By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
According a July 2012 release from government watchdogs, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) had allocated millions of dollars in subsidies to farms on which farming was not actually taking place. Billions more have gone towards supporting farms that do not grow the crops for which they were supposedly being subsidized. According to the GAO’s analysis, about 2,300 farms, or about 0.15 percent of the 1.6 million farms receiving direct payments in 2011, reported all their land as fallow, that is, those farmers did not plant any crops of any type on their lands, for the previous 5 years, as allowed under the farm bill. These 2,300 farms received a total of almost $3 million in direct payments in 2011. In addition, according to an analysis of the USDA data, 622 farms reported all of their farm’s acreage as fallow for each of the previous 10 years (2002–2011).
So, if you have a large backyard, preferably with no crops growing in it, maybe you are also entitled to have it subsidized by the federal government as fallow farmland! (Contact your local farm service agency).
Rabbi Binyamin Mendelsohn was born in 1904. As a chassid of Rabbi Avrohom Mordechai Alter, zt’l (1866–1948), third Gerer Rebbe and author of Imrei Emes, he was directed to settle in then Palestine in 1934. Upon arrival, he was elected rav of Kfar Atta. In 1952, he assumed the rabbinate in Komemiyut. Following the directions of Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz, zt’l (1878–1953), revered author of Chazon Ish, Rabbi Mendelsohn assumed the leadership in campaigns for observance of Shemittah, the Sabbatical year in which the Torah mandates farmland to be left fallow, and all agricultural activity, including plowing, planting, pruning, and harvesting, is forbidden by halachah.
Organized immediately after the establishment of the State of Israel, Keren Hashviis has created a revolution in Shemittah observance. Keren Hashviis was under the direction of Rabbi Mendelsohn zt’l, and is now led by his son, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Mendelsohn, rav of Komemiyut. The continued cumulative growth of Shemittah observance in modern times is simply astounding. In contemplation of 5715 (2014–2015), more than one third of privately owned farmland in Israel will be in full observance of Shemittah laws. All this under the auspices of the Keren Hashviis organization.
The budget for Keren Hashviis has grown to $22.5 million. While the phenomenal growth of Shemittah observance is heartwarming, there is a cost attached to its mitzvah observance. The capacity for growth in Shemittah observance in Eretz Yisrael is greatly enabled by the support of the entire Jewish community everywhere.
Contemporary Shemittah History
With the approach of the 5600 (1899–1900) Shemittah year, Rabbi Yaakov Dovid Wilovsky, zt’l (1845–1914), Slutzker Rav and author of Ridvaz who settled in Tzefat, called upon all farmers to ignore all difficulties and to observe Shemittah. He issued this call on the basis of his fervent belief that this observance will hasten the Redemption. He also composed a special work, called the Beis HaRidvaz, where he clarified the pertinent laws and issued practical instruction in Shemittah observance. Unfortunately, only few individuals heeded his call.
After 1900, the economic situation thinned further out the already thin ranks of Shemittah observers. For almost four Shemittah cycles, the bulk of the farmers relied on various halachic leniencies to continue working the land. This changed dramatically with the arrival in Eretz Yisrael of the Chazon Ish in 1933. He devoted a great deal of his time, energy, and effort to reestablish Shemittah observance on a popular basis. He labored to define applicable laws, made an effort to find practical solutions to each situation and for each form of agricultural work and each kind of crop. He issued rulings, both for those who were willing to observe Shemittah without any reservations and for those who could do so on the basis of certain leniencies that were halachically confirmed by the Chazon Ish.
The first pioneers of communal Shemittah observance were the Machaneh Yisroel settlement, the Agudah youth movement village in Kfar Saba, and the Kibbutz Chofetz Chaim in Gedera. The decision to observe Shemittah was announced at the third Knessiah Gedolah Convention of the World Agudath Israel in 1936 at Marienbad by the Eretz Yisrael delegation, prominently led by Rabbi Yosef Zvi Dushinsky, zt’l (1876–1948), Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem.
The level of Shemittah observance was consistent until the 5733 (1972–3) Shemittah year. That year was a turning point. Rabbi Mendelsohn led the Komemiyut settlement in meticulous observation of Shemittah and succeeded in influencing and encouraging additional farmers to embrace Shemittah observance. He marshaled new farming technologies and techniques that facilitated farmers to observe Shemittah.
On the eve of the 5740 (1979–80) Shemittah year, Rabbi Mendelsohn founded the National Center for Shemittah-Observing Farmers and had agricultural experts travel to agricultural settlements, without regard to their political affiliation and, as a result, more than 1,300 additional farmers came to observe Shemittah.
New York Meeting
On Thursday, February 27, almost 200 community rabbis convened in the huge Palace hall in Brooklyn to hear Rabbi Menachem Mendel Mendelsohn described efforts currently under way in preparation of increased Shemittah observance. The anticipated numbers are as follows: 700 settlements, 5,500 Jewish farmers, and 361,836 acres are anticipated participating in the coming Shemittah. Keren Hashviis presently faces a shortfall of more than $7 million that is needed to pave the way for those farmers in Israel desiring to fully observe Shemittah.
Unfortunately, farmers in Israel whose lands lie fallow are unable to collect subsidies from the American government. It is the American Jewish community that must extend help so that Shemittah can, and will, be fully observed. v
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the Rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and Director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. Rabbi Tannenbaum can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.