The First Shemitta, at the Time of the First Aliyah

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Fallow Shemittah Land
06 Sep 2007

Land of My Birth – Six years had passed since the beginning of the “First Aliyah” in the year 5642 (1882). And indeed a revolution had begun in the land, with the sudden appearance of several new agricultural settlements, this time belonging to Jews. The life of the first settlers was harsh and wearying, and they found it difficult to continue on their path. And now, the first Shemitta year of 5649 was fast approaching, and there was great concern: On one hand, the settlers were religious but on the other hand to observe the mitzva of Shemitta in all its detail might lead to the collapse of the settlement economy before it reached maturity. The feelings of the people were expressed very well by Mordechai Lubman, an agronomist and a teacher, in an article headed, “The Voice of the Farmer.”

“This is the voice of the farmers, who want to work and not live a life of idleness based on charity. Our eyes are lifted up to you (the rabbis), the shepherds of Yisrael! … You… within whom the love of our holy land burns as a fire. Please turn an attentive ear to all of those who work the land of Zion (the farmers) who have dedicated their lives and their wealth and favor the furrows of the land…

“We have sacrificed our souls in order to come to our land as pioneers, and to work on the holy land with the sweat of our brow… Great obstacles stood in our way at every step but we still did not despair… Until finally our land has begun to favor us and give us its produce and its fruits… And now, suddenly, a thick cloud has come to darken the skies of our hopes, the Shemitta year is approaching and with it an awesome tempest, that threatens to uproot and destroy everything we have accomplished. The sharp sword is a threat not only for us, our wives, and our children, but also for all the hopes of the settlement enterprise and its future development, threatening to expel us from the land… Are we to abandon our land, to allow the Arabs among us… to take possession and to declare: It is ours?!…

“We have faith in your great wisdom and in your love for your people and your land, and that you will advise us of a way that the land will not be taken away from its owners, G-d forbid… and that you will find a device that will allow us to stay in the land. And let there be light for all of Bnei Yisrael in their dwelling places.”

And indeed this declaration by the farmers in the settlements did not fall on deaf ears. Rabbi Shmuel Moholiver, of the Chovevei Tzion movement, met in Warsaw with two Torah leaders, Rabbi Yisrael Yehoshua Trunek and Rabbi Shmuel Klapfish, and they proposed that the work on the land could continue under the following conditions: (1) The land should be transferred in a fictitious sale to a Gentile; (2) Gentiles should perform the actual labor on the land; (3) Very poor farmers could perform their own labor on the land under special circumstances. The Sephardi Chacham Bashi and his court also accepted this solution, but the Ashkenazi rabbis continued to prohibit any labor during Shemitta.

This permission to work the land was limited, unclear, and not accepted by all the rabbis, and the settlers were left with a difficult dilemma, to decide what to do in practice. Most of the settlements accepted this ruling and acted accordingly, but people of the town of Ekron and some individual farmers in other places did not do any work at all on their land during the year of Shemitta. At first, the people of Gedeira also followed the ruling by their mentor Rabbi Y.M. Pinnes and stopped all labor on the land. But the Chovevei Tzion movement abroad threatened to stop all the support for the farmers if they did not return to work on the land, and they therefore returned to their fields. Echoes of this controversy can be seen in an article written by Dov Ariel-Leibowitz, from Gedeira.

“Some of the groups of Chovevei Tzion are complaining to us about the Shemitta, that ‘we have decided to remain idle for an entire year’… But now, to our joy, the spirit of the love of the land has appeared among the rabbis to allow us to work, and the farmers have rushed to work with enthusiasm… Our land has been plowed, the vineyard has been tilled, our garden has been planted… And it can all be credited to our scholars, who want our holy land to become established… and not to be destroyed to the foundations… and that we also should not be expelled, and our land will not become desolate but will flower and grow…”

Reprinted with permission from Zomet Institute ( Translated from the Hebrew by Moshe Goldberg. To subscribe to receive the complete version of Shabbat BeShabbato please write to

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.