Heter Mekhira – Shmita Sale Permission 1929
This legal document is a heter mekhira issued by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel in 1929 on the eve of the shnat shmita, the sabbatical year. The document was printed with the permission of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, and the text states that all signatories agree to sell their land and trees. At the bottom of the document is space for landowners to sign that they agree to the sale and the conditions contained within the document.
The sabbatical year takes place once every seven years, during which landowners have a biblical obligation to leave the land fallow for the whole year. A number of reasons are given for this biblical law including: the need to give the land a year’s rest and the requirement to remember that the land belongs to God.
Since farmers were thus presented with a dilemma between observing the shmita year or ensuring that agricultural industry continues in Israel, leading rabbis came up with a compromise which allowed working the land while still observing Jewish law. This compromise – the heter mekhira – permits the sale of the land to a non-Jew for the year-long period, thus allowing work to continue since the laws of shmita do not apply to land owned by non-Jews.
There were a number of arguments against this halakhic solution, and the debate continues today with a large majority of the Haredi world refusing to purchase produce grown accordingly. Opponents point to the biblical prohibition to sell Israeli land to non-Jews and to the fact that the sale is a legal fiction, since the purchaser has no intention of holding onto the land for longer than a year. The heter mekhira is, nonetheless, relied on by the majority of the religious community in Israel.
Connection to Parashat Mishpatim
Even though Parashat Mishpatim is primarily associated with laws between fellow humans, the last section deals with festivals and the shmita year. This is the first time that shmita is mentioned in the Torah, even though it is subsequently repeated several times.
This heter mekhira contract is an example of biblical laws that still affect life in Israel today.
Jewish Studies teachers can use this resource to discuss the sabbatical year laws and their ongoing relevance in the twenty-first century.
Higher classes can also use this resource in Jewish Studies to discuss the intersection between a modern economy and religious laws and how far a modern country needs to be flexible to allow for religious observance.
Jewish History and Geography teachers can compare the laws of shmita with the medieval European custom of leaving a portion of the land lying fallow.
What is this document?
When was the document written?
Who wrote this document?
What special year does the document refer to?
Reading Between the Lines
Who was this document relevant to?
Why do you think that this compromise, the heter mekhira, was only devised in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century?
Do all orthodox Jews accept the heter mekhirah?
What is the reason for the biblical laws of the sabbatical year?
Is keeping the sabbatical year relevant in twenty-first century Israel?
What, in your opinion, is the best way to keep the sabbatical year in a modern economy?
If you were a farmer, would you follow these laws? Why or why not?
Find out more about how the sabbatical year affects the Israel economy.
The idea of the sabbatical year causes controversy among Haredi Jews, modern-orthodox Jews, and secular Jews in Israel.
After learning about the different aspects of the shmita year hold a debate about its place in modern society.