Bnei Brak – A massive celebratory parade, blessings from the most senior haredi rabbis in the world, and public adulation from thousands of people were the reward on Wednesday for farmers and farm workers who fully observed the laws of the Sabbatical shmita year, which ends on Sunday night as Rosh Hashana begins.
In their honor, thousands of haredi men, women and children took to the streets of Bnei Brak to celebrate those farmers who decided not to do any agricultural work during the 5775 shmita year.
The overwhelming majority of farms in Israel, however, made use of a leniency in Jewish law, known as “heter mechira” and sanctioned and run by the Chief Rabbinate, which permits agricultural work to be continued.
Amid jubilant scenes in the Bnei Brak, located to the east of north Tel Aviv, tractors and other agricultural vehicles drove down the central thoroughfares of the haredi city, Jewish music blared, as people danced, sang along and cheered for the farmers who have survived the year without income from their produce.
People even requested blessings from the farmers who desisted from work, celebrated as “Mighty Men of Power” by the Talmud and the parade organizers.
The most senior rabbis in the Ashkenazi haredi world, including Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman and Rabbi Haim Kanievsky, sent their blessings to the farmers, although they were not present at the event. Shteinman is 103 years old, frail and in poor health.
Rabbi Yitzhak Zilberstein, a senior figure in the haredi rabbinic leadership, visited Rabbi Shteinman at his Bnei Brak home and received a blessing for the farmers from the elderly rabbi.
“[Shmita] is a sublime commandment which raises the stature of farmers, and God willing, the Almighty will merit us with being able to keep the shmita as a full Torah commandment,” said Rabbi Shteinman.
The haredi rabbinic leadership has always rejected the leniency, or what it sees as a loophole, and therefore calls for farmers to observe the shmita fully and cease all agricultural work.
The organizers of the parade, Keren Hashviis, provides funds for farmers who do not work the land, in order to cover the loss of their entire annual income.
The organization said that the cost of this support for the outgoing shmita year was some $22.5 million, although until August it was still $4m. short of this target.
Keren Hashviis said that in total 33,000 hectares of land, or 81,500 acres, were left fallow this shmita year, and some 3,500 farmers ceased their work.
According to the ministries of Agriculture and Religious Services, approximately 200 farms totally ceased agricultural work during the shmita year, or made use of another alternative, while 4,656 farms signed up to the heter mechira system.
A spokesman for Keren Shviis said that while the government ministries work with one representative per farm, the organization works with and provides financial support to all farmers working on the farm in question.
He also said that some farming communities that leave the land totally fallow are not registered with the relevant government ministries.
“When we pray on Rosh Hashana for us to be written in the Book of Merit, we all have in mind you the farmers who sacrificed themselves in order to fulfill the [commandments of the] shmita year,” United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni told the farmers.
“You are the ‘mighty ones of power’ of the Jewish people and your merit protects us all,” he declared.
On Wednesday morning, organizers feared that the bad weather and the sandstorm that have engulfed the region since Tuesday could lead to the parade being canceled, but the Health Ministry and the police eventually gave their approval to stage the event.
Observing shmita is given such a lofty status in Jewish law because it requires faith in God that the sixth year will be abundant enough to sustain the people during the seventh year, which is supposed to be dedicated to national introspection, improvement, and Torah study.
The haredi rabbinic leadership has always rejected what it sees as a loophole found by rabbis in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to allow agricultural work to continue by symbolically selling the land to non-Jews.
At the time, Jewish agriculture in Mandatory Palestine, the main economic support of the early Zionist pioneers, would not have been viable if the land would have had to remain fallow for an entire year. Proponents of the heter mechira system, including those from the national-religious sector, insist that even today ceasing all agricultural work would render Israeli agriculture uncompetitive.