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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adana_massacre 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.