Approaching Shemitah

If you haven’t yet realized that the shemitah year is around the corner, you will probably find out this Shabbos. The parshah of Behar, with its early invocation of the laws of shevi’is, should be the perfect time to turn our attention to the mitzvos that will soon be upon us.

Before dissension and acrimony overtakes us – with heated discussion about which seforim are deleting references to which gedolim who supported the heter mechirah – I would recommend a fascinating book to get us into the spirit of the season. Rebels in the Holy Land: Mazkeret Batya – An Early Battleground For the Soul of Israel makes for a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging read.

Author Sam Finkel is a man on a mission. He seeks to undo the historical revisionism that treats the First Aliyah with indifference or contempt, largely because of the growth of the Old Yishuv, which was seen by later writers as nothing more than a bunch of schnorrers living on the dole of the chalukah system. The real Israelis, according to customary wisdom, were the New Yishuv chalutzim of the First Aliyah, and the progressive and more cosmopolitan immigrants of the Second Aliyah. Together they created the new Jew, freed from the tyranny of antiquated Jewish law.

Finkel sets out to explode this myth. All but one of the first twelve settlements of the First Aliyah were established by frum Jews. Two of those settlements were founded by members of the Old Yishuv itself. In chapter after chapter, we come across familiar place names that we associate with the secular urge in contemporary Israel, only to find the image of a bearded man with a hat who actually began the place.

More importantly, Finkel wants us to realize that a kind of Jew most of us know nothing about set the stage for the battle over the role of religion that remains stalemated today. He tells the story of Ekron, one of the early settlements, whose inhabitants took on enormous challenges for the privilege of building up the Land, but remained steadfast and unflinching in their determination to observe the laws of shemittah in their fullest, even if it meant returning to the Old World.

The book is equally the story of other figures – some noble, and some not – who devoted their careers or their fortunes to the establishment of a Jewish homeland, one parcel of land at a time. First among them was Baron Edmond de Rothschild, who in less than two decades spent an estimated 100 million dollars on his “colonies” that would provide relief from the incessant persecution in Eastern Europe. The Baron enticed a group of ten frum, experienced and successful farmers to leave their tiny town of Pavlovka (in today’s Belarus) – and initially their families as well – to travel (together with a melamed) to an uncertain future in a neglected part of the Ottoman Empire. They founded the sixth Jewish agricultural colony in the Land, and called it Ekron. Today, it is known by the name bestowed upon it during a subsequent visit by the Baron: Mazkeret Batya, in memory of his mother. It stands just 3 miles southwest of Rehovot, and too many of us know nothing about it.

Another of those figures is Rav Shmuel Mohliver, who was transfigured by the plight of refugees fleeing the pogroms in the aftermath of the assassination of Czar Nicholas. His Chovevei Zion movement preceded Herzl in calling for a permanent presence in Palestine. Fearful of what emigration to the US was doing to undermine religious practice, he urged taking concrete steps to actualize his vision – and got the Bais HaLevi to sign on to a proclamation to that effect. (The Bais HaLevi later withdrew his support.) On Erev Sukkos 1882, Rav Mohliver presented his vision to the Baron, who hesitatingly agreed that if a small group of farmers could demonstrate that the land could sustain those who worked it, he would help with some of its costs and support.

Finkel guides us through the difficult steps in organizing the group, locating a suitable plot of land, of evading the intrusion of Ottoman regulation. He vividly depicts the challenges and tribulations of a resourceful group of Jews, and their battles with fellahin, mosquitoes, disease, and most importantly, with anti-religious middle management appointees of the Baron who were his point men on site, but detested the frum farmers and determined to break their spirit.

The donnybrook of the saga was the shemitah of 1888-89. The author shows why the stakes were much smaller in previous shemitos, making this one a crucial test case of halachic observance after the large scale return of Jews to their homeland. Finkel tells the full story, which roughly revolves around the Baron’s determination to find a halachic solution so that all the colonists would not have to become wards of his largesse. We learn about the opposition of Rav Shmuel Salant and Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin, and the limited and somewhat undefined heter mechirah of Rav Yitzchok Elchonon. We find out that the last appeal made by Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch – days before his petirah – was on behalf of those who refused to abide by the heter mechirah, and instead fully observe the prohibitions of shemitah. We see the dispute engulf Jewish populations throughout the Diaspora. We learn about the reaction of one of the Baron’s men to the perceived impudence of the farmers of Mazkeret Batya in heeding the psak of the chachmei Yerushalayim over the dictates of the Baron (and the advice of Rav Shmuel Mohliver and others) to rely on the heter mechirah: he attempted to starve them out by closing their well, and withholding services of their visiting physician.

