The True Owner of the Earth



At the dawn of human history, Hashem Elokim – the Compassionate and Just One – gave to the human being the following mandate which serves as a reminder that the human being is the custodian, and not the owner, of the earth:


Hashem Elokim took the human being and placed him in the Garden of Eden to serve it and to protect it.” (Genesis, Chapter 2:15)


Dear Friends,


Our Torah study program, “Hazon – Our Universal Vision,” has discussed the universal homecoming of all humankind to the Garden of Eden at the dawn of the messianic age. One of the roadblocks on this journey, however, is the view that the human being is the owner of the earth.  It is this view which caused the loss of the Garden in the first place, when the first human couple began to forget that the earth belongs to Hashem – the Compassionate One. They therefore began to view themselves as the owners of the earth, with the freedom to exploit everything on earth for their own selfish gratification. They felt that nothing was to be forbidden to the human being; thus, they ate the “forbidden fruit” – an act which led to the loss of the Garden. (Genesis, Chapter 3)


At Mount Sinai, we were given mitzvos – Divine mandates – which help us to realize that human beings are just the custodians and not the owners of the earth and its resources. Among the mitzvos which specifically remind us that the earth belongs to the Creator is the following land-related mitzvah regarding Shmittah – the Sabbatical Year:


“Six years shall you sow your land and gather in its produce. But in the seventh year, you shall let it go and abandon it, and the needy of your people shall eat, and the wildlife of the field shall eat what is left; so shall you do to your vineyard and your olive grove.” (Exodus 23:10,11)


Maimonides, in his classical work, “The Book of the Mitzvos,” discusses the above mitzvah, and he writes:


 “By this injunction, we are given a mandate to renounce as ownerless all produce of the land in the Shmittah Year, and to permit anybody to take what grows in our fields.” (Mitzvah 134)


A related mitzvah, writes Maimonides, is the mandate to desist from cultivating the land during the Shmittah Year (Mitzvah 135). The source for this second mitzvah is found in the following verses:


“Hashem spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you come into the land that I will give you, the land shall observe a Sabbath for Hashem. For six years you may sow your field and for six years you may prune your vineyard; and you may gather in its crop. But the seventh year shall be a complete rest for the land, a Sabbath for Hashem; your field you shall not sow and your vineyard you shall not prune.” (Leviticus 25:1-4)


Through this mitzvah, states the Talmud, Hashem is telling Israel: “Sow for six years and let go of the land in the seventh year in order that you know that the land is Mine” (Sanhedrin 39a).


Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the mitzvah of the Shmittah Year is the great act by which an entire nation proclaims Hashem as the true Owner and Master of the land. Rabbi Hirsch adds:


“By doing so, the people acknowledge that they are strangers and sojourners on their own land, dwelling on it only by the grace of the Owner. Then the arrogance that causes men, secure in their own land, to become callous and harsh in dealing with the unpropertied, melts away, yielding place to love and kindness toward the stranger and the poor. Even the wild animals, as God’s creatures, are considered endowed with rights on God’s earth, on which all are to dwell together.” (Commentary to Exodus 23:10,11)


It is written, “The land is Mine, for you are strangers and sojourners with Me” (Leviticus 25:23). With these words, say our sages, Hashem is conveying the following paradoxical message: “When it is Mine, then it will be yours” (Sifra). When we acknowledge that the land belongs to the Compassionate One, then the Compassionate One gives us the right to live in the land and to serve as its custodians.


Today, a growing number of farmers in the Land of Israel are fervently fulfilling the sacred principles and laws of the Shmittah Year. Through their observance of this mitzvah which causes them to give up their control over the land, they are proclaiming, “To Hashem belongs the earth and its fullness, the inhabited land and those who dwell in it” (Psalm 24:1). These farmers desire to gain the full spiritual benefits of the Shmittah Year; thus, they have decided not to follow the practice of other farmers who sell their land to non-Jews for the duration of the Shmittah Year so that they can farm the land and sell its produce for commercial gain. The practice of selling the land stems from the early 20th century, when a couple of leading sages, including Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, temporarily permitted this procedure as an emergency measure, as it was felt that observing the strict requirements of the Shmittah Year would endanger the survival of the struggling Jewish community in the Land of Zion. It was feared that, given the poverty and limited economic resources of that pioneering period, Jewish farmers would not be able to economically survive. Their ruling, however, was opposed by other leading sages, including “the Chazon Ish.” They argued that this ruling was a violation of both the letter and the spirit of the “halacha” – the steps on our spiritual path.


