Clusters of hard, green pears were already growing in this Galilean orchard in early July, but Simcha Margaliot wasn’t concerned about the quality of the crop.
Situated in Mahanayim, a kibbutz across the road from Rosh Pina in the north, the field — about five dunams (5,000 square meters or 54,000 feet) in size — will lie fallow this Jewish year, which began last week, in observance of the biblical commandment of shmita, a sabbatical year of rest for the land of Israel.
The pear orchard was purchased by Margalioth’s Shmita Association, a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews from Bnei Brak who wanted to create an opportunity for observant Jews to observe the sabbatical commandment.
It’s usually only Jewish Israeli farmers who observe the sabbatical year of rest. Most Jews living in or outside of Israel don’t have much of an opportunity to fulfill this biblical commandment in a hands-on fashion, aside from deciding what kinds of produce to eat throughout the year.
Many Israelis make use of the legal loophole known as the heter mehira, a religious ruling allowing Jewish farmers in Israel to sell their land to a non-Jew for the duration of the sabbatical year, while retaining the right to work it and earn a living from the fruits of the land. Crops grown in this manner receive the stamp of approval from the country’s rabbinate.
Others feel that heter mehira isn’t stringent enough, so they avoid produce grown by Jewish farmers in Israel for the entire year, relying instead on imports from other countries.
But aside from making the choice of what Israeli produce to consume during a shmita year, most observant Jews, even those living in Israel, can’t actively observe the sabbatical year, because they’re not farmers.
“It’s not a transgression if you don’t have land,” pointed out Margaliot. “It’s not a commandment you have to fulfill. But if you do [own land and refrain from working it], you fulfill a positive commandment, and that’s an opportunity.”
That’s what Margaliot and a study partner were aiming for when they first started the organization in 2007, before the last sabbatical year.
Margaliot, who lives in Bnei Brak, a mostly ultra-Orthodox enclave near Tel Aviv, was studying the laws of the sabbatical year with his friend during the early summer festival of Shavuot. They stopped in the middle of their learning to think about why they had never observed the commandment. That was seven years ago.
They embarked on what became an all-encompassing project, checking with well-known rabbis from their community in order to understand exactly what was needed to observe shmita as the Bible commanded. What they learned was that in order to fulfill the commandment of actively letting farmland lay fallow, they would need to buy Jewish-owned, Israeli land.
It couldn’t be government-owned land — a particular difficulty in Israel, where 93 percent of the land is owned by the state. Margaliot also knew it would be impractical to spend millions of shekels on a piece of land. He ended up spending hours with agronomists, lawyers and other experts.
The Shmita Association, a for-profit venture, eventually ruled out land in the south, because parts of the Negev are considered more complicated in terms of sabbatical year observance. According to the Bible, the Negev was part of the area conquered by the prophet Joshua after the exodus from Egypt (but not colonized later by returnees from Babylonia), and therefore isn’t necessarily bound by the laws of shmita. Margaliot’s crowd was looking for land that was definitively obligated by the Bible to observe the laws of shmita.
Land in the center was too expensive because of the population density there, and there were only a few available options up north.
The sabbatical year is a commandment that is difficult to fulfill, said Margaliot, as was once the case with the lulav and etrog, the palm frond and citron used during the festival of Sukkot along with willow and myrtle branches. “Before the Holocaust, no one had the four species for Sukkot,” he said. “They were good Jews, but it wasn’t practical to get the four species. Just the rabbi had it. Now it’s so normal to buy it.”
Margaliot eventually found his pear orchard up in Mahanayim. After buying the plot and setting up the Shmita Association website, the organization began selling plots of land, using the biblical system of measurements: $180 for one square ama (about 48-57 centimeters or 19-23 inches), $360 for four amot and $1,000 for 16 amot.
During the year, Margaliot and his associates will visit their pear orchard every so often in order to ensure that no one is working it. At the end of the sabbatical year, they’ll have to decide whether to keep it until the next shmita year or sell it to another farmer.
