Modern-day Israel prides itself in "making the desert bloom." In recent times the land flowing with milk and honey has more resembled a vast wasteland, but the region now boasts pomegranates with exceptional flavor, massive melons, and enough flowers and produce during the winter months to earn the nickname, "Europe's greenhouse." Farming has flourished into not only an economic but also an ideological pillar of the nation's existence.
That's why a rabbinical attempt to strictly enforce this year's agricultural sabbatical-a biblical law requiring Jewish farmers to "let the land rest and lie fallow every seventh year"-has sent a wave of panic through many of the region's farmers and created a showdown between the nation's orthodox religious Zionists and ultra-orthodox Haredi.
At the center of the debate is a century-old loophole that allows Jewish farmers to "sell" their land temporarily to a non-Jew for the duration of the sabbatical, or shmita year, permitting farmers to plow, plant, and prune their fields like any other year.
But this shmita year, which began with Rosh Hashanah in mid-September, Israel's Chief Rabbinate reversed the decades-long blanket approval of these "temporary sales" and gave local rabbis the authority to refuse kosher certification at their discretion.
As local rabbis began patrolling restaurants, grocers, and hotels, refusing kosher certificates to venues with temporary-sale produce, protests erupted: Some rabbis rebelled, produce prices began to climb, and confusion set in among the devout. Eventually, the nation's High Court weighed in during a rare instance of religious intervention.
On one side of the issue are those who condone a more creative approach to interpreting biblical law. Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, says the temporary land sales are not forbidden by the Torah and compares the concept to the exchange of commodities in the business world. "I can understand how one could say that in the end you're not observing the laws of shmita because you're cultivating the land," he said. "But life is not so simple and one-dimensional."
That was the perspective of several esteemed rabbis who devised the temporary sale at the beginning of the 20th century, a time when immigrant farmers were barely making ends meet. Even today, letting the land go fallow can be detrimental, particularly for wine producers who forfeit both current-year and future profit.
But with Haredi rabbis insisting on produce grown by non-Jews, some business is deferred to Arab farmers-a kosher but controversial venture given the current political climate. And this year-unlike past shmitas-no exports are permitted from Hamas-ruled Gaza.
Religious Zionists say the ultra-orthodox have little regard for the welfare of the state, concerning themselves only with enforcing strict biblical law.
Rabbis and the devout on the other side of the debate view the agricultural sabbatical as an opportunity to acknowledge divine ownership of the land. Those who try to circumvent the law, they say, are not fooling God.
"A law is a law, not silly putty," one Jerusalem Post reader who identified himself as David from New York commented. "Either you keep the law the way it was meant to be kept . . . or abolish it!"
Efforts to bolster shmita-observing farmers include fundraising endeavors across the globe. One recent innovation is to list on eBay offers to "own" (in a temporary transaction) a plot of land in Israel with proceeds designated for farmers who strictly observe the sabbatical.
Almost 2,500 farmers in 100 settlements across Israel observed the previous shmita, according to one farming organization, and numbers are expected to be higher this sabbatical year.
Other efforts to adhere to stricter shmita interpretations include farming in raised beds, a pricey but growing enterprise approved just weeks prior to the start of the Jewish New Year.
Since many Israelis are non-observant Jews, they are simply trying to find fresh produce at a reasonable price. Others are befuddled by the details, entangled in discussions about how much water to give houseplants, and when-if at all-it's permissible to mow the lawn.
The Israeli High Court added some clarity to the matter last month by ruling on the side of the farmers: Local rabbis are now required to deem kosher all temporary-sale produce. But as the ultra-orthodox slowly acquiesce, even the experts lack true clarity: "I'm a professor of Jewish law, and I work in Jewish law all the time," Emory professor Michael Broyde said. "But I couldn't possibly write a cohesive 1,000-word explanation of what's going on."
"It's not easy to always maintain and adhere to the biblical laws in a modern age and very complicated society," noted Herring, one of the leading rabbinical authorities in the United States. "As we interpret Jewish law, it's a living process." Herring is hesitant to condone the word "circumvent" when describing the process, but acknowledges the concept. "It's a loaded word, although I think I may have used it."