From Flatbush to Ra’anana


This year, I began learning on Zoom with a friend from Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood and an oleh living in Ra’anana. Searching for a topic that might appeal to everyone, I suggested Rav Kook’s introduction to Shabbat Ha’Aretz, in which he explains the deeper purpose of Shemitta. The conversation went something like this:

Reuven: What do you think – should we learn about Shemitta?

Flatbush: Yeah, I’ve been seeing ads asking for money to help the Israeli farmers for the last six months.

Ra’anana: We’ve been wondering what Shemitta will be like this year. Last time we only bought our fruits and vegetables from one store in the neighborhood.

Flatbush: One store? That’s crazy! Why?

Ra’anana: It was the only store that sold produce grown in a place that wasn’t part of biblical Israel and so the laws of Shemitta didn’t apply to that produce. That way, we got around the whole problem.

Flatbush: Last year, we rented a bit of land in Israel through Keren Hashviis to keep Shemitta ourselves by not working the land we rented. What else is there to know?

Reuven: Rav Kook had a lot to say about the meaning of Shemitta for us and the entire world; he believed Shemitta is our nation’s love song to its Land! He wrote this book while he was the Rav of Yafo and the surrounding agricultural communities.

Flatbush: What does this have to do with those of us who don’t live in Israel?

Reuven: It has everything to do with us! Rav Kook believed that the Zionist pioneers returning to the Land were not just people who needed a place to live and make a living. They were a sign that the Jewish people were coming back to life, to live in their ancestral land. Hashem’s plan, and the purpose of His covenant with our forefathers, was to create a holy nation – with police officers, soldiers, farmers, doctors (and even lawyers!) – that would serve Him in the Holy Land. Shemitta is also a sign our nation is being reborn.

Flatbush: What’s the difference between that and Flatbush?

Reuven: In Flatbush, we’re loyal citizens of the United States, but it’s not truly our country. Israel was promised to our forefathers, and there is a fulfillment of that promise in every part of life. It’s an organic connection between body and soul.

Ra’anana: It’s different in Israel; Judaism doesn’t feel like an artificial appendage here.

Flatbush: Are we still talking about Shemitta?

Ra’anana: Yeah, I thought we would talk about the heter mechirah, where we sell the Land like chametz so it can still be worked during Shemitta.

Flatbush: Are you kidding, like Pesach?

Ra’anana: Some people accept the sale and some don’t. That’s why they try to raise money for the farmers who won’t rely on this leniency.

Flatbush: Shouldn’t they stop farming on Shemitta? That’s the law, right?

Reuven: Ideally, yes, but not everyone would or could. When Rav Kook was the Chief Rabbi of Yafo, the early kibbutzim and moshavim had a problem. Shemitta was coming and the pioneers were simply too poor to stop farming. Some money was collected to support them, but it wasn’t enough. If all of the farmers stopped working, would this new Yishuv survive? Would people starve? Rav Kook explained that the exile had made the Land and our people fragile. We are living in historic times when our nation and our Land are in the process of returning to their full strength. And so, for now, we must rely on the heter mechirah.

Flatbush: I still can’t understand why this is ok. I can’t sell my business on Shabbat, even if it’s hard to make a living!

Reuven: But you can drive on Shabbat or call Hatzalah if someone’s life is in danger. Rav Kook saw the flowering of the Land and its settlers and concluded that during this time, when we’re still a shadow of our former selves, we need to rely on this leniency. In the future, the Land and the people will grow and fully come back to life, and they will keep Shemitta together. 

Rabbi Reuven Boshnack is the co-director of OU-JLIC at Brooklyn College with his wife for the last 13 years. He received his semicha from RIETS, and holds a Masters in Education and a Masters in Mental Health Counseling. A talmid of Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, he has taught Chassidut, Jewish thought and Jewish Law for the last 20 years in Brooklyn and Boca Raton. Rabbi Boshnack has written three books on Jewish thought, on the writings of the Sfat Emet, the Izhbitzer and the Maharal.

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