Finkel’s writing is crisp, and fast-paced. He throws in uncountable sidebars that enlighten us about life in Jewish Palestine, decades before the establishment of the State. The layout is an absolute delight. It is richly appointed with priceless photos and biographical information that make reading the book a journey to the heart of a movement, not just the tale of a frum settlement.

In the development of the story, we see two sides emerge. One viewed the farmers of Ekron as heroes for their tenacity. The other saw their stubbornness as an obstacle to the growth of a larger Jewish presence. There were great people on both sides. (Rav Shmuel Mohliver pushed for acceptance of the heter mechirah. Yet he shielded the farmers who did not listen to him from the wrath of the Baron, and incurred it himself. Nonetheless, he asked that an angry letter from the Baron be placed under his head when he would be buried, because it proved his vital role in the first steps of the return of the People to its Land.) Contrary to what some believe, the psak of the chachmei Yerushalayim was not based on their absolute dismissal of the heter mechirah. They were much more disposed towards it during the next shemitah! According to R Yechiel Michel Tukachinsky, the strong opposition in 1888 was born of the conviction that if those returning to the Land would be fully faithful to the laws of shemitah at the first major opportunity, Hashem’s bracha would undoubtedly follow. Because so many failed to avail themselves of this opportunity, they would not rely on it in the future, and were thus more inclined to rely on an acceptable halachic leniency during the next shemitah.

The farmers weathered the shemitah storm of 1888, but soon were forced to submit to the strong-armed rule of the Baron’s appointees in a way that broke their spirit. Their community survived – but not its commitment to halachah. What changed the course of Mazkeret Batya was the chinuch provided by Haskalah secularists, that gradually won away the young people. The countermeasures by the frum communities of the Land was too little, too late. It took 20 to 30 years, but eventually the residents of Mazkeret Batya were distanced from the halachic legacy of their ancestors. What did not change through repression did succumb to inadequate response to the challenge of modernity.

The book is full of marvelous vignettes of familiar and less familiar personalities. One that stands out is an interview of Rav Shmuel Salant by James Creelman, a non-Jewish journalist who met with the undisputed gadol of Yerushalayim for some 70 years. Creelman was extremely taken in by Rav Salant. His real goal was investigating the massacre of 20-30,000 Armenians in April 1909 by Turkish Muslims, and he asked the gadol for his reaction.

The grand rabbis seemed to be deeply troubled. “It was dreadful,” he said. “I sent a hundred francs to the Christian relief committee as soon as I heard of it. It was not much, but it was all I could spare, for I am a poor man. I hope that nothing like this will ever occur again in the world.”

When he asked Rav Salant about the movement to establish a Jewish nation in Palestine, he replied:

The Jews should return to Palestine. That is the best thing for them. There never was a better time in history for Jews to return to their own land.

The book was a joy to read, even if it was bittersweet, rather than sugar-coated. I was disappointed only in one regard. The book delivered on the facts, and on balance. The reader gets the impression, however, that some of the battles were not exclusively about ideology, but about some strong personalities. We never get to learn too much about the those personalities, and we are therefore left dangling in places.

Besides earning their own olam habo, what good came of the mesiras nefesh of the farmers from Pavlovka? Author Finkel cites the director of the museum in Mazkeret Batya, responding to his question about what a secular Israeli would see as significant in the story of some stubborn Orthodox farmers:

The vast majority of the visitors to the museum are secular people. I want them to meet face to face with people who had values.

Perhaps this is what we should take into parshas Behar, and then into the year of shemitah – the realization that shemitah is about some of the most important Torah values we come across: bitachon in Hashem as provider, our awareness of the transitory nature of material possessions, and the importance of Eretz Yisrael in the life of a committed Jew.

