Tag Archive | Torah

Shmita – The Land’s Sabbatical

Well, the year is almost over, and I’ve never blogged about Shmita (pronounced shmee-tah’).  I remember that just after Rosh Hashana, I wanted to write about it, but it didn’t end up happening.  So, what is Shmita?

The background: Every seventh year, we are required to let the land “rest”.  No farming, and no gardening, either.  In addition, everything is “hefker,” free for all.  This means that nothing belongs to anyone, and everyone can come take.  The idea is threefold:

1. Practically speaking, it is good for the land to rest a year, so that the soil does not get depleted.

2. Spiritually, it allows for everybody, once in seven years, to devote a year to spiritual and personal growth, as well as learning, instead of being focused and worried about their livelihood.

3. Perspective: It allows you to remember that what you have is not yours because you deserve it, but because you happen to have it.  By making everything free for everyone, people gain different perspective, and, I would like to think, become more friendly and more accepting towards others.  Also, poor people can take what they want and “stock up” for the next year.

This ideal works, but it is not perfectly fitted to today’s modern world, but rather to the farming society that we used to be.  Today, it’s more complicated, and many of the purposes are not realized, at least not on a national level.

So, what does Shmita mean today?

The short answer: A headache.  The long answer: A lot of things.  First of all, Shmita fruits are holy, and therefore not to be disposed of in the regular fashion.  Second of all, they are not allowed to be taken out of Israel.

If everything is holy, and you’re not allowed to farm, what do Israelis eat the entire year?  And so, there are several solutions:

1. The simplest, but not necessarily the most practical, is to import.

2. “Heter mechira”: A “loophole” in the law that says that if a Jew sells his land to a non-Jew for the duration of the year, the land is not Jewish-owned and can therefore be farmed.  This solves the problem very nicely, and in addition, the fruits are not considered holy.  Hoewver, the non-Jew is usually an Arab, and so these vegetables, as Yitzchak and I sometimes say, have blood on them.

3. “Yevul Nochri”: This is similar to heter mechira, except that the land wasn’t Jewish-owned to begin with.  In other words, instead of a Jew selling his land to an Arab for the duration of the year (kind of like we sell chametz for the week of Pesach), you are buying straight from the Arab.  This kind of vegetable is usually dirty, not good quality, and in general, not something you’d want to eat if you have a choice.  However, among many groups, it is considered the best option, and the most “mehadrin”.  These vegetables have lots of blood on them, but though we prefer not to buy them, we sometimes get stuck.  These are not considered holy and therefore no precautions need to be taken.

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A sign that says, “This field has been given over to Otzar Beit Din.”

4. “Otzar Beit Din”: Our favorite option.  Kind of complicated, and not available throughout the entire year, but the best you can get while it lasts (though there are some who disagree).  It works like this: Even if you don’t farm the land, many of the plants will continue to grow.  In addition, the farmers who own the land need to eat, and pay for their electricity, during Shmita, and while in the past, they could make do on their crops or others’ , today’s world is different.  The Beit Din makes a deal with the farmers: They pay each farmer a set stipend, and collect all the produce, selling it at a price that covers distribution costs.  This produce is considered holy, and therefore care must be taken not to waste it, not to do unreasonable things with it (like throwing, stepping on, making inedible experiments), and the peelings and other waste either get thrown in a special Shmita bin, or double-wrapped and placed gently into the regular garbage.

5. “Matza Menutak”: Plants that are not connected directly to the ground.  Examples are a greenhouse with a tarp on the floor, flowerpots, etc. “Gush Katif” is a specific type of matza menutak, and during Shmita, they export it less because there is a greater need for the products in Israel itself.

6. Produce grown in areas of Israel that were not settled, and therefore not made holy, during any of the relevant time periods.  Included in this is the Arava, Eilat, and other areas.  Vegetables grown in these areas are considered halachically, to have been grown outside Israel, and therefore can be planted, harvested, and sold as usual.  They are not considered holy.  For instance, the tomatoes that we now have are “Olei Mitzrayim,” grown in a place that those who left Egypt settled, but was not settled when the Jews came back from Bavel (Babylon).  It’s complicated.  But the tomatoes are beautiful, much nicer than the ones we had to make do with when they were Yevul Nochri.  Our sweet potatoes last week were Yevul Nochri, they were disgusting and had mold on the outsides (that disappeared after peeling), but they were all that was available.

