Living Shmittah

I realize that most people outside of Israel do not think about Shmittah on a regular basis, but to the Israeli farmer this word has been on his forehead for two years. There was getting the field ready before Shmittah – which was a tremendous amount of work. An extra amount of planting was done before Shmittah and the farmer spent a lot of time making sure his fields would be able to make it “on their own” during the entire year. Many people have commented that this year, in Israel, it rained much more than in previous years – even raining after Pesach and Shavuot! To the Shmittah farmer this was not surprising at all because although watering the fields is permitted (since that merely keeps the trees alive) the farmer tends to water much less in order to follow the Halacha of not improving the trees. Therefore, Hashem Himself sends additional rain during Shmittah to make sure the trees are well cared for! This is not a “bubba-mayseh”… this is 100% true. Ask anyone in Israel and they will tell you how much rain fell this year – all because of Shmittah.

During the actual year of Shmittah, not only is planting forbidden but anything that helps a tree grow is forbidden as well. The main task that cannot be done is pruning which means that trees in Israel look like guys who haven’t taken a haircut or shaved in a year… no joke! There are weeds growing everywhere and the tree is wild. Usually, when you visit a vineyard, for example, the trees are very neat and form a “V” like shape. During a regular year the farmer is busy trimming, cutting and shaping the tree so that it produces fewer, yet sweeter and larger, fruit. During Shmittah the farmer cannot do these tasks and the trees are big, bushy and quite wild looking. Believe it or not, because the trees have not been pruned, Shmittah vines produce 20 times the amount of grapes! While this sounds great to me and you, it is not such great news for the farmer. First of all, he cannot do any business with these fruits as they carry the sanctity of Shmittah with them and are called “Kedushat Sh’vi’it”. Secondly, because there are so many grapes, they tend to be much smaller and not as sweet as the farmer would like. Most of these grapes rot on the tree and are not used at all, although some of them are used to produce very special “Kedusha Sh’vi’it” wine which – according to the Ramban – fulfills a Torah mitzvah with every drink!

Like I wrote before, most of us don’t think much about Shmittah but the Israeli farmer is living and breathing this for a very long time. One of those farmers is a man named Menachem Livni, with whom I visited last week. Menachem has a farm near Kiryat Arba called Sde Calev, the Field of Calev (ben Yefuneh). As you know, Calev was one of the good spies – from this week’s parsha! When Calev entered the land of Israel he immediately went to Hebron to pray and the Tanach states very clearly that regarding the area around Hebron; “the fields of the city and its villages were given to Calev ben Yefuneh” (Divrei Ha’Yamim I, chapter 6 verses 40-41). The land that Menachem has his field was purchased by Jews in 1936 but was untouched for many years until he redeemed it and brought it back to life!

In these fields, Menachem grows grapes and 7 different kinds of cherries. From the grapes, he produces 5 unique wines that are sold under the “Livni Winery” name. He took me through his fields and, as stated above, they were indeed quite overgrown and wild. He showed me the tremendous amounts of grapes growing on the vines and I easily noticed how small they were. He then took me into his cherry orchard and explained the different kinds of cherries that grow there. I asked if I could eat some and he said that I don’t need his permission since during Shmittah his fields are “hefker” and therefore anyone can take the fruit. This is what I call living the Torah as opposed to just learning the Torah! For many years I learned that Shmittah fields are hefker but I was now living this in real time! I picked the cherries and… another halacha came into play. Normally, all fruits taken in Eretz Yisrael must have Terumot and Ma’asrot separated but during Shmittah this does not apply so – once again – I lived the halacha with a beautiful, first-hand experience! I munched on these delicious cherries and took a bunch home for my kids. I told my children that these cherries cannot be thrown out or discarded in any way since they have the Kedusha of Shmittah on them so we were careful to eat each and every one!!

My farmer friend, Menachem, is a very unique individual. He began this farm in 1980 and has literally risked his life many times to keep this farm going. His farm is totally surrounded – on all sides – by Arab villages and these Arabs have tried killing him 10 times. Yes, 10 different times. He told me incredible stories of how his life was saved with open miracles in each of those 10 times. In addition to attacking him physically, the Arabs regularly attack and attempt to destroy his fields. They have burned many of his trees and just 2 weeks ago threw several Molotov cocktails (which are gasoline bombs) at his storage and work facility inside the field. This facility has been destroyed – and rebuilt – 3 times in the last 8 months by Menachem and his family. His dedication and self-sacrifice is simply second-to-none and I enjoyed every minute spent in his presence.

Menachem Livni is just one of hundreds of Israeli farmers who do much more than observe Shmittah… these heroes live Shmittah! Just as our entire life is centered around Shabbat, their entire life is centered around Shmittah and talking to these amazing people gives me such energy that I cannot even begin to describe. These simple Jews take the words of the Torah and bring them to life with the sweat of their brow. They work the land, guard it and make it produce delicious fruits that allow us the ability to make brachot and Kiddush Friday night!! May Hashem protect them and bless their holy work.