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24 Responses

  1. Ben Waxman says:

    Finkel tells the full story, which roughly revolves around the Baron’s determination to find a halachic solution so that all the colonists would not have to become wards of his largesse.

    Putting aside for a moment the strong arm tactics used, the Baron’s goal seems to be entirely reasonable. IMO it is very difficult to argue that observing Shmitta means that people should go on welfare.

  2. Baruch says:

    I remember Rav Lichtenstein shlit’a describing how every time when shemita rolls around he feels sad, seeing how different the reality of our shemita is from what the Torah envisioned – a year without work, without commercial competition, etc. I guess after celebrating the first stages of geulah on Yom Haatzmaut it’s appropriate to read Parashas Behar and realize how far we still have to go.

  3. L. Oberstein says:

    Sam Finkel, the author of the book, is a Baltimoean and I was able to visited historic Mazkeret Batya on a tour accompanied by Sam led by Rabbi Dovid Katz. It was very meaningful. Why is it that in the entire immigrant sagawhether to Mazkeret Batya or to any other new land outside of the Pale of Settlement, the immigrants could not pass on their religious observance to their progeny. One reads of frum farmers in North Dakota or Argentina or Eretz Yisrael and few of their children were observant. Of course, there was not sufficient chinuch but it may be more than that. In this generation, for the first time in centuries, the othodox youth seem more loyal to their ancient ways ,but something must have changed. We have lost most of the children of most of the immigrants all over the world and only in certain enclaves is anyone frum . One posible idea is that the State of Israel has given usthe security and self respect and sense of wellness that we lacked before.Chaval for those not reached in tme, but without Israel would anyone be left? I know Satmar won’t agree nor will Lakewood, but I think they are beneficiaries, whether they recognize it or not.

  4. Jewish Observer says:

    Shkoyach. I also enjoyed the book and the author’s very real writing style. Do you think part of the author’s agenda was to make a statement in re to current secular / haredi battles? I wasn’t sure

    [YA – I definitely did. But the mark of a successful polemicist is to be subtle enough to keep people guessing.

  5. c-l,c says:

    “Why is it that in the entire immigrant sagawhether to Mazkeret Batya or to any other new land outside of the Pale of Settlement, the immigrants could not pass on their religious observance to their progeny. ”

    Rabbi Ruderman and Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky were conversing in the early ’80’s about the educational system of the past.
    They agreed that if today’s much improved system could have been in place at the the beginning of the century,the world would have been irrevocably/incomparably to the better.

    However,be that as it may, the movements of the era obviously all forcefully went for the youth and children ,while condescendingly ignoring the elder generations!

    Daniel Doron (Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress ) candidly wrote how pitifully few of the new successful settlements and towns were actually launched by ideological secularists .
    They preferred for others do the work, ‘behind the scenes’ dominated education (and the press) ‘pied piper’ed away ,and dramatically rewrote the narrative!

    (One may argue the T’shuva movement simply does the some of the same in reverse.)

    ” One posible idea is that the State of Israel has given usthe security and self respect and sense of wellness that we lacked before.Chaval for those not reached in tme, but without Israel would anyone be left? I know Satmar won’t agree nor will Lakewood, but I think they are beneficiaries, whether they recognize it or not.”

    Or possibly the little bent old survivor of the Churban, who lived/s in Boro Prak or Stamford Hill or Antwerp or in a Torah neighborhood in EY , whom the securalists and zionists derided, who did his share in rebuilding the Jewish people after the war, might have developed the true “new Jew” along with his descendants

  6. c-l,c says:

    There also a quote somewhere from a early pre-zionist something to the effect,that 1888 ‘we could easily helped the farmers survive Sh’mitta .
    Despite our pious protestations of the moment to the contrary.
    But then the new yishuv would have gotten off on the wrong footing..’.

  7. cvmay says:

    For sure re: the State of Israel, Reb Oberstein.