7. “Shishit”: Produce leftover from the sixth year.

One of the problems with Shmita is that these issues continue not only during the Shmita year itself, but also during the year afterwards.  The Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana, is in the fall.  Therefore, what grew last summer and is eaten now, is “Shishit,” which, obviously, is practically gone, except maybe for the potatoes and onions.  However, the flip side is that what is growing now is “Shvi’it,” and we will still be eating it until the middle of next year (around January).  In addition, fruits are only Shvi’it if they ripen during the Shmita year.  So, as long as we are eating last year’s fruits, we are fine.  But now we are starting to see this year’s fruits, and we will continue to eat this year’s fruits well into next year.  So, we deal with Shmita issues for about a year and a half – all of the seventh year and half of the eighth.

One thing that you do not have to worry about during Shmita is t’rumot and ma’asrot: the tithes that are separated from the fruits and vegetables in Israel.  Usually, you need to check if these tithes have been taken off.  You can buy produce that was not tithed, and tithe it yourself, but it’s slightly complicated.  However, during Shmita you do not have to worry about this; all you have to worry about is that your produce has been purchased using one of the solutions mentioned above (and there are farmers who choose to ignore the commandment and keep selling as usual, just like there are farmers who choose not to tithe; although the Chief Rabbinate usually tithes everything under its supervision, there is always the option not to get supervision).  In a way it’s easier, in a way it’s harder.

Another issue with Shmita is that because there’s less to go around, the prices go up.  Oh, well.

I know I have put in a lot of Hebrew words that are not on my dictionary page; I will try to update the dictionary sometime soon.

One thing that I forgot to mention was “Shmitat Kesafim,” a monetary Shmita.  During the Shmita year, all debts are canceled, unless a document called a “pruzbul,” is signed, that allows the person to collect his debts during the Shmita year.  This document was instituted so that people would not stop lending money in the years just prior to Shmita, because they were worried that they would not be able to get it back.

Honestly, as a kid, I always thought it would be cool to live in Israel during a Shmita year.  I remember that we used to buy Gush Katif lettuce, and it was hard to get, and expensive, during Shmita.  Then, I thought it was because they weren’t supposed to be selling it; now, I realize it’s because the market for it here grows during Shmita, so they choose not to export.  I’m not sure why I thought it was cool as a kid (or a young college student; during my first Shmita here I still thought it was cool), because now it’s just a headache. Hey, I’ve been living in Israel for seven years!  I think I made aliya during the last Shmita.  Wow, that’s a looong time.

Judaism and Feminism – Opposites or Synonyms?

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Many people seem to think that Judaism is chauvinistic.

It’s not.

Judaism is, and has always been, one of the more feminist religions out there.

Some of you will disagree.  How can Judaism be feminist when polygamy is allowed and polyandry is forbidden?  How can Judaism be feminist if a husband whose wife does not want to divorce him is allowed to remarry, but a wife whose husband refuses to divorce her has no such option?

There are many questions.  I do not pretend to have all the answers.  But I will try to give some examples here.

Remember, as obvious as some of these examples are, modern feminism is only a century old, and these laws have been around for more than 3000 years.

Here are some examples solely from Jewish law:

The Jewish marriage contract is called a ketuba.  The requirement to have a ketuba is at least 2000 years old.  Jews are not allowed to get married without one.  In fact, if your ketuba is lost, it must be replaced immediately, because without it, you are not allowed to live as a couple.

What does the ketuba say?

It says that the husband is required to provide his wife with:

1) medical care if she gets sick

2) redemption if she gets captured

3) financial stability

4) clothes

5) marital relations (this is a husband’s obligation to his wife, not the other way around)

6) a certain sum of money in the event of a divorce (the sum stipulated was a very nice sum then, but not so much now; however, many will add to it)

7) food

8) to pay for her burial

9) that she will live in his house and be supported from him if she is widowed

10) that her daughters will be supported by his property after she dies and until they get engaged, and that her sons will inherit the worth of her ketuba along with their shares of his property that they split with the other sons.

In return, the wife commits:

1) not to marry anyone else

2) that she will nurse her children

3) whatever she earns or finds becomes his property (this makes sense if he has to support her – it’s not fair for him to have to pay her expenses, while she keeps all profits she earns)

4) any benefits accrued from her property (fruits, interest) become his, and he inherits her (she inherits him, too, remember).

