Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

4 Nissan 5761 - March 28, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Produced and housed by
Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
The Heter Mechirah Debate / Can Good Come from Evil?

By Rav Nosson Zeev Grossman

Recently we have been reading in Yated Ne'eman about the strange and infuriating battle people within the Chief Rabbinate have been waging on behalf of those who are marketing sefichin products according to the heter mechirah. Many of us have been shocked and bewildered by this strange phenomenon. It goes without saying that, as far as we are concerned, even if no alternative goods would be available, there is no justification for distributing forbidden produce which causes the masses to sin. However, in this case, where permitted produce can easily be obtained, it would seem that the advocates of the heter mechirah are motivated by some bizarre "principles," which contain an element of lehach'is, chas vesholom, and this hurts us even more.

@Big Let Body=We can learn a lot by looking back and analyzing how matters have deteriorated over the last 110 years. The heter, given originally as a temporary measure based on pikuach nefesh and hedged with many restrictions became, in succeeding shmittah years, a totally invalid "wholesale permit." In practice, this absurd technique (as the gedolim called it in their letter this shmittah year) originally did away with shmittah observance altogether.

In the light of recent events, this sad chapter of history is of topical relevance, and it is also symptomatic of a wider phenomenon. Taking a look back, we can see that the shmittah topic was a prime example of the Zionists' and haskoloh leaders' attempts to change the character of the Jewish nation.

We must be aware of the tactics adopted by anti-religious activists over the past hundred years and more. They represented themselves as having the best interests of the nation at heart when in reality they undermined the foundations of the nation's existence and fundamental articles of halocho and emunoh, chas vesholom.

The heter mechirah debate has been going on for more than 110 years. As we can see from historical documents, some of the demagogic arguments made when the controversy first started have remained unchanged to this very day.

@Big Let Body=Let us make it clear at the outset that, in order to prevent any misunderstandings, we have to distinguish between two diametrically opposed historical approaches to this issue: 1. The rabbonim and poskim who adopted a lenient view certainly acted lesheim Shomayim and related to the topic as a purely halachic one. 2. The maskilim, and secular members of Chovevei Zion, on the other hand, gleefully pounced upon this ruling, and used it to further their machinations, in total opposition to the views of those gedolim.

Revisionist historians describe "the shmittah debate" as an ideological one between two camps. The secular leadership is portrayed as being concerned for the welfare of the Jewish population, who were likely to starve if nothing was done on their behalf. The other camp consisted of all those "interfering" with these activities due to their insensitivity and ideological backwardness.

The Real Issues

A close analysis of events, however, reveals different tendencies altogether. The dispute was actually about the character of the renewed Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisroel and, from a wider perspective, about the centrality of Torah in the life of the Jewish people.

Most of the population at the time was observant, and this was a source of much annoyance to the secular leaders of the Chovevei Zion movement, since their real aim (which they did not really bother to hide), was to change the character of the Jewish nation by making it resemble every other nation on Earth. M. L. Lilienblum (in pp.13-22 of his Collected Writings) relates to this "problem." Lilienblum was a pragmatist, and tried to explain to his fellow maskilim that it would be unwise to adopt the tactics of direct confrontation.

In this article he also takes issue with the prevalent approach which held that it was essential to make "religious amendments" even before commencing settlement activities in Eretz Yisroel, lest the "Orthodox" manage to achieve facts on the ground. Lilienblum disagreed with this attitude, arguing that it was preferable to work quietly and slowly, and things would take care of themselves. He repeats one statement many times in this article: "Time will take care of whatever reason fails to accomplish," and, more explicitly, "Our future political life will improve everything!"

Lilienblum adds that if the well-to-do could be enlisted to help the new yishuv by "legally purchasing the whole of Eretz Yisroel from the Turkish government and setting up there an internal government, a sort of autonomy, then we could persuade the Rothschilds and Barons mentioned above to force the new improvements on the whole Jewish population of the country." (Incidentally, Lilienblum adds, "I will not talk about the extent to which this accords with principles of fairness and freedom which are accepted in our generation.")

Lilienblum also talks about the difficulties involved in tempting observant Jews to renounce their spiritual duties in return for redemption from the stifling exile. Coming from a religious background himself, he knew all about the Jews' devotion to their religion: "Anyone who has a slight understanding of the Orthodox character knows very well that the stringency of some halachic authority is dearer to them than our whole national culture and the settlement of Eretz Yisroel put together. If, for example, we give them the choice between persecutions, expulsions, plunders and various cruel deaths together with the Shulchan Oruch of Rabbis Karo and Isserles on the one hand, and total independence and peace together with a new Shulchan Oruch containing the religious amendments espoused by myself and my colleagues on the other hand, they would, without any further investigation or consideration, prefer the first option."