  8. David says:

    By Rabbi Chanan Morrison

    Behar: The Hetter Mechirah for the Sabbatical Year

    “When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land must be given a rest, a sabbath to God. For six years you may plant your fields, prune your vineyards, and harvest your crops. But the seventh year is a sabbath of sabbaths for the land.” (Lev. 25:1-4)

    A Brief History of the Hetter Mechirah

    As the Jewish people began to return to the Land of Israel in the late 1800’s, establishing farms and moshavot (agricultural settlements), the question of letting fields lie fallow during the sabbatical year became — for the first time in many centuries — a burning issue. With the approach of the sabbatical year in 1889, the Jewish settlers turned to the rabbinate to issue a hetter (permit) to allow them to continue working their lands during the seventh year, so that the young and fragile agricultural settlements would not collapse.

    In response, three respected scholars met in Vilna and designed a hetter mechirah, based on temporarily selling the land to a non-Jew over the sabbatical year. The hetter was approved by Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spector, chief rabbi of Kovno and the pre-eminent Halachic authority of the time.

    During the sabbatical years of 1889, 1896, and 1903, many of the new settlements utilized the hetter. However, a number of highly respected scholars vociferously opposed the leniency. Among the opponents were the Beit HaLevy (Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik), the Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin), and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.

    The Sabbatical Year of 5670 (1909-1910)

    In 1904, Rav Kook arrived in Eretz Yisrael, serving as chief rabbi of Jaffa and the surrounding moshavot. Leading up to the sabbatical year of 1910, Rav Kook took a forceful position defending the hetter mechirah. He penned a treatise entitled Shabbat Ha’Aretz which explained the legal reasoning behind the permit, along with a discussion of the laws for the sabbatical year.

    While Rav Kook was an original and creative thinker, he usually took a relatively conservative position in Halachic matters. What lead him to support the lenient position in the hetter mechirah controversy? We can learn much about his underlying concerns from letters that he wrote during this time. The following quotes are taken from letters in the first volume of Igrot HaRe’iyah.

    Motives for Supporting the Hetter

    While still in Russia, Rav Kook and his father-in-law, Rabbi Eliyahu David Rabinowitz-Teomim (known as the Aderet, rabbi of Ponevez and later chief rabbi of Jerusalem), discussed the issue at length. In his letters, Rav Kook admits that at that time they both opposed the hetter.

    “From afar, when we heard the arguments of those who permit and of those who forbid, we both leaned toward the stricter opinion. But when the Aderet arrived in the Land of Israel, he saw with his own eyes that it is impossible to even consider not making some sort of arrangement for the sabbatical year.” (p. 258)
    Seeing first-hand the precarious state of agricultural settlements was a critical factor in changing Rav Kook’s mind. He understood that observing the sabbatical year fully could endanger lives and would likely bring about the collapse of the new settlements.

    A second concern was that the entire enterprise of the return to the Land of Israel could fail over this issue. At that time, the nascent economy of the Yishuv in Eretz Yisrael was based on the commercial sale of agricultural produce.

    “The JCA [Jewish Colonial Association] representative informed me that the JCA is preparing plans to buy much more property in the Holy Land. But if we decide that there is no permit to allow work during the seventh year via some legal sale, then the representative will be forced to advise that they should invest their money in Canada, and cease supporting [projects in] the Land of Israel. He also said that [if the land lays fallow during the sabbatical year], the Arabs will take control of Jewish land during the sabbatical year by grazing their herds on them, and it will be necessary to take them to court.” (p. 285)
    A third concern — and perhaps the most important for Rav Kook — was his fear that a strict ruling would plainly demonstrate that Judaism is incompatible with the modern world and the building of a Jewish state:

    “Even worse is the potential condemnation of Judaism and widespread rejection of Torah observance that could result from a strict ruling, Heaven forbid. For the anti-religious elements actually hope that the rabbis will forbid [all agricultural activity during the sabbatical year]. Then they will have gained a great victory. They will have demonstrated that by listening to the rabbis, the land will be laid waste, the fields and vineyards will become desolate, and all commercial ties for the sale of wines, oranges and other produce will be broken — ties upon which the survival of the Jewish settlement truly depends.” (p. 258)
    The Halachic Underpinnings of the Hetter

    In his letters, Rav Kook also discussed the legal reasoning behind the hetter mechirah. The sale is actually based on a number of independent, mitigating factors, each one lessening the severity of working the land during the sabbatical year.

