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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Israel: A shmita swindle

What is described below is a farcical swindle. It is an extension of the idea of the United States government agricultural subsidy program, which pays farmers for not growing crops on their land. With enough land that isn't growing wheat or corn, you can often make a good living. Some clever hucksters have devised the Jewish equivalent: Finding Jews in the Diaspora to buy land in Israel on which nothing is grown during a shmita - a 7th year sabbatical in which crops are not supposed to be grown. Of course, nothing is ever grown on this land - it may be a parking lot, for example.
Ami Isseroff
'Spiritual access' to Israel, in Diaspora comfort
Stewart Weiss , THE JERUSALEM POST  Oct. 20, 2007
It happens every seven years. Since biblical times, the Jewish people has been commanded to observe the unique mitzva of shmita, also known as shvi'it. Treating the land as a living thing, God ordains that we trust in Him for sustenance and allow our fields to rest once in seven years, just as we and all our belongings are to take a break each seven days.
For 2,000 years, after the destruction of Temple and the dispersion of the Jews to foreign nations, this commandment itself lay fallow. But when we began to return to our ancient land, in the late 1800s, we were given the opportunity to once again fulfill the mitzvot dependant upon living in Israel.
As with any complex commandment, there are various opinions on how best to fulfill the mitzva. Principal among the issues involved is whether Jewish land should be symbolically sold to a non-Jew in the Sabbatical year - just as hametz is sold to a non-Jew prior to Pessah - thus allowing the produce to continue to be sold and protecting the livelihood and market share of Jewish farmers.
Great rabbinic decisors such as Rabbi Elchonon Spector ruled, in the shmita of 1889, that the sale of the land is proper and necessary; Israel's first chief rabbi, Abraham Isaac Kook, re-affirmed the ruling for the shmita of 1910.
In more recent years, as Israel prospered and became less centered around agricultural activity, rabbinical voices began to argue for a more literal observance of the mitzva, preferring to use fruits and vegetables imported from abroad rather than those grown on Jewish soil.
THIS DEBATE rages on, and it is a legitimate one. But not all shmita-related endeavors are as honorable. Like the seven-year locust and the seven-year itch, bizarre schemes seem to appear every time shmita approaches.
One of the most "creative" ventures being promoted is the leasing of land which is completely unsuitable for growing any kind of produce. This may include isolated, unworked fields, swampland, desert dunes or asphalt-covered parking lots. Tiny sections of these properties are then "sold" to Jews all over the world, who receive a handsome certificate proclaiming that they, too, have now kept the mitzva of shmita by owning land in Israel on which nothing is grown.
When I first heard about this enterprise, I got a good laugh out of it. It is what we call in yeshiva-lingo a chap - a clever way of separating Jews from their money by attempting to keep the letter of the law while totally ignoring its spirit. It reminded me of a comment I once heard at a rabbinical convention to the effect that Shabbat's greatness lies in the fact that it is the one day when all Jews - across the religious and secular divide - equally observe the mitzva of tefillin!
But upon further consideration I realized that, all kidding aside, there is a twisted, even dangerous, dynamic at work here.
ISRAEL IS the homeland of the Jewish people. If you reside outside the Holy Land, you can support Israel, visit, love the country, fund Israel, cry over its agonies and exult over its triumphs. But - you cannot live here unless you actually live here.
It's OK to read Israeli newspapers in Miami, drink Carmel wine in Jo'berg, or watch Israeli shows by satellite in Melbourne or Marseilles. But telling a Jew in Brooklyn or Golders Green that he can now practice - by remote control - from the comfort of his Diaspora living room those mitzvot indigenous to the Land of Israel is beyond bad humor. It's a repudiation of the great opportunity granted to this generation: to fulfill our destiny in the land of our destiny.
Were Israel "spiritually accessible" from every corner of the globe, why would it retain an eternal holiness unmatched by any community outside its confines?
MOSES, the greatest of all Jewish leaders, was born in the Diaspora. His lifelong dream was to lead his people to the Promised Land and cross the border with them into Israel. He pleaded with the Almighty - alas, to no avail - for the privilege of spending at least one day on Jewish soil.
Moses passionately desired to make aliya not because he liked the felafel here, or because he thought the shekel would out-perform the Egyptian pound. Having kept the commandments as well as any man in history while in the wilderness, and appreciating the beauty and balm that mitzvot provide for the soul, he now wanted the chance to perform those precious laws that can be performed only within the boundaries of the Jewish homeland.
Would Moses have been satisfied with part-ownership, from afar, of a parking lot in Petah Tikva? Would he have been happy with the deed to a dune in Dimona?
If you believe that, then there's some swampland... I mean, beachfront property, that I'd sure like to sell you.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra'anana.
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