“We’re not there yet,” he said.
In the meantime, by the start of this September, Margaliot said, they had sold to thousands of customers worldwide. Besides placing Google ads, he was also planning on advertising on Waze, the Israeli GPS app, which would allow Shmita Association customers to stop in at other sabbatical-observant plots of land in the country.
“We didn’t create anything new,” said Margaliot. “We just offered a practical solution.”
Now, said Margalioth, shmita has become much more talked about. At least in his circles.
“Almost every Haredi or religious person knows they can do this,” he said. “People first looked at us like we’re crazy, but now it’s a real thing.”
Given that shmita is an ancient commandment created during a time of subsistence farming, one may find it surprising that Jews are paying so much attention to its strictures. But 2014 is also a period of organic produce, kitchen gardens, alternative farming, produce boxes and locally sourced foods, which may help explain the desire for more active shmita observance.
It’s tough to observe shmita in the modern age, said Bat Ami Sorek, whose farm, Chubeza, in the Ayalon Valley, was one of the first to offer community-supported agriculture in Israel.
Her farm, which also employs non-Jews, will be observing the year-long sabbatical by means of the heter mehira loophole.
“There is this desire in the religious public to observe shmita according to your own individualism and not just accept the general ruling of the rabbinate,” said Sorek.
But observance of the sabbatical commandment means something else now that there are so few farmers, she said.
According to a study conducted by Israel’s Agriculture Ministry last year, only 150 Israeli farmers observe the sabbatical year by not farming at all. The rest use heter mehira.
“Everyone used to have the same issues, because everyone farmed,” said Sorek. “But now, it’s much more complicated to say, ‘I’m not going to eat Jewish-farmed produce for a year.’ That means telling the farmers to be the sacrifice.”
That desire to provide a better solution for the farmers is one of the motivating factors behind Otzar Haaretz, another shmita organization that wants to provide Israeli shmita solutions for mehadrin observers — those who only eat food with the most stringent kosher supervision.
It’s a company founded to give a shmita solution to religious people, said Otzar Haaretz founder Amir Dror-Fogelman.
Think of it as a CSA, or community sabbatical agriculture, for the religiously observant crowd.
Otzar Haaretz, which means treasure of the land, will be bringing its mehadrin (stringently)-certified sourced produce to small shops and stands throughout Israel for the duration of the sabbatical year.
According to Dror-Fogelman, they will gather their produce from five sources: Some produce was picked last year and is being stored; there are fruits and vegetables grown in trays in hothouses, with roots that never touch the ground; and some produce that was grown last year and will be picked this year, and is considered sanctified by the rabbinical court and which can only be sold by certain farmers. Finally, produce from the southern Arava and the Negev, the areas of Israel that were promised to Abraham in the Bible, are considered to be exempt from shmita observance and can be farmed under the heter mehira loophole, even during a sabbatical year.
At Otzar Haaretz, the goals are to avoid produce from the rest of the country that is picked under the religious ruling of heter mehira, and to help out the farmers in the south.
“We’re trying to protect the farmers,” said Dror-Fogelman. “They’ve been hit hard enough.”
Religious farmers from the south, many of whom had fields destroyed by the rockets and shells that fell throughout the summer, also see business suffer due to the consumers who avoid their produce during the sabbatical year.
As a result, said Fogelman, the Jewish farmers don’t have enough clients every seventh year.
At Otzar Haaretz, customers register and pay NIS 70 ($19) for a smart card, which can be loaded with NIS 600 ($164), NIS 720 ($197), NIS 840 ($230) or NIS 960 ($262.5), paid off in increments and used for the entire year at Otzar Haaretz branches.
During non-sabbatical years, Otzar Haaretz plans on opening a chain of “green” stores, selling mehadrin-regulated produce that’s free of bugs and grown on farms owned by religious farmers.
“These are farmers who observe Jewish law, and then don’t have work for 12 months,” he said. “We have to help them.”