He concludes, "I therefore hold that even though the amendments are as necessary now as ever, since it is not possible at the present time to enforce these amendments, we need not and are not entitled to postpone the renewal of the nation -- and time will take care of whatever reason fails to accomplish."

In another article, which appeared in the Yiddish newspaper Yiddishes Volksblatt he went into further detail: "It may be that, at first, it will not be possible to behave publicly in unrestricted manner, by smoking on the Sabbath, for example, but we have to be willing to sacrifice such small matters. Other nations make greater sacrifices for the sake of their countries."

He hopes that, in the future, "Eretz Yisroel will be built up, we are certain to have a supreme beis din there in which learned rabbis will sit who understand the needs of our time, and they will be able to reconcile between tradition and the demands of our time. Nor is there any basis to the fear that they would insist on the observance of terumot and ma'asrot. Clever rabbis will be able to come up with a permit!" (The quotations are taken from Klausner's book, Behit'orer Am pp. 141-43).

He warns about "surrendering" to the demands of those who insist on the observance of mitzvos hateluyos bo'oretz in Jewish agricultural settlements. In a letter to Sh. P. Rabinowitz, Lilienblum writes, "People are incensed about the fact that some members of the Chovevei Zion movement do not observe all the 613 commandments, as the Orthodox would like. Before you know it, these fanatics will want to establish an inquisition in Eretz Yisroel to ensure that the settlers observe all the laws pertaining to the land, including shmittah and so on!" (Ketavim Letoldot Chibat Zion, second volume, p. 329).

However, as we said, Lilienblum was a pragmatist. He did not want to conduct an all-out war, because he knew that this would only cause harm. Lilienblum was sophisticated and therefore all the more dangerous. When someone asked him to publish his views in various journals, he responded as follows: "I consider it superfluous to publicize in writing my views about the correct course of action regarding matters connected to the land. Such words cause more damage than good. You could convey this point to the other settlements, without the fanatics knowing about my letter, and then they too will say, 'Go and see what everyone else is doing.' I would not dream of telling you all my thoughts on this matter. We both know well enough that in our day and age the laws of terumot and ma'asrot are inoperative for various reasons, but in this matter we are dependent on the views of the fanatics in Eretz Yisroel and around the world" (Collected Writings, p.41).

The First Shmittah

In 5648 (1887-8), during the period preceding the shmittah year, the shmittah "problem" was about to become a practical one. Lilienblum knew that the resolution of this issue would be fundamental in determining the nature of the Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisroel. He therefore turned to several rabbonim in Europe, asking them to permit work during the shmittah year. The aim was to obtain an absolute heter -- not a provisional one with conditions attached or an emergency measure. He was interested in a permit that would satisfy the requirements of his hidden agenda: to prove the necessity of permanent changes in religious practice.

Lilienblum started working energetically towards this goal. He asked his friends to turn to halachic authorities and to explain to them that the yishuv was totally dependent on agriculture for its survival, and that the cessation of work during the shmittah year would result in a situation of pikuach nefesh (this was true, but only because Lilienblum and his friends had created this situation: see further on).

Lilienblum himself preferred to act behind the scenes. He explained his position in a letter dated 26th Tishrei 5648 (1887): "I myself am not able to encourage the rabbis on this matter, because any statement from someone like myself would only have the opposite effect on them."

In Adar 5648 HaRav Yitzchok Elchonon Spektor zt"l, the Kovna Rov, ruled that because of the hardships that were being experienced and the concern for pikuach nefesh it was permitted to sell the land to a non-Jew. Rav Yitzchok Elchonon attached several conditions: it was forbidden to do any melochos mideOraiso, any work was to be undertaken by non-Jews, and everything had to be under the guidance and supervision of the rabbonim of Yerushalayim. In addition, he stressed that his permit was not a permanent one, applying only to the shmittah year of 5649, and dependent on the approval of the rabbonim of Yerushalayim.

Those who had anticipated an absolute heter were deeply disappointed. They had not expected this. Such a limited permit did not satisfy their desire for the total abandonment of halochoh.

Still, they did not give up so easily. In order to mislead the public, they published the heter without its restrictions. They wanted to convey the impression that for the purposes of the yishuv the mitzva of shmittah had been abolished.

