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Shemittah is its Own Reward

Binyamin Rose

Farming is a risky business. Crops can be deluged by a torrential downpour, devoured by locusts, or dried on the vine. So what do Israeli farmers stand to gain by laying down their plowshares for an entire year?

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

While many farmers plan a sabbatical next year, the odometer on Rabbi ShlomoRanaan’s roadworthy Toyota spins on overdrive. He easily logs 50,000 kilometers (31,000 miles) a year on Israel’s winding and sometimes treacherous rural roads, determined to be a driving force behind the growing trend of more Israeli farmers, including many nonreligious ones, who observe shemittah — the once-in-seven-year mitzvah to let one’s land lie fallow. To advance his goal, Rabbi Raanan has taken on some 20 avreichim to train more than 600 farmers, including some from the most hard-core secular towns, where interest in religion is as rare as a summer rain shower. “These farmers have a deep and sensitive relationship with their land,” says Rabbi Raanan, who began working with farmers before the previous shemittah seven years ago. “But what always impresses me is that once they make their decision, they observe it with humility and responsibility, knowing all the while what it will take to avoid succumbing to temptation.” As head of Ayelet Hashachar, the organization he founded in 1997 to create a united society of religious and nonreligious Jews in Eretz Yisrael, he has visited 800 secular towns, making a mark on 119 of them, either by sending a religious person to lay down roots there, encouraging construction of a synagogue, planning parlor meeting discussions on Jewish topics of interest, or arranging telephone chavrusas for those who want to learn more. While most of the restrictions on agricultural labor don’t take effect until Rosh Hashanah, preparations for shemittah have been underway for months. Chazal cite shemittah as one “proof” of the Torah’s Divine origin. Who else but G-d could promise unprecedented blessings, and not disastrous losses, by taking a year off from work? Yet the Sages tell us that the Babylonian exile was caused in part because the Jews did not observe shemittah properly. If they couldn’t do it, why does Rabbi Raanan pick the seemingly hardest nuts to crack to promote a mitzvah that runs contrary to man’s very nature? “I want to start from the farthest point, the least likely place, because I know from experience that this will be the easiest,” is how he explains his modus operandi as he drives us to visit four of the 600 “giborei koach” under his tutelage who committed to observing the next shemittah. “Their interest is real. It’s intelligent. They’re not complicated and they’re not ostentatious.”

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