    The most important factor in taking a lenient stance is the ruling of most Halachic authorities that nowadays the sabbatical year no longer retains the status of Biblical law. Since it is Rabbinically-ordained, we may apply various leniencies (according to the principle of “sfeika d’rabbanan lekula”).
    The hetter only permits those types of agricultural labor that are not Biblically prohibited, even when the sabbatical year itself is Biblically-ordained. Thus, planting, pruning, harvesting, fruit-picking, and perhaps plowing must still be performed by a non-Jew hired to work the field. This clause ensures that no Torah prohibitions are violated, even according to the minority opinion that even nowadays the sabbatical year is Biblically ordained.
    The Maharit (Rabbi Jacob Toledano (1697-1771) of Meknes, Morocco) in a responsum permitted renting out land to a non-Jew for a time period that includes the seventh year. He ruled that the obligation to observe the sabbatical year is on the farmer working the land, and not on the land itself. Even those who disagreed with this ruling, nonetheless agree that an actual sale of the land to a non-Jew will permit it to be farmed, since the land is no longer the property of a Jewish farmer.
    An additional reason to be lenient is that our current situation is one of ‘undue hardship’ (“sha’at hadechak”). Given the precarious state of the agricultural settlements, not working the land would be truly life-threatening. In such cases, one may rely on a single opinion — that of the Rezah (Rabbi Zerachiah HaLevi Gerondi, 1125-1186) — who held that nowadays, without the Jubilee year, the sabbatical year is not even rabbinically ordained, but is only a pious custom.
    Additionally, we may take into account the question regarding the correct count of the years. The Kaftor Vaferach (Rabbi Eshtori HaParchi, 1282-1357) testified that some farmers would observe the seventh year during one year, while others observed it during another. Even though the rabbis agreed to observe just one sabbatical year (and Maimonides’ count was chosen), this is only a convention; the doubt still remains as to what is truly the sabbatical year.
    According to the land-deeds in Palestine under the Ottoman Empire, all land in fact belongs to the regime, not the Jewish farmer. The farmer is only a ‘sharecropper of the king,’ allowed to keep 90% of his produce by law (and 60-70% in practice).
    Rav Kook also intimated that he had additional arguments to be lenient, but intentionally did not publicize them. He feared that, once institutionalized, the hetter would become too entrenched. The ultimate goal was not to circumvent the laws of the sabbatical year, but to allow the settlements to grow and prosper until they would be able to completely observe the sabbatical year in all of its details.

    “On purpose, I did not organize everything in this matter to be fully explained, organized, and analyzed as it should be. Some justifications and cogent arguments I have omitted completely. All this was in order that the hetter should not become too accepted, but will always be considered a temporary measure (a hora’at sha’ah), something that was permitted grudgingly due to the needs of the time. But when these issues are analyzed in the way of true Torah scholarship… the prohibition would become too weakened — and I certainly did not desire that.” (pp. 348-349)
    Eye to the Future

    Many of the rabbis who opposed the hetter mechirah wrote that not observing the sabbatical year would in fact jeopardize the future of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel, since the punishment for transgressing its laws is exile (see Avot 5:9). While Rav Kook also looked forward to the day when the seventh year would be fully observed, he viewed the hetter as a stepping-stone that would allow the community to achieve that goal.

    “We must recognize that we are obligated to strive with all of our strength to bring matters so that, in the end, the sabbatical year will be increasingly observed in all of its holiness in the Holy Land…. But how to arrive at this sacred goal? Which means should we use to attain it? This matter must be considered carefully.
    “In my opinion, we need to arrive at our desired goal precisely by graduated efforts. Rabbi Chiya Rabbah described the overall redemption of Israel as beginning slowly, little by little — “kim’a kim’a” [Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 1:2]. So too, the spiritual redemption of establishing the Land’s holiness will advance in stages, step by step.” (p. 330)
    One expression of this graduated approach is the distinction the hetter made between those agricultural activities that are prohibited Biblically and those prohibited rabbinically. ‘We should be like one who saves his possessions from the fire,’ Rav Kook explained. ‘Whatever is more precious and holier [i.e., Biblically-prohibited labor] must be rescued first.’