Most of the Religious Zionist communities followed the ruling of those sages that permitted the sale. The Chareidi (fervently Orthodox) communities – including older communities which preceded the secular Zionist movement – followed the ruling of those sages that would not rely on the sale. As a result, Chareidi farmers would not farm the land during the Shmittah Year. Today, a growing number of farmers and consumers from the Religious Zionist communities are joining their Chareidi brethren in the full observance of the Shmittah. They point out that Rabbi Kook’s original ruling permitting the sale was meant to be a temporary emergency measure during an earlier period of very limited economic resources; thus, they feel that this “hetter” – legal dispensation – is no longer applicable today in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). In this spirit, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a noted Talmudic scholar at Yeshiva University, writes:


“Even those gedolim (leading sages) who allowed the sale of the land for the purpose of canceling the laws of shmittah, did so only because of the unusually difficult economic circumstances then prevailing in Israel. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l (a leading sage who guided Religious Zionists in America) was of the opinion that for those living in America it is improper to use products that rely on the hetter. (This quote is an excerpt from an article which appeared on the Orthodox Union website during the previous Shmittah Year.)


On this Rosh Hashana, we begin the “Shmittah” – the Sabbatical Year! During this year, we are to allow the Land of Israel to experience its “Shabbos” – Sabbath. In the spirit of the approaching Shabbos of the Land, I would like to share with you the following story:


During the early days of the State of Israel, there was a beloved sage, Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, who was the founder and head of the Ponivez Yeshiva in Bnei Brak. Rabbi Kahaneman was aware of the difficulties facing those farmers who were striving to fully observe the Shmittah. On the eve of the Sabbatical Year, this sage traveled to Kibbutz Chafetz Chaim, a Chareidi kibbutz which was keeping the Shmittah laws, for he desired to strengthen the spirit of the farmers. He spoke to them about the holiness of this “Shabbos for Hashem” – a holiness which permeates each plant and each “boimelah” (an affectionate Yiddish term for a tree). As the Shmittah year was about to begin, he suggested that every farmer go over and wish a tree, “Good Shabbos, boimelah.”  He himself then kissed the earth and wished it a “Good Shabbos”!


May we be blessed with a Shabbos of life and shalom.

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Comments:


1. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel is one of the leading Israeli environmental organizations, and a number of years ago, they sponsored an ad in Israeli newspapers with the following heading: “The land shall not be sold permanently, as the land is Mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with Me” (Leviticus 25:23). Their use of this verse from the Torah is an indication that some Israeli environmentalists are beginning to recognize that the ultimate solution to the environmental crisis facing Israel and the world is a spiritual one. They recognize that the root cause of the destruction of the environment is the view that the human being is the owner and sovereign of the earth. They therefore cited a verse which reminds us that the Compassionate One is the Owner and Sovereign of the earth. This concept is also a major theme of the prayers which we chant on Rosh Hashana, the New Year.


2. During the Shmittah Year, the produce that grows naturally in the fields is considered to be ownerless. According to our tradition, the rabbinical courts can hire workers to gather this produce and distribute it to the public. For example, there are rabbinical courts in Israel today which hire workers – the farmers themselves – to gather the produce, and it is then distributed to the public for a low fee which covers the costs of the gathering and distribution. This not-for-profit procedure has been used by Chareidi communities, and it is now also being used by some Religious Zionists.


3. The story about Rabbi Kahaneman appears in the book “Builders” by Chanoch Teller. This book is distributed by Feldheim Publishers:   .

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