The Beis Halevi wrote about this: "As for the report in Hameilitz about someone having heard from someone reliable that four of our gedolim have together permitted working the field during shevi'is, and no details were added in order to give the impression that they gave a blanket heter -- this messenger heard the wrong message, because they did not permit everything, on the contrary, they made prohibitions." (He went on to list the various prohibitions, and adds that, in his opinion, he would not make a heter even with these conditions and restrictions. Beis Halevi 3:1).

The gedolim in Yerushalayim opposed the heter. Apart from halachic considerations, they feared the danger that "the settlers would feel free to trample on the whole Shulchan Oruch," in the words of HaRav Shmuel Salant zt"l (Writings, p.478).

Y. M. Pines, who was deeply rooted in the life of the settlements and whose outlook was not exactly chareidi, also writes, "In most settlements, work was in itself not necessary at all; on the contrary, it only weakened the ground. Some, however, found it necessary to work to demonstrate that the laws of shevi'is had no more relevance to this enlightened generation" (Hameilitz 5649, p.48).

The truth is that even Lilienblum himself was not ashamed to admit his intentions. The pikuach nefesh issue was directly related to the willingness to receive a small amount of financial assistance from abroad. This could easily have been arranged (after all, aid had been received in many previous cases when it was needed) but, for obvious reasons, no efforts were made in that direction.

Lilienblum wrote, "If the absence of work required our obtaining an additional few thousand Francs, this would not have been an insurmountable problem. But I looked at the matter from a different point of view. I knew the ways of those who take a stringent halachic view; therefore if the settlers would desist from working in this first shmittah year, this would provide the followers of the stringent view with a pretext. And then it would become impossible to permit work during the shmittah year. We must therefore make sure that those who adopt the stringent view do not get the upper hand, and that the shmittah is not observed at all" (Derech La'avor Golim,p.131).

For this reason too HaRav Mordechai Gimpel zt"l, from Rozhinai, one of the leading supporters of the yishuv at the time, came out against the heter: "A big hue and cry has been made based on the false claim that the observance of shevi'is would be likely to result in danger to life. The dissemination of this argument has produced the desired result and, based on this lie and only on it, some rabbonim abroad made a ruling which contained a leniency" (Writings 3, pp.888-92).

HaRav Y. L. Diskin even wrote a letter to Baron Rothschild, in which he hinted to him that with a little bit of financial assistance, there would be no need whatsoever for any heter.

Fanatical Rabbis

When the virulently anti-religious haskalah author, Y. L. Gordon heard about the limited heter that had been made, he was furious. He held the "fanatical rabbis" of Yerushalayim responsible for it, and decided to use his venomous tongue to give vent to his wrath, using the style of the gutter press. This is what he wrote to Lilienblum:

"Let us now take counsel what has to be done to get rid of this death. If I could only make the world rise up against these obscurantists and condemn them. Now tell me whether I was right when I said that our [physical] redemption must be accompanied by a spiritual one, for it will be impossible to redeem our country if we do not redeem ourselves spiritually from their tyranny."

Gordon wanted to prove that in the debate amongst maskilim about the most effective techniques to adopt in their struggle against original Judaism, those who were in favor of solving the religious "problem" and discarding all religious observance ("spiritual redemption") before any mass settlement of Eretz Yisroel had been right. Lilienblum, for his part, continued to argue in favor of using restrained measures in order to disguise the real intentions of the maskilim. This was his response to Gordon:

"Your advice to wage war against the rabbis via the pages of Hameilitz and to make the world rise up against them, could result in a lot of damage, because the remaining rabbis would also hear the trumpets of war." They would then, in his opinion, refuse to endorse any heter, "lest they be considered as supporters of anti-religious heretics, and we would then be left with no permit at all. If, on the other hand, we now keep quiet and not make any fuss, we can quietly manage to find other rabbis to support working. I therefore respectfully advise you to hold your peace." (The correspondence appears in Derech La'avor Golim pp.115- 17.)

The real aims of Lilienblum and his colleagues were revealed clearly when farmers who did not want to rely on the heter were brutally coerced. These devoted farmers preferred to obey the rulings of the rabbonim of Yerushalayim, who had instructed them to observe shmittah properly.

This was the case in Gedera and other settlements, but the most difficult struggle took place in Ekron (an article about events there is planned for a future edition of Yated). The rabbonim of Yerushalayim appealed to their brethren in chutz lo'oretz to support the farmers of Ekron. On the whole, there was a generous response to this appeal, but in the Nisan 5649 issue of Hamagid it was reported that there were places where some people expressed the concern (which we are, unfortunately, familiar with) that since farmers in Ekron would not rely on the lenient view, any assistance to them would be tantamount to aiding and abetting sinners!