    This distinction also provides a solution to the danger of punishment by exile for not observing the sabbatical year. Such a severe penalty could only apply to transgressing Biblically-ordained prohibitions. As the Sha’agat Aryeh (Rabbi Aryeh Leib Gunzberg, 1695-1785) wrote regarding the blessings recited before studying Torah: ‘It is self-evident, that if this blessing was only of rabbinic origin, it would not warrant such a terrible punishment as forfeiting the Land’ (Siman 24).

    Not Relying on the Hetter

    What about those who did not wish to rely on the hetter mechirah? Here, Rav Kook distinguished between farmers and consumers.

    Rav Kook was very supportive of farmers who did not wish to rely on the hetter. When he heard that the JCA was using the hetter to force farmers to work on the sabbatical year, he became acutely distressed, and threatened the JCA that the hetter would become invalid under such circumstances. Rav Kook also spoke of setting up a special fund to support these farmers.

    On the other hand, Rav Kook spoke harshly against consumers who chose to be stringent in the sabbatical year by buying produce only from non-Jewish farmers. One cannot take on chumrot (stringencies) at the expense of others.

    “Certainly it is not proper to look for leniencies and loopholes by purchasing produce from non-Jews, in a situation when this will cause loss of income from Jewish farmers and undermine their livelihood. In general, in any situation where we desire to be strict for ourselves, it is correct to make certain that this stringency does not induce any negative repercussions of financial loss or disrepute for others.” (p. 258)

  9. CJ Srullowitz says:

    @L.Oberstein: Whether North Dakota, Argentina or Eretz Yisrael, no amount of “tradition” is going to last past one generation. The key to Jewish/Halachic transmission is, as c-l,c says, Talmud Torah. Otherwise observance might be a mile wide, but it’s an inch deep.

    Halachic observance can still survive in a shtetl atmosphere, where it is essentially “social Orthodoxy” (to borrow the current phrase). But that brand of observance does not resonate with the next generation when they find themselves in a different, more open, social setting.

    Only rigorous chinuch and talmud Torah can stand up “keneged kulam.”

  10. Toby Katz says:

    Ben Waxman wrote:
    “Putting aside for a moment the strong arm tactics used, the Baron’s goal seems to be entirely reasonable. IMO it is very difficult to argue that observing Shmitta means that people should go on welfare.”

    The book is beautifully written, inspiring but tragic. The book makes it clear that the Baron would have financially supported the farmers of Mazkeret Batya through the shmitta year (and for a couple more shmitta cycles) if his representatives in Palestine had advocated for the frum farmers. Instead, there was the vicious, duplicitous interference of his middlemen in Palestine, rabid secularists who misrepresented the truth to him and told him that the farmers were lazy and were refusing to work because they wanted to live on charity.

    The heter mechira also came about in cloudy obscure ways. There are a couple of chapters on this, well worth reading.

    Had there not been such vicious interference, Mazkeret Batya would have set a shining example of adherence to mitzvos hateluyous ba’aretz (mitzvos that apply in Eretz Yisrael). Ultimately there would have been a large number of shmitta-observant agricultural settlements — and they would not have continued to need financial support. They would have found ways to diversify and to keep their incomes up through shmitta, and E’Y would have been tremendously prosperous. Also, they would not have lost their children.

    Incidentally this book makes you really understand — feel in your bones — why there is such stiff resistance to secular education in the Jerusalem chareidi community, until today. Even though I don’t agree with that policy of no secular education, having read the book, I now understand it and sympathize. The rabid secularists foisted an education on the children of the earlier settlers that, while appearing outwardly religious (e.g., they prayed every morning, was deliberately, consciously designed to take the children away from their parents’ beliefs and to secularize and modernize them. And they succeeded. So even today, the members of the Old Yishuv are suspicious of any school or educational system that looks religious but includes secular studies. They were badly burnt.