If he cannot afford a housekeeper, she takes care of the household duties.  If he can afford a housekeeper, he is required to hire one so that his wife will not have to take care of the house (if this is what she wants; she can elect to prefer the money to the housekeeper – it is solely her choice).

In addition, there are a few things that she is required to do for him, that cannot be delegated.  For instance, in the olden days, heating water and helping him wash his hands.  Today, it would be making his favorite type of cake for his birthday.  These things are not allowed to be delegated because they fall under the category of “chiba” (affection), i.e., Judaism requires the wife to show affection for her husband in a few simple, obvious ways.

If she is not happy, she can ask for a divorce, and he is required to give it to her.  In the olden days, the courts would beat him until he agreed.  Nowadays, Jewish courts no longer have such power, and it is much more difficult.  Excommunication sometimes works, but in today’s global society, finding a different community who does not know about the excommunication is not hard at all, and therefore forcing him to give her a divorce can be very difficult.  Therefore, prenuptial agreements, that are binding in all courts of law, are becoming more popular.

In any case where one witness is allowed to testify, women are also allowed to testify.  In any case where it is safe to say that finding other witnesses is impossible, a woman is allowed to testify.

Women are allowed to charge/sue/prosecute anyone they want in court (including their husbands), no questions asked.

If someone decided to force himself on her, he is obligated to marry her (unless she doesn’t want him) and provide her with everything mentioned above.

If a man wishes to take a second wife, he has to ask his first wife’s permission (today this is less relevant, since European Jews are no longer allowed to marry more than one wife).

Women have always been allowed to agree to marriage on condition that the husband never take a second wife.

In Judaism, women have always had the right to agree to or refuse marriage, and have usually exercised that right.

Each wife, in the case of polygamy, must be provided with her own income and her own house.  A man is not allowed to keep two wives in the same house, because this causes them heartache.

If someone gave the wife money and specified that her husband has no control over it, it remains hers to do with as she pleases.

The concept of marital rape has been recognized – and forbidden – in Judaism since Mishnaic times, if not since the times of the Bible.  Prosecuting it, though, is difficult under any circumstances (in today’s courts, too).  In all books on Jewish theory and law, including the Talmud, there are very scary threats presented regarding this issue.  And bear in mind, the Talmud was – is – rarely learned by women, so these threats and scares were presented to men only.

Judaism was also the first group in the entire world to forbid people from hitting their wives.

After age 12.5, a woman is not answerable to anyone until she chooses to marry.

From Jewish Midrashic literature:

In Jewish literature, Abraham is often famed and praised for being subservient to his wife.

Scholarly women have been in evidence since Biblical times, and praised for it.  It seems that our generation is the first to not wholly recognize and praise scholarly women; this probably came about as a reaction to the “Enlightenment,” as an attempt by certain groups to fight back (unsuccessfully).

In general:

Remind me: Who has to pray with a quorum of ten three times a day?  (Men – and trust me, if you have to do this every day, and it’s not just for fun, it can be really tough, and even a drag, sometimes.  My little brother used to joke that he wished he was a girl, because girls are so lucky . . . )  And who can pray whenever they want, wherever they want, as long as they pray once a day – and even the definition of “prayer” for women changes by whether your community is of European (Ashkenazi) or Sephardic descent?  (Women.)

And who has an obligation to study Torah during the day and at night?  (Men.)

And who has to say Shema twice a day?  (Men – again.)

And who, if they so decided, could take extended parental leave and never go back to work, whether the other spouse liked it or not, and every court would support their decision?  (Women.)

See what I mean?

I know there will be a lot of questions and arguments about this post, but I think it is important to write.

Jewish women, until today’s open, equal-rights movement, have always been in an enviable position.

Judaism does not look for converts.  People, however, since Biblical times, have seen in Judaism a forward movement with respect and equal rights, and have wanted to convert.  Especially for a woman, Judaism was a very attractive option.  2000 years ago, it gave her rights that no one else gave her, and it gave her respect, as well.

Today “equality” has taken hold, and some aspects of it make Judaism look outdated.  In truth, what we call “feminism” today, I often think of as “masculinism.”  But that’s a topic for a different post.

In the meantime, know that Judaism is not nearly as bad to women as you once thought it was . . . in fact, it’s pretty darn good.