Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Monday, 10 September 2007

A thought on Heter Mechirah

With the beginning of Rosh HaShanah in a couple of days, a new Shemittah year will be upon us. This is a special time in the Jewish cycle of years, a chance for heightened spiritual awareness and a chance to reconnect with God in a way that is difficult for us to do when we are surrounded by the burdens of the material world.

Naturally, in Israel, the religious community has chosen to mark this special occasion by acting like spoiled children.

Now, I will admit my bias up front: I don't hold by the Heter Mechirah, the idea created by Rav Elchonon Wasserman to help Jewish farmers in the last 1800's and early 1900's bypass Shemittah restrictions that would have fatally crippled the nascent farming economy of Israel. Whatever its utility in the past, I feel the benefits of continuing to apply it today is outweighed by the serious halachic difficulties it presents.

Some people look at it simple: We allow the sale of chometz over Pesach (mechirat chometz)so why not sell the land of Israel for a year? The quick and easy answer is that one sells chometz that one personally possesses to avoid the prohibition of possessing and benefitting from it over Pesach. The land of Israel, on the other hand, is not a personal possession of anyone and can't b made that way by any organzation, religious or political. Another consideration is that when I sell my chometz over Pesach, I do so with the acknowledgement that if the non-Jew I sold it wishes to enter my house and take some of my bread for himself, I must let him without any thought of saying "Hey, hang on, I didn't seriously mean for you to actually take what you want." Could you imagine the worst possible ramification of selling the land of Israel for the Shemittah year? The Arab in question could quite easily walk into the Muqata and sell his new possession to our enemies for a few dinars. What would we all say then? That it wasn't a real sale? Well then the farmers can't really work the land.

There is also the argument of prozbul. The other feature of the Shemittah year is that all personal debts are cancelled at its completion. In order to prevent people from not loaning money because of the fear that the borrower might wait out the seventh year to avoid repayment, Hillel the Sage invented the prozbul. During the Shemittah year, the debt is transferred to the local Beis Din. Personal loans are cancelled but not ones between the court and the individual. Some wonder why this can't be done for the agricultural restrictions but again, the difference is not the ownership of the land but the use of it. Still, that hasn't stopped people from noticing the obvious - the same leaders who generally don't approve of the Heter Mechirah aren't farmers. They engage in regular business activities and for them there is a way around the Shemittah restrictions. It doesn't seem fair.

Having stated all of that, I will note that I do not live in Israel. It's easy for me to write this but the reality of the matter is that many, many farmers and businessmen who rely on domestic produce will suffer financially if they are forced to observe the Shemittah regulations. So, just as happened seven yers ago, we read stories of how the Chareidi leadership is doing everything in its power to prevent anyone from utilitizing the Heter Mechirah, while at the same time we are told about how people will suffer if they can't.

However, I have, upon considering the matter, come up with a solution. The real root of the problem is monetary - the farmer will go bankrupt, the restauranteur will sustain heavy losses to rely on imported produce, etc. If these people could be adequately compensated to observe Shemittah, this problem would go away.

But where to find the money? There is an easy answer. The government should "suggest" to the Chareidi leadership the following: Since they are demanding the strict observance of Shemittah, they should surely be interested in helping those people who would be most economically damaged by the restrictions that involved. So, for the next year all the money that currently goes into paying the yeshivos and kollels should be diverted to those people whose livlihoods will be hurt by Shemittah observance. The money should be used to pay for them to sit idly until next Rosh HaShanah. Make them attend mandatory courses in Shemittah too so they know what to do and not do after the year ends.

As for the people who will now not be getting money for the next year to sit and learn, well the answer to that is something they already say: God will provide.

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