  11. Jonathan says:

    There’s another way to view this story: by making the refusal to rely on heter mechira the ultimate barometer of religiosity, the chachmei Yerushalayim cited by Rabbi Adlerstein helped alienate the children of Mazkerat Baya from Torah Judaism. Kitzoniut might have been a meaningful and attractive form of Judaism in Meah Shearim, but it was not the form of Torah Judaism capable of being passed onto kids on a rural farming community. If the rabbonim of the Old Yishuv had respected the olim of the First Aliyah as good Jews with a slightly different derech, then maybe the two sides would not have fragmented as badly as ended up, and the children of Mazkeret Batya would have remained shomer shabbos.

    For more on the dangers and possible unintended side effects of disregarding the heter mechira, see Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky’s column on this blog from last July entitled “The Price of Halachic Power.”

  12. Steve Brizel says:

    IIRC, the author is from Baltimore, and a graduate of Yeshiva College. I glanced at the book once in a local seforim store, and I plan to purchase it eventually as a means of enhancing my understanding of the facts on the ground that led to the shmittah controversy and the then embryonic stage of the Yishuv.

  13. David Z says:

    I wish I could understand more about the usage of the word Palestine under the Ottomans. I know THEY did not call anything Palestine–they had the land divided up into five different political entities which also included parts of the now-surrounding countries. The British and others did use the term Palestine, presumably because of Roman influence. Did Jews go along wit this insulting name for erets yisrael (the Romans were trying to erase Jews from the Land when they renamed it from Judea to Palestina)? Did R’ Salant? What was wrong with Holy Land or Land of Israel if one did not want to use the Ottoman names? Who made the decision to call it the Mandate of Palestine? Anybody know more?

    [YA – Clearly many Jews went along with it. You’ve probably seen collections of front pages of the premier Jewish newspaper in Mandate days, The Palestinian Post]

  14. L. Oberstein says:

    Right now the main aim of fundraising is to provide sustenance to the Kollel members who are suffering becuase the government has cut their funding. Now with shmita, the same rabbis will proclaim that we have to support the farmers who are not working this year. If push comes to shove, which one will get the support?

  15. Toby Katz says:

    Jonathan wrote:
    “If the rabbonim of the Old Yishuv had respected the olim of the First Aliyah as good Jews with a slightly different derech, then maybe the two sides would not have fragmented as badly as ended up, and the children of Mazkeret Batya would have remained shomer shabbos.”

    He could not have written that if he had read the book. The farmers of Mazkeret Batya WANTED to keep shmitta properly, and with financial help that was readily available, they could have done so. Unbeknownst to him, the Baron’s henchmen were adamantly opposed to the farmers trying to keep shmitta. But not just that. They didn’t want a frum yishuv at all and tried to stymie them in many ways! The heter mechira was held over the farmers’ heads as a way to force them to go against their own deeply held principles and ideals. Only a very small minority of rabbanim (who were in Europe, not in E’Y) allowed the heter mechira and even they did so reluctantly, as a temporary measure, and without a full understanding of the facts on the ground in Palestine in the 1880’s. Read the book. It is an easy and fascinating read.

  16. Ben Waxman says:

    The book makes it clear that the Baron would have financially supported the farmers of Mazkeret Batya through the shmitta year (and for a couple more shmitta cycles) if his representatives in Palestine had advocated for the frum farmers.

    I don’t see how this point answers what I wrote. Is living off charity or Bituach Leumi what people think that farmers should do? What is shmitta in this situation? This is the Torah mandated shmitta? In addition, the situation today is much more complicated than the story of a small group of farmers needing to farm or starve.

  17. Ben Waxman says:

    Since it is Rabbinically-ordained, (

    And maybe not even that (according to several rishonim).

  18. groinem says:

    So we have a group of rabid secularists trying to remove a mitzvah from yidden, claiming to be teaching them ‘self-sufficiency’ all the while hypocritically using someone elses money, and then probably demanding hakoras hatov (or hakarat hotov) for assisting the farmers.
    How history repeats itself.

  19. David F says:

    Toby Katz,

    “Incidentally this book makes you really understand — feel in your bones — why there is such stiff resistance to secular education in the Jerusalem chareidi community, until today. Even though I don’t agree with that policy of no secular education, having read the book, I now understand it and sympathize.”