Rav Naftali Hertz Halevi, the rov of Yaffo, wrote at the time, "This has become an insignificant matter in their eyes, in fact it has become completely permissible as far as they are concerned. Woe unto us that we are forced to witness this. Who knows what may be the ultimate intentions of those who look for a heter. Even the decent and religious ones amongst them are not sufficiently aware of the long-term implications of their actions."

The Situation Today

In our time, we have seen how far matters have deteriorated: during the last shmittah we witnessed the phenomenon of the "sanctification" of the heter as a lechatchila measure binding for all time.

Lilienblum's original vision has been realized: at long last a rabbinical institution consisting of "enlightened rabbis who understand the spirit of the times" has acted according to his spirit. National-religious circles and their supporters in the official governmental rabbinate have succeeded in achieving everything Lilienblum tried to achieve -- but did not. Even the lenient authorities of his time only consented to a limited heter, based on the weighty consideration of pikuach nefesh. The heter contained many restrictions and qualifications, and it was made absolutely clear that it was a unique, specific decision, and people were encouraged not to rely on it.

Today, by way of contrast, the heter has become absolute and fixed, without any need to resort to the pikuach nefesh consideration. As far as the advocates of the heter nowadays are concerned, there is no point in searching for ways of avoiding the need to resort to the heter, and it is considered wrong to encourage those who observe shmittah properly. On the contrary, they feel a need to fight them. It is permitted lechatchila! The mitzva of shmittah has been abolished, Rachmono litzlan!

Thus a heter has turned into a "mitzva" of uprooting shmittah (even though, as we said, there is no halachic basis today whatsoever for the heter, even according to those who originally promulgated it 110 years ago). What a terrible deterioration to take place within two generations! As Lilienblum put it: "Time will take care of whatever reason fails to accomplish."

The history of the heter mechirah is symbolic of the Zionist calamity which has affected other areas too. Since the State was founded, secular governmental agents have attempted to influence not only the masses of tinokos shenishbu who are far removed from a Torah way of life, but even the observant and traditional public. They dress up their intrigues in the shape of "objective needs" of one kind or another.

Thus attempts to interfere in the curricula of chareidi educational institutions are represented as a concern for "ignorance which could result in difficulties finding work in the future," and the attempt to blend sport-related tendencies into the cheder system is justified in terms of "looking after the boys' health and fitness."

None of them would speak openly about gaining a foothold into the chadorim or of undermining from within the walls of our camp. We always hear "neutral" considerations which seem to have nothing to do with the debate between the religious and the secular. They will even declare that they have no intention of harming religious interests, and that they are perfectly ready to implement their ideas within the religious framework and in a way that will not contain any secular influence. Their sole desire, they state, is to instill the chareidi public with "universal ideas" and an aspiration for "progress."

In fact they are just repeating the tricks of Lilienblum and Gordon, who disguised their longing to abolish shmittah altogether by a concern for the physical welfare of the yishuv which supposedly faced the danger of destruction. The Zionist and Haskalah leaders in 5649 knew very well -- and they said as such in writing -- that they had to hide the fact that they were the ones pushing for a heter mechirah, because if those endorsing the heter would have found this out, it would never have occurred to them to bolster these anti- religious personalities.

Nowadays, when historians have revealed the sophisticated methods of those whose aim was to detach the Jewish nation from the Torah, we can say: how great is the insight and foresight of our rabbonim, who for decades fiercely opposed any secular governmental interference in our educational institutions and our religious way of life. Our rabbonim told us unequivocally that only evil can come out of wicked people, and that there are no exceptions to this rule.

Chazal have taught us that the "good" deeds and intentions of reshoim are considered evil by tzadikim. This principle applies very much to all the acts of the Zionist movement and its leaders over the last few generations.

Since this movement was founded, there has been a debate about its motivations and whether there was any room for cooperation with it. The Mizrachi movement gave it the benefit of the doubt. Most of its members secretly agreed with some of the goals of the Zionists, but there were also G- d-fearing Jews among them who, in their innocence, thought that their intentions were good and that there was a need for some "minor" improvements in religious matters.

Those who subordinate themselves to the views of the gedolim, on the other hand, knew that the real intention of the Zionists was to uproot the Torah, and that all their leaders' actions were not to be trusted, even when they seemed to have nothing to do with religious matters. The extent to which this is obvious may vary, but their mission is the secularization of the Jewish people.

All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.