Biblical Prohibition on Farming Land Makes Its Way into Modern Politics

Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi was quaking with emotion. In a meeting with President Moshe Katsav on Monday, Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron said, “I don’t want to resign, but I am afraid they will excommunicate me.”

The chief rabbi was explaining why he was buckling to pressure from the fervently Orthodox, or haredi, community regarding an issue that springs from the Torah.

At issue were the biblical injunctions regarding the laws of shmita, which holds that every seven years farmers in Israel must allow the land to lie fallow for an entire year.

The injunctions raise obvious economic problems for religious farmers, who find themselves unemployed for a year. Those who observe the laws of shmita, which will be in effect when the new Hebrew year, 5761, begins later this month, refrain from buying local agricultural products.

For years, the issue has long been the subject of religious controversy.

Fervently Orthodox Ashkenazi rabbis followed the Torah’s shmita regulations to the letter.

Sephardi rabbis, as well as Zionist Ashkenazi rabbis, circumvent the rule by using a “sale permit” under which farmers sell their land symbolically to a non-Jew for the sabbatical year. The move allows the farmers to continue cultivating the land – and customers to continue purchasing agricultural products.

This year, the two chief rabbis, as well as the spiritual leader of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, ruled that farmers could indeed use the “sale permit” and continue their work during the coming sabbatical year.

Their ruling conflicted with that of the leading authority in the fervently Orthodox Ashkenazi world, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv.

When Bakshi-Doron gave farmers the green light to go ahead and work during the sabbatical year, the haredi newspaper Yated Ne’eman, leaked threats that he would be excommunicated. He and his family were also threatened with ostracism, which would have meant that no member of the haredi community could have contact with them.

The threats prompted Bakshi-Doron to meet with Katsav.

“This is a reality I cannot face,” Bakshi-Doron said. “Neither I nor my family.

“Very important and dear-to-me elements have ruled against me,” he said. “I am afraid of excommunication. I know what excommunication means, and I am afraid of it. I live within my people, and I simply cannot live with such excommunication.”

Elyashiv had also threatened that Bakshi-Doron would no longer be recognized as a rabbi if he continued to support the “sale permit” ruling, which was originally handed down some 70 years ago by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, one of the leaders of Zionist Orthodoxy.

Bakshi-Doron felt he had no choice. Despite open support from Katsav – as well as from Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who called Bakshi-Doron from New York this week – the Sephardi chief rabbi came out with a statement that gave the literal biblical interpretation of the haredi rabbis preference over the “sale permit” ruling.

His statement was perceived as a total surrender to the haredi community.

“This is yet another expression of an ongoing controversy between the haredi and Zionist rabbis,” said legislator Shaul Yahalom, a member of the National Religious Party. “The haredim are enforcing themselves on the community.”

The controversy had far-reaching economic ramifications. The haredi rabbis had threatened to revoke the kashrut certificates of all groceries, restaurants and hotels that sold any agricultural products grown during the sabbatical year. The move could have cost farmers $5 billion.

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