    Precisely. This is a point that until it is well understood and openly addressed by the secularists, will prevent any meaningful advances in the Charedi community. There are many in the Charedi who are very interested in seeing some sort of educational reforms and greater tolerance for working and earning a living, but do not trust the secular politicians one iota and therefore will reject any reforms they suggest. Until real trust can be earned and an acknowledgement of what was done in the early years of the State and prior to that is made, the hopes of the situation improving are slim to none.

  20. DF says:

    Commenter David F: “Until real trust can be earned and an acknowledgement of what was done in the early years of the State and prior to that is made,the hopes of improving the situation are slim to none.”

    And what if the chilonim followed your recipe, and waited for the charedim to thank and acknowledge them for everything they’ve done to them, and apologize for all the name-calling and rock throwing?

    Midrash Rabbah on this week’s reading describes the same thing happening with Jephta and Phineas. The latter could have absolved the former’s vow to sacrifice the first thing that came out of his door, which turned out to be his daughter. But each one thought it was beneath his dignity to make the first move, and waited for the other to move first. The result – an innocent child was slaughtered. That’s what happens when one stands on ceremony.

  21. mb says:

    [YA – Clearly many Jews went along with it. You’ve probably seen collections of front pages of the premier Jewish newspaper in Mandate days, The Palestinian Post]

    Don’t forget the Palestinian Brigade, or er um, the Palestinian Talmud

  22. Y. Ben-David says:

    David F-
    This seems to indicate that the Haredim believe there is some sort of vast conspiracy by “secularlists” to make them stop being religious. If there has been such a conspiracy, it has been a disastrous failure, both the Haredim and Dati Leumi communities have grown and strengthened greatly over the years. In fact, even those religious Jews who have opened up to secular education and close cooperation with the secular authorities have prospered and produced a new generation of learned religious Jews. I don’t understand why there has to be this feeling of “they are conspiring against us” and “we are all victims” in weighing the pros and cons of educational reform in the Haredi community. It seems that there are people who seem to believe that this ongoing conflict and tension is good for the Haredi community by making an attitude that it is necessary to hunker down and put up defensive walls, even if no real threat exists, as history has indeed shown. The days of the Jewish “kulturkampf” which was real in the early years of the state, are over and it is to the Haredi world to realize they will benefit by accepting this.

  23. Michael Halberstam says:

    I wonder whether it is fair to continue placing the onus on the secularists to understand and accommodate us. The questions this article deals with are about the halachos of shemita. It is clear that there are certain issues that are not being openly discussed because of an attempt to rewrite the history of the Yishuv The issues are whether, given the existence of a real emergency, and given the fact that almost all Rishonim agree that Shemita is not D’oraisa ( See Mahari Kurkus in Hilchoe Shemitta Veyovel) And Given the Opinion of the Gra in Yorah Deah Hilchos Terumos that it appears that both the Rambam and the Mechaber consider the maskanas Hashas to be the we hold Batla Kedusha Haaretz. And given the opinions of numerous poskim throughout the generations, it is clear that this was a story of concerned Rabbonim who were trying to find a solution to a problem.

    Unfortunately, the Jewish community since the rise of the Haskala has been forced to view every new issue through the prism of polemics, zionism, reform, misnagdim against Chassidim Agudah against Mizrachi etc. It is considered taboo to discuss any halachic topic without touching the politics. This is a threat to yiddishkeit whose final outcome has yet to be experienced.Our obsession with the “freieh” is forcing us to create rhetoric which our ancestors would never have understood.

    This is a relatively new problem in Klal Yisroel, and it is getting worse every day.We need to understand this and not blame everything on “secularists” The bottom line is that Honest Talmidei Chachomim, gedolei Yisroel issued a psak. No one is obligated to accept it but not every ” gassen yung” has the right to express an opinion based on something he read in a politically oriented journal The bottom line is do what you feel is right and leave others alone.

  24. Akiva Cohen says:

    A Rav in my community recently pointed out that Shmittah (and Yovel) are the ultimate proof of the divine authorship of Torah. Who, after all, can imagine a human law-giver instructing an agrarian community that they were not allowed to work the land at all once every seven years – and for two years running every 49th and 50th year? Who can imagine such a lawgiver with the audacity to promise prosperity as a result of observing such a law?

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