Saturday, January 19, 2008

Gaming the farm program: In the beginning....

As negotiators work to make payment rules we sneaky farmers can't (with ample professional help) subvert, we could be simply echoing ancient rituals from
very, very early "farm programs".
Shmita (Hebrew: שמיטה, literally "release"), also called the Sabbatical Year, is the seventh year of the seven-year agricultural cycle mandated by the Torah for the Land of Israel.

During Shmita, the land is left to lay fallow and all agricultural activity—including plowing, planting, pruning and harvesting—is forbidden by Torah law. Other cultivation techniques—such as watering, fertilizing, weeding, spraying, trimming and mowing—may be performed as a preventative measure only, not to improve the growth of trees or plants. Additionally, any fruits which grow of their own accord are deemed hefker (ownerless) and may be picked by anyone. A variety of laws also apply to the sale, consumption and disposal of Shmita produce.

A second aspect of Shmita concerns debts and loans. When the Shmita year starts, personal debts are considered nullified and forgiven.

The Book of Leviticus promises bountiful harvests to those who observe the shmita and makes observance a test of religious faith.

The rabbis of the Talmud and later times interpreted the Shmita laws in various ways to ease the burden they created for farmers and the agricultural industry. The Heter Mechirah (leniency of sale), developed for the Shmita year of 1888-1889, permitted Jewish farmers to sell their land to non-Jews so that they could continue to work the land as usual during Shmita. This temporary solution to the impoverishment of the Jewish settlement in those days was later adopted by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel as a permanent edict, generating ongoing controversy between Zionist and Hareidi leaders to this day.[1]

The current Shmita year began on Rosh Hashanah of the Hebrew year 5768, and extends until 29 Elul 5768 (September 13, 2007-September 29, 2008). (However, fruits which are harvested in the spring and summer of 2008 must be treated as Shmita produce well into the first year of the new agricultural cycle.) [
Seemingly arbitrary rules deigned for religious or (in our case, political reasons with economic pretensions) are tough to enforce at the lowest level. The belief in enforcement without full buy-in by the people involved is, I think, proving to be ill-founded. Despite setbacks here and abroad individual freedom and empowerment are on the rise, and both the size of populations and technology (abetted by no small amount of truculence) has made the threat of punishment pretty laughable.
Shmita occurs every seventh year, as a kind of sabbatical for the land, and it is mandated in the Torah. In Exodus 23:10-11, for instance, shmita precedes the injunction for individuals to rest on the seventh day. “Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its produce, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave, the beasts of the field may eat. In like manner you shall do with your vineyard and your olive grove.”

That presumably worked fine in a primitive economy before decent fertilizer, but shmita presented problems for the new Jewish state. Zionism was founded on the notion of a return to the land, but a modern country cannot live on what falls to the ground.

So respected rabbis from both the Ashkenazic and the Sephardic communities compromised. Charged with interpreting religious law, or halacha, they devised the “heter mechira,” or sale permit, which allows Jews to temporarily “sell” their land to non-Jews for the shmita year, so the land may be cultivated.

It is similar to the practice during Passover, when lawyers do a big business “selling” leavened products to non-Jews, so they need not be discarded.

In largely Arab East Jerusalem, the manager of Jafar’s Super Market and Sweets describes shmita this way: “It’s all about fooling the man upstairs.”[More]
I have written about the hypocrisy of soon-to-be-meaningless refuge rules and as I suspected, farmers are already validating the illogic with their planters.

The principle lesson here (IMHO) is that few laws work well all of the time. Which is why we need fewer laws.

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