It’s that time of year again in the Jewish State. An entire industry has shut down, workers are refraining from taking up their posts, and their tools and machinery lie about idly gathering dust.
But this is not your typical Israeli labor strike or trade union walkout. Rather, it is something far more profound and meaningful—it is shemittah year, the Sabbatical ordained by the Torah, when the Land of Israel must lie fallow.
Unfortunately, in our hi-tech, computer-saturated, broadband society, the concept of desisting from cultivating the earth for an entire year just doesn’t seem to resonate as much as it once did. After all, when was the last time you picked up a plow?
But for people such as Ariel Porat, a forty-five-year-old an observant Jewish farmer, the arrival of the shemittah year could not be more germane, for his livelihood depends on his fields and what grows in them. To abstain from tilling the land for an entire year presents him with a formidable challenge.
“You have to really work for the first six years in order to prepare for shemittah in the seventh,” Porat says. “[It’s] just like you begin preparing for Shabbat early in the week. It is something that you have to plan ahead for, and not wait until the last minute in order to find a solution.”
Born and raised in Strasbourg in northeastern France, Porat is not your archetypal Israeli farmer. He first went to Israel at the age of eighteen via the Bnei Akiva youth movement’s Hachshara program. “I made aliyah for ideological reasons, for Zionist reasons and because I wanted to be a farmer so that I could work the Land of Israel,” Porat recalls. “My idea of Zionist fulfillment and of loving the land is essentially to work as a farmer and toil its earth.”
After living in the Golan Heights for a year, Porat completed his army service and then spent time as a Bnei Akiva emissary in Paris before returning to Israel in 1985. Together with his new wife, he moved to Moshav Gadid in Gush Katif, and began working as a farmer, fulfilling his dream. He has been working the land ever since.
Porat acquired fifty dunams of land at the moshav, where he opened hothouses to grow various types of vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, celery and cabbage. Seven years ago, he added a nursery where he began producing seedlings to sell to other farmers.
After Israel expelled all of Gush Katif’s Jewish residents in August 2005, Porat moved to Kibbutz Ein Tzurim, a religious community numbering more than one hundred families in the northern Negev. He currently leases land from Kibbutz Massuot Yitzhak, where he grows a variety of vegetables and spices. In addition, he maintains his seedling nursery, which he brought with him from Gush Katif.
Porat’s operation is certainly labor-intensive. He has thirty people working with him, half Israeli and half foreign. Every morning, Porat attends Shacharit at six AM and then proceeds directly to the hothouses and nurseries. He also contends with office matters and paper work; his typical workday usually ends late in the evening.
Asked how he plans to cope with the requirements of shemittah, Porat says he first wishes to explain his understanding of the Torah’s commandment. “I believe that shemittah served as a kind of social or economic regulator, one that lowered the level of competition and restrained the wild pursuit of materialism,” he suggests. “We need to revive that in modern society….Things are not like they were in the past, when most of the nation engaged in agriculture,” he muses. “Since farmers have now become a small minority, we need to find a way [to] enable shemittah to serve its regulatory function again in society.”
According to Porat, the restrictions of shemittah generally raise three crucial problems for farmers. First, he says, is the obvious issue of a farmer’s parnassah (livelihood). During shemittah, it is forbidden to work the land or to sell its produce, which serves as the basis for the farmer’s income.
Second is the question of what he refers to as “marketing continuity,” or maintaining an ongoing relationship with his customers. “The connection with the client is gone for the year, and then it becomes more difficult to reinstate it twelve months later,” he says.
Finally, there is the issue of supplying the demands of the market. “The public is looking for products, for food to eat, and this, of course, is problematic,” Porat says.
Porat’s solution to these challenges is to rely on some of the more inventive technological advances of recent decades. In particular, he makes use of hydroponics, a method for growing plants in a soil-less environment. In effect, plants are raised in a mineral-nutrient solution contained in vessels. Thus, plants are grown in vessels rather than in the ground.
“In the nursery, all of our seedlings are grown using hydroponics, as are all the vegetables in our hothouses,” Porat says. “This way, we can meet all the demands of shemittah while continuing to sell produce.”
Porat receives halachic guidance and advice from Machon HaTorah VeHaAretz (Institute for Torah and Land), a recognized authority on Jewish law and agricultural issues. Thus, for example, he must ensure that the vessels used to grow the plants meet certain criteria. The Institute, he says, provides him with detailed lists of what is acceptable.
Porat believes that hydroponics, when applied in accordance with halachah, provide an excellent solution to the challenges posed by shemittah. While hydroponics is considered an advanced agricultural technique, it is relatively easy to upgrade ones hothouses so that they function in accordance with halachah,” he says.
As a veteran farmer, Porat knows of what he speaks; this is the third shemittah of his agricultural career, which began shortly after he returned to Israel in the mid-eighties. During his first shemittah in Israel, he grew only half his produce using hydroponics. He later decided to adopt the technique and apply it to all of his agricultural pursuits. “I became convinced that hydroponics provided an ideal solution—a national solution” to the challenges presented by shemittah, Porat says.
Working slowly but methodically, he gradually transformed his entire means of production so that by the time the next shemittah came around again, all of his crops were grown using hydroponics.
Other farmers, he recalls, were somewhat more hesitant to “bet the farm,” so to speak, but Porat saw himself as a bit of pioneer.
Porat is a big believer in embracing new technologies and putting them to work on behalf of timeless principles. He mentions, by way of example, innovative methods of storage that have been developed outside of Israel that enable items such as white cabbage to be stored for up to a year without any detrimental effects. This new procedure would allow cabbage grown during the sixth year of the shemittah cycle to be stockpiled for use in the seventh.
We are living in an age when there are numerous additional possibilities, Porat declares, insisting that, “it is only a matter of time until we, too, begin to apply these technologies.” Porat notes “more and more cities in Israel are trying to adhere to the laws of shemittah, and a greater number of retail chains are selling produce that was grown in accordance with these laws.”
“It is all about supply and demand, and there does seem to be greater awareness among consumers about the issue, and hence more demand for produce that was grown in accordance with the halachot of shemittah,” Porat adds.
“The growing public awareness and interest in shemittah embodies, I believe, our national awakening and our coming redemption as a nation and as a people,” says Porat. “And that is surely a good sign.”
Mr. Freund served as an aide in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office to former premier Binyamin Netanyahu. He is currently chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), a Jerusalem-based group that assists “lost Jews” seeking to return to the Jewish people.