be’er Sheva, a long way from us. The water from Be’er Sheva ran down here in the river and because it was hot the grass within the river bed grew very, very quickly and that year the sheep were able to feed all year outside. Thus I didn’t have to give them anything extra, I didn’t have to buy any additional food for them.”

Further south and closer to the Sinai, lies the farming settlement of Moshav Ami’oz. Here one of the moshav’s farmers, Moshe Danino, produces tomatoes and peppers in hothouses:

“In the shmita years 1993-1994, I followed the heter mechira which means that we sell the land to a Gentile, a non-Jew. And we continue to cultivate. In the years 2000-2001, which was the next shmita year, I decided to observe the shmita, to completely stop all cultivation and close the whole farm. I must say that for that shmita year I had great apprehension. To decide to not work is very hard because of the need for income and commitents.

Three months before the beginning of the shmita year, I was in a relatively difficult position. From the moment I decided I would keep the shmita year, things changed. I had two big hothouses of tomatoes and the harvest proved to be an excellent one. There were large quantities of tomatoes, and the prices were also good. In fact I earned three times what I normally get and this money provided for living during the whole shmita year. Also the following year was very successful, and since then – thank God – my economical situation is fine.”

And in the same region, Yehuda Penyer is a Rabbi-farmer at Moshav Talmei Eliyahu. Here Yehuda’s farm produces tomatoes and peppers in hothouses, and onions in open fields:

“For several months in advance of the shmita year, we prepare for the year ahead…What is this preparation? We put away all our materials and tools…We do some cultivation of the ground in order to keep it clean from grass and weeds for the following year…All the fields are left standing empty…

Here’s a story from the first shmita I observed…It was in the beginning of May, about four months before the shmita. At that time I was growing gladiolus, in large quantities, and the following day I had to start the harvest. When I arrived with my workers to harvest, I noticed that all the flowers were affected with white spots…So I called an agricultural expert and he suggested that in spraying the grass with chemicals against the grass, the flowers had become burned.

I told him that I didn’t spray anything. Now, I had a neighbor who had the same thing happen to him. This friend told me: “I am taking care of it, I think I found out what the problem is!” To make a long story short, this friend found out that a plane sprayed chemicals in the neighboring kibbutz of Nir Yitzhak. When the plane had finished spraying, the pilot decided to release left-over chemicals on what he thought was no-man’s land. On releasing these chemicals, a strong side wind blew them onto our gladiolus.

With my friend establishing the truth of this account the plane spraying company gave us compensation. Naturally the company had insurance, so the compensation fee was very large. The company also had an interest in keeping the story quiet, so the amount they gave us was very big, around 84,000 shekels…This sustained us for the whole of the shmita year, and for the following year as well….

After two shmitot, another wonderful thing happened. I started the shmita with debts, as agriculture was struggling at that time. I remained in debt during the whole shmita. At the end of shmita I decided to sow one dunam of tomatoes in furrows. This was not like the hothouse of today – this was the first time we had tried growing tomatoes in this Dutch furrow method. So I did only one dunam, without workers, just my wife and me.

I planted the tomatoes relatively late, after Sukkot. There were very few farmers who planted at that time of the year. So when everybody had cleared their tomato fields, my wife and I just started to harvest ours. The prices then were ten times more expensive than today. The harvest was so great that my storage barn fell down. That was a blessing that was sufficient to sustain in the years ahead, and that only from one single dunam.

These are just two accounts. I could tell many more.”

Our next selection of personal accounts about shmita observance reflects the second motif found within these stories, and this is the motif of rest and renewal.

In the south-western Negev at Moshav Maslul is the farm of Shadi Avrahami. Shadi’s farm features both hothouses and open fields, through which he produces herbs and citrons:

“In the shmita year I stop working the farm. This is from Rosh Hashana until the next Rosh Hashana, for a whole year. During this time I don’t grow anything, the whole farm lies fallow. I’m not connected with the Otzar Beit Din…This gives me rest for a whole year. If we work six years continually, on the seventh year it’s like Shabbat. We rest, we gather new strength, and we can study. It provides an opportunity to do things that I couldn’t do for the other six years. On the seventh year there is the possibility of doing them. For example, I spend more time with my kids. I can dedicate more time for them…I wait six years for the shmita year so I can finally have some rest.

There is no pressure of work during the shmita year. When we work with 20 to 30 workers we must organize everything to be in place for them to work, for the job to be done properly. From the moment there isn’t any workers during the year of shmita, there is no pressure, everything is suddenly relaxed.”

