‘7th year shall be a Sabbath,’ except …

Marketplace Staff Oct 22, 2007

‘7th year shall be a Sabbath,’ except …

Marketplace Staff Oct 22, 2007


KAI RYSSDAL: Agriculture policy is tough enough in any case. All those subsidies and crop quotas and all that stuff. But try this one for just a second. What if every seven years farmers just stopped farming. Took a nice, long break. Let their land lie fallow for a whole year. Just such an agricultural sabbatical began recently in Israel. From Jerusalem, Daniel Estrin reports the devil is in the details.

DANIEL ESTRIN: The instructions come straight from the Bible. . . . Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein flips right to the verse: Leviticus 25.

Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein: [Estrin voiceover] Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather in the produce thereof. But in the seventh year shall be a Sabbath of rest for the land…

Feuerstein: And that’s a fantastic vision — to rest and to leave the normal, secular life, vocational life, for more spirituality. Let the business life rest.

ESTRIN: But people need to eat and farmers need to make money.

So, the main solution involves a sleight of hand. The Israeli farmer sells his land to a non-Jew with the understanding that he buys it back in one year. That way the Israeli farmer continues to work the land, except technically it isn’t his anymore and so he isn’t violating the Biblical law. Jews have been doing this for a century. But many ultra-orthodox Jews, like this one who shops in Jerusalem’s outdoor market, say this is a sham.

ULTRA ORTHODOX MAN [voiceover]: You sell it to a non-Jew, so it supposedly belongs to the non-Jew. But the land, is it really yours or not yours? There is deception in this.

Instead, the ultra-Orthodox have stocked about three months worth of provisions. And they plan to import food from Jordan and the West Bank. That infuriates other religious Jews, including Rabbi Feuerstein.

FEUERSTEIN: Israel is a state in war. You cannot say today, you know, let’s destroy the agriculture in Israel, and let’s bring everything from outside. What will happen if we are in war, and the Jordanians won’t give us the vegetables which are grown there. What then?

But people want their local greens. So, farmers have come up with another solution. One that lets them keep their land and grow on it during the fallow 7th year. Agronomist Arik Orlov:

ARIK ORLOV: OK, the deal is, here, we plant it on perlite, as you see.

ESTRIN: So how many plants total?

ORLOV: Millions, millions, I don’t know. Millions.

On a kibbutz bordering the Gaza Strip, Orlov oversees rows and rows of dill, celery, spinach and lettuce. But here’s the thing, they’re all in pots. The pots stand on plastic sheets. And the soil in the pots is artificial. Since nothing’s growing in Israeli soil, the rabbis gave their stamp of approval.

ORLOV: OK, so, first of all, the land here doesn’t work. You can see, we have plastic.

ESTRIN: And so all this plastic is to prevent one drop of water to get into the land.

ORLOV: Yeah, absolutely.

Rabbis approved the “detached planting” technology just a few months ago, Orlov says, and it’s been a scramble to get the operation up and running.

ORLOV: It’s a year of atraf . . . Craziness.

His land may be resting this year, but Arik Orlov is working as hard as ever.

In Jerusalem, I’m Daniel Estrin for Marketplace.

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