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Shabbat Parashat Vayishlach 5784

Igrot Hareaya Letters of Rav Kook: Preparation for Shemitta #177 part I

Date and Place: 1 Tevet 5669 (1908), Yafo


Recipient: This is a public letter to the residents and farmers of the agricultural settlements of Eretz Yisrael. 


Body: The upcoming year, 5670, is a Shemitta year (Sabbatical year, during which there are major limitations in Eretz Yisrael on agricultural work and on use of the Land’s produce), according to the count that is customarily used. This is based on the accepted opinions from the times of the Geonim and the Rishonim from way back in history.

From the time the New Yishuv took root in the Land and started including agricultural work, the question of Shemitta has turned into a major question. This is because of our status as a small, vulnerable entity.

We are but a minority in the Holy Land, which is mainly occupied by non-Jews. Also, the main part of the Yishuv’s economy is based on production and marketing of wine and other produce of the Land. Due to these two fundamental reasons, as well other reasons, it is in no way possible to fulfill the mitzva of Shemitta according to all its laws and prohibitions, which would include stopping all work of cultivation, making all the produce ownerless, and having to treat the produce as possessing sanctity of Shemitta. This would by necessity cause the whole Yishuv to be totally destroyed, Heaven forbid. If during the course of the year, the commercial connections are stopped, the few farmers that exist will have to leave the Holy Land because of an inability to support themselves in this poverty. Because there are so few fellow Jews in the Land at this time, the agricultural communities will be desolate and abandoned. [This flies against the spirit of the Torah, which is a Torah of] “Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peaceful,” and bring life and blessing forever.

Therefore, venerable, brilliant rabbis got together and dealt with this problem in previous Shemitta cycles and identified several factors that make the halachic imperative of keeping the laws of Shemitta weaker these days than they were in ancient times: 1. Many halachic authorities posit that the laws of Shemitta in our days apply only according to Rabbinic law. 2. The land of Eretz Yisrael is, based on the “law of the kingdom,” owned by the king. Therefore, those who live on and work the land are only like sharecroppers on a non-Jew’s land. 3. There are also doubts as to the count of years, i.e., we do not know for sure which year is actually Shemitta. Other side reasons can also affect matters.

In truth, none of these reasons and even their confluence suffice to cancel the laws of Shemitta, Heaven forbid, as we will explain: The first reason, that it is only Rabbinic, does not [necessarily] take away at all from the obligation to keep it and from its severity. After all, we say: “The words of the Scribes are more beloved than the words of the Torah itself” (Yerushalmi, Berachot 1:4). The idea that the king owns the land is also not enough of a reason [to change things significantly] for a few reasons.

Also, the doubt about the count of years does not make it permitted [to ignore Shemitta]. For one, we have already decided and work with a clear assumption about the count of years, accepted by our great rabbis, the Rishonim and the most brilliant of the generations, with the concurrence of the head teacher, the Rambam. According to their count, 5670 is the year of Shemitta. Also, it is not possible to maintain a doubt about the year and be lenient based on that, as we would fully uproot a mitzva based on doubt. However, since we sometimes find that the Rabbis give permission to be more lenient regarding a law that they legislated than by a Torah law, this is significant when combined with other reasons to be lenient, especially when the need to be lenient is very pressing.

We will continue from here next time.

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