Again, Yehuda Penyer:

“In spite of all the religious authorities who know all the issues involving shmita, and give all sorts of alternatives, a farmer has still a wonderful opportunity to completely rest his fields. And by doing this, there’s a wonderful sense of happiness…

When one observes many of the shmita-observant farmers, one can see something very interesting. In the non-shmita year these people are working continuously from morning to evening with no time for their family. Then in the shmita year they can make time for their wife and children. All of a sudden they have time to talk to them and get to know them. For six years they have been running like blind people, after things that may be important for their physical living. However, as it says in the Bible, ‘A person shouldn’t live on bread alone…’

It’s also important to set aside time for spirituality. The big problem in agriculture is that there is no time for anything. One thing drags into another one, suddenly a disease appears in the field, or the market prices fall and we have to become really busy…In all kinds of situations, our base nature easily separates us from important things such as spirituality and family. And then in the shmita year, following Rosh Hashana, a person suddenly realizes that he has plenty of time at his disposal. He has plenty of time for his family and he is able to study. And then he gets a kind of inner peace.

You notice that for farmers who’ve kept shmita for the first time a big change occurs affecting their old patterns of life, the meaning of life for them. When the shmita year ends, they don’t return to being slaves. I have known these kinds of people – they are not the same after keeping the shmita once. They all know how to make time for their family and for study…”

Before the Gush Katif “Disengagement” of August 2005, Haim Schneid was a Gush Katif farmer at Moshav Netzer Hazani, growing lettuces and scallions in hothouses:

“…the Sabbatical year takes you out of the yearly routine or the six yearly routine and you sit and you think, venture into new ideas, build yourself differently. The truth is that I do a lot of learning now, but to be able to take off an entire year…and not to have to worry about, hopefully, all of the regular cares of life is a dream…hopefully it’ll be done with not only myself but I hope that all of Israel will be able to take off a Sabbatical year and build itself spiritually …

The Sabbatical year is very much like the Sabbath is to the week. It’s a day of taking oneself out of the normal frame of reference to being able to see what one has done, what one hasn’t done, to see whether there are changes that are necessary, to sit down and analyze – analyze oneself. It’s done together with the family, you sit with your family on Friday night and on Sabbath afternoon to see your frame of reference with everything that’s gone on and that’s done on a weekly basis.

Perhaps in work or in agriculture a week isn’t enough in order to form enough of an opinion…The seventh year, the Sabbatical year is a culmination or an opportunity of a person to take himself out, devote himself also to the community…you’re in a totally different frame of reference and it’s the time when you’re able to take yourself out, look back, see what you’ve done, what you haven’t done and prepare for the future for another six years of a certain type of rotation…

And this is the message of the Sabbatical year. It starts off with day one Sunday morning. Day two (leads) to the first Saturday – Shabbat, eventually getting to the end of the year, the festivals and building up into the seventh year, Sabbatical year…”

So, in summing up, what are we to make of all of this? What are we to make of the whole story, across all three parts of the article? What are we to make of these personal accounts from the farmers who sacrificially follow the Torah each shmita year? Well I think there are very significant things occurring here, at a range of levels.

I think across all levels, this is a story about the Lord and his faithfulness. Without wishing to minimize the Lord being active in the personal lives of individuals, I think the deepest level of meaning here is about the Lord’s faithfulness in bringing the Jewish people back to the ancient homeland after millennia of unbelievable struggles, and then in the context of reading the Scriptures and being absolutely practical about living in the land of the Bible, the Lord has drawn Israeli farmers into Torah obedience and met their faithfulness with his faithfulness. I have problems with the “two-covenant” theory which sees a different way of salvation for the Jews as for the Gentiles. I think it’s very clear from reading say Paul, for example, that salvation to Jewish people can only come through Jesus the Messiah. Thus these stories about God’s faithfulness with Israeli farmers who may not yet be “saved” through Jesus, does not entirely fit into a neat, closed evangelical box. However what is evident is that the Lord is still active and faithful with his firstborn chosen ones.

At other levels, there is the example for all of us “to take God at his Word” as one of the most beautiful ways of living in relationship with him. There is the level of his faithfulness in dealing with Caroline and me. It was through his extraordinary grace that I was able to do my Ph.D. in an area about which I was passionate and that through my Ph.D. research I discovered the modern shmita movement. It was through his grace that I was able to embark on a scholarship to study shmita and he led us to find the right people. And finally, in these days “when there’s no rest in the West”, the examples of these farmers challenges us to consider rest and renewal seriously, and this applies to both societal and individual levels. I thought it was particularly interesting that Haim Schneid expressed a heartfelt yearning that all Israel ultimately come to observe the sabbatical year and to “build itself spiritually”.

(This series of three articles was first published in the second series of Tishrei Journals, Numbers 10 to 13, January to April 2008)