Trying to Trick God: Israel Works Around an Unusual Biblical Commandment

It’s that time once again. Shmita.

According to a Talmudic law based on Leviticus 25, not only people but also the land of Israel must observe the Sabbath. That means every seventh year—in this case, 2022—agricultural land in Israel must lie fallow, uncultivated. All Jewish-owned land must remain fallow.

Regardless of personal opinion of using the term “Israel,” in this case, it’s a key part of the legal determination of what land should remain fallow. This poses an obvious problem.

Not being able to farm means you’re lower on supplies, which can be pretty serious if it involves basic needs like food. In short, you need to find a way either to grow food somewhere else, or buy that food from somewhere else.

This is where Gaza comes in. Israel is allowing Gazans to export—along with the tomatoes and eggplants that they have been able to export since 2014—cucumbers, zucchini, and peppers. This allowance is somewhat unusual, as Gaza has been under blockade since 2007, when Hamas rose to power. But it’s a practical solution, as some rabbis consider Gaza to be outside of the Land of Israel.

All political things aside, the export allowance was good news for Gazans, whose daily lives, due to the blockade and what is an ongoing war with Israel, are marred by hardship. But farmers in Gaza are still waiting with baited breath for their produce to actual go to Israel.

Along with sales of crops from Egypt and Turkey (yes, take note that Egypt and Turkey are selling to Israel), NPR reports that the delay has to do with negotiations between Hamas and Israel “‘over a long-term ceasefire and prisoner deal.’”

They quote the director of an Israeli legal advocacy group that fights for the freedom of movement of Gazans as saying:

“‘This government, like those before it, is continuing to leverage its control over the economic life and well-being of civilians in the Strip for its own political gain, in violation of its obligation to protect human rights, not trade in them.’”

Even if the deal goes through, maybe the effects of the shmita are likely to be small, as non-religious Jews do not adhere to it and many others have found a workaround.

The Shmita Loophole

Academic Israel Shahak explains how the system works in preparation for the shmita:

“Shortly before a sabbatical year, the Israeli Minister of Internal Affairs gives the Chief Rabbi a document making him legal owner of all Israeli land, both private and public. Armed with his paper, the Chief Rabbi goes to a non-Jew and sells him all the land of Israel (and, since 1967, the Occupied Territories) for a nominal sum. A separate document stipulates that the ‘buyer’ will ‘resell’ the land back after the year is over.”[1]

The NPR article affirms this system, citing a statistic from the Israeli Department of Agriculture which states that only three to five percent of Israeli farmers let their land lie fallow, while the rest of farmers follow the loophole.

RELATED: Israel Bans “Terrorist” Human Rights NGOs

In the NPR article on the upcoming shmita, Rabbi Yedidya Sinclair acknowledges that this workaround is indeed just that:

“‘Everyone recognizes that this is a loophole….But it’s a compassionate loophole.’”

Keep in mind whom the compassion is for. More profoundly, bring to mind for whom the compassion is against. It’s against the people who were forced out of their land over 70 years ago. That’s one of the main reasons why this loophole exists.

A Brazilian road engineer who moved to Israel five years ago is now the symbolic owner of millions of acres of land in Israel. Palestinians cannot even stay in their own home without fear of its destruction.

How This All Started

Given that the shmita has it roots in the Old Testament, the practice is not new. What is, however, is the loophole. Shahak gives some historical background:

“There is ample evidence that this law was rigorously observed for about one thousand years, from the 5th century BC till the disappearance of Jewish agriculture in Palestine. Later, when there was no occasion to apply the law in practice, it was kept theoretically intact. However, in the 1880s, with the establishment of the first Jewish agricultural colonies in Palestine, it became a matter of Practical concern. Rabbis sympathetic to the settlers helpfully devised a dispensation, which was later perfected by their predecessors in the religious Zionist parties and has become an established religious practice”[2]

Beyond the insult to injury that this loophole and its historical significance are to Palestinians is the bizarre maneuver itself. If you believe that God commanded you to do something, would it not be lacking in humility and honesty to pretend that the loophole is reasonable? Who are you fooling?

Some amongst the Jews understand this, as Shahak points out:

“Non-zionist rabbis do not recognize the validity of this dispensation, claiming correctly that, since religious law for- bids Jews to sell land in Palestine to Gentiles, the whole transaction is based on a sin and hence null and void. The zionist rabbis reply, however, that what is forbidden is a real sale, not a fictitious one!”[3]

Such games are not limited to the shmita, and they come into play especially in Israel, where tensions between Jews and non-Jews are high.

RELATED: The Islamic Importance of Palestine’s Struggle Against Genocide

For the curious, here’s another example that Shahak personally witnessed on a Kibbutz. Generally, milking on the Sabbath is outlawed, but another workaround was confusedly strung together. Shahak explains that early Jewish settlers usually employed Arabs to milk on the Sabbath in the manner described below, but this became difficult when Zionists imposed a policy of Jewish-only labor. He explains, and it’s worth quoting in detail here:

“Here too there was a difference between zionist and non-zionist rabbis. According to the former, the forbidden milking becomes permitted provided the milk is not white but dyed blue. This blue Saturday milk is then used exclusively for making cheese, and the dye is washed off into the whey. Non-zionist rabbis have devised a much subtler scheme (which I personally witnessed operating in a religious kibbutz in 1952). They discovered an old provision which allows the udders of a cow to be emptied on the sabbath, purely for relieving the suffering caused to the animal by bloated udders, and on the strict condition that the milk runs to waste on the ground.

Now, this is what is actually done: on Saturday morning, a pious kibbutznik goes to the cowshed and places pails under the cows. (There is no ban on such work in the whole of the talmudic literature.) He then goes to the synagogue to pray. Then comes his colleague, whose ‘honest intention’ is to relieve the animals’ pain and let their milk run to the floor. But if, by chance, a pail happens to be standing there, is he under any obligation to remove it? Of course not. He simply ‘ignores’ the pails, fulfills his mission of mercy and goes to the synagogue. Finally a third pious colleague goes into the cowshed and discovers, to his great surprise, the pails full of milk. So he puts them in cold storage and follows his comrades to the synagogue. Now all is well, and there is no need to waste money on blue dye.”[4]

We can see how Jewish religious practices do at times come directly into conflict with Palestinian livelihood. These are not simply internal religious disputes, as much as most of us would prefer them to be.

This is the conflict we’re all left to deal with. Even NPR cannot avoid talking about the ramifications that the shmita loophole has on Palestinians.

The point of this is not to promote hatred of one group. It is, however, to demonstrate once again the illogical nature of some aspects of Judaism. In the two cases above, these seem to involve efforts to trick God and are often employed to the detriment of Palestinians.

We must stop pretending that this conflict has very little to do with religion. Imagine a world in which we spoke honestly about this conflict. There may then actually be a “peace process.”

RELATED: De-Secularizing the “Israeli-Palestinian Conflict”

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Bennet has announced plans to double settlements in the Golan Heights. Israel captured the area from Syria during Israel’s offensive Six-Day War in 1967. In 1981, they claimed it to be officially governed by Israeli law. The UN rejects these claims. Nonetheless, Biden has shown no signs of backing down on Trump’s controversial 2019 recognition of Israel sovereignty over it.

Notes

  1. Shahak, Israel. Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years. London: Pluto Press, 1997, p.38-9.
  2. Shahak, 1997, p.38-9.
  3. Shahak, 1997, p.39.
  4. Shahak, 1997, p.39-40.

 

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