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Shabbat Parashat Ki Tavo 5781

Ask the Rabbi: Buying Land for Shemitta

Rav Daniel Mann

Question: A group provides the opportunity to buy agricultural land in Israel for the Shemitta year. Is that worthwhile?

 

Answer: We start with an overview of the agricultural mitzvot of Shemitta along with a brief analysis of the significance of obtaining land ownership

The Rambam (Lo Ta’aseh 220-223) lists four such negative commandments, about: 1) working the land; 2) tending to the trees; 3) reaping the produce in the normal way; 4) harvesting fruit of the trees in the normal way. The prohibition of working the land applies even to one who does not own the land. There is a machloket whether there is a Torah prohibition on harvesting someone else’s field (Chazon Ish, Shvi’it 12:5 is lenient; Rav Auerbach, Ma’adanei Eretz 7:4 is stringent). In any case, the reward for refraining from aveirot is a function of the availability of and the temptation toward the aveira (see Kiddushin 39b with Rashi). One who owns a distant, small piece of land is not tempted to work it. Just as we would not suggest buying a donkey and bull to refrain from plowing with them together, the above is not a reason to obtain land before Shemitta.

The positive mitzvot are more pertinent. There is a machloket Rishonim whether the positive state of cessation from working the land (Rambam, Aseh 135) is a function of an individual’s work irrespective of ownership (Rambam, Shemitta 1:1) or whether it is a landowner’s responsibility to ensure his field is not worked (Ritva, Avoda Zara 15b). A third approach holds Jews responsible to save the land from being worked, including by redeeming it from non-Jews who may work it (Netziv, Vayikra 25:4). According to the Rambam, obtaining land is not a factor in creating the positive fulfillment. According to the Ritva, buying creates an opportunity to fulfill the mitzva. According to the Netziv (whose opinion is not standard), the mitzva entails obtaining land that would otherwise be worked.

There is also a mitzva to deal properly with the fruit of trees and other things planted

before Shemitta, including treating them as ownerless (Aseh 134). While certain elements of the halachot of what to do with the fruit can also be fulfilled by non-landowners in Israel (beyond out present scope), buying a field certainly enhances the buyer’s ability to fulfill this mitzva.

Another gain of buying land is helping farmers keep Shemitta properly. Rav Kook (see his introduction to Shabbat Ha’aretz) and all other poskim who supported the heter mechira, did so for those who were unwilling or unable (without extreme financial hardship) to keep the mitzva as designed. Thus buying land from them helps interested farmers survive without needing to rely on the reluctantly provided leniencies. This is similar to giving ma’ot chitim to one who cannot afford mehadrin Pesach provisions or donating to “halachically improve” a mikveh. (One who rejects the heter mechira would view it as saving people from actual sin.) If the farmer would anyway not work the land, but with financial difficulty, buying from him is supporting a deserving person.

If one purchases the field at its value (including overhead), it is proper to not use ma’aser kesafim money, which is not for personal mitzvot one can afford (see Tzedaka U’mishpat 6:1). A donation (without buying land, or the part of the price that is beyond the land’s value) to an organization that helps farmers may be taken from ma’aser money (see ibid. 10).

While there are wonderful organizations to help with all sorts of tzedaka and mitzva needs, sometimes there are people “in the field” who plan to earn a lot of money in the process of providing a “quick mitzva fix.” We therefore recommend that one check that he is either paying a modest fee for land ownership, if those elements speak to him, or better yet, joining up with known organizations that help farmers and enhance the observance of Shemitta, with or without technically buying a small plot of land.

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