Agricultural Ethics

Agricultural Ethics (Excerpt from Mordechai Becher’s book, Gateway to Judaism)

Since the 15th of the month of Shevat is approaching, TuBishvat, the New Year of Trees, it is appropriate to discuss the laws pertaining to the Land of Israel.  Israel’s agricultural products are considered holy, therefore there are special laws that apply to them.  The most well-known, was the obligation in Biblical and Temple times to take tithes, to separate a percentage of the crop and give it to the Priests, the Levites and the poor.  Some tithes had to be eaten by the owners in Jerusalem.  The distribution of the tithing worked according to a precise schedule that ran in seven year cycles.  The obvious purpose of the tithes was to support those who did not have land of their own, and who worked for the communal good.  The Levites and the Priests were dedicated to work in the Temple in Jerusalem and teach Torah, and therefore they did not inherit land like the rest of the nation.  Because of this the Torah granted them the income from these taxes as their means of livelihood.  Another purpose of these agricultural laws is to inculcate in the Jewish people such positive character traits as compassion, justice and humility. In addition, they helped develop the recognition that God, not the human being, is the ultimate landowner.

Today, since most Jews do not live in Israel and the Priests are not in a state of ritual purity, tithes are not given to Priests or Levites, nor are they eaten in Jerusalem.  There is still an obligation, however even nowadays, to separate the tithes from agricultural produce of the Land of Israel and dispose of them in a respectful fashion.  The law requires that one separate a little more than % of any produce grown in Israel, and recite a declaration regarding the tithes, before the fruit or vegetables may be eaten.

The Biblical laws of tithes only apply to agricultural produce.  Jewish practice has extended the idea, however, to tithing a person’s income as well.  It has become the universal custom, even according to some authorities, law, that we give at least % of our income to charity — this practice is known as ma’aser kesafim, tithes of money.

Sabbath of the Land

The seventh year of the agricultural cycle, is known as Shmittah, the Sabbatical year.  In Israel, no new crops are planted and only maintenance work is done on crops that already exist, and on the land and trees.  Farmers may not sell their produce or prevent people (or animals) from entering their fields and consuming the crops.  Maimonides maintains that one of the effects of this law is to increase the productivity of the land, by having it lay fallow for a year.  He and most other commentaries agree, however, that the primary purpose of Shmittah, is to allow everyone equal access to the land, and to have the landowners feel like tenants once in a while.  This experience will help them understand that “the earth is the Lord’s” and that the main purpose of life is not the accumulation of possessions.  The Sabbatical year also provides an opportunity for hard working farmers to devote more time to Torah study.  Even today, there are still farms and kibbutzim in Israel that strictly observe the Shmittah laws despite great economic hardship.  These farmers spend much of their time during the Shmittah year studying Torah.

Crop Circles, Corners etc.

In earlier times certain laws governed the harvest of crops in Israel.  These laws were designed to channel support to poor people, while at the same time allowing them to retain some dignity by having them work for what they received.  When a farmer harvested his field he was obligated to leave one corner, (peah), un-harvested, so that the poor could harvest it themselves and keep the produce.  When he gathered the sheaves together, any sheaves that he forgot (shikchah), had to be left for the poor to gather.  If he inadvertently dropped any stalks during the harvest (leket), he would leave them for the poor as well.  These laws only apply when there are in fact poor people who go to the fields to collect or harvest the grains.  Nowadays, however, poor people do not wait near farms for the harvest.  Instead, they are generally supported by various charitable organizations.  These laws are, therefore, no longer applicable.

First Fruits, Mixed Fruits, Forbidden Fruits and New Fruits

In the times of the Temple, laws that were not related to supporting the needy also regulated planting and harvesting.  Some of these laws are still applicable today, while others cannot be implemented.  The first fruits to appear on a tree, for example, were taken to the Temple in Jerusalem as an offering.  This offering of the first fruits, Bikurim, was a way of expressing gratitude to God for His blessings.   Since the destruction of the Temple this mitzvah can no longer be fulfilled.

For the first three years after a tree is planted, the fruit, known as orlah,  may not be eaten. The fruit of the fourth year is considered holy and therefore we wait for the fifth year to eat of the fruit.  In Israel any fruit which might possibly be orlah is prohibited.  Outside of Israel, however, unless one knows that the fruit is definitely orlah it may be eaten.

Similarly, wheat, barley, rye, spelt and oat grains from a new harvest was, in Temple times, not to be eaten until the first sheaf is cut in special manner and brought as an offering in the Temple on the second day of Passover.  Any grain that was sown after the bringing of this offering, known as the Omer, was not to be eaten until after the next year’s offering.  This prohibition is known as chadash, “new” referring to the new harvest.  Since the destruction of the Temple, we can no longer bring the omer offering.  Nevertheless, grain from the new harvest is still forbidden until the day after the offering would have been brought.  There is some controversy about whether this prohibition applies only in Israel or outside as well.  Nowadays, most Jews outside of Israel follow the lenient view that chadash does not apply in the Diaspora.

The underlying message of both orlah and chadash is one of restraint and self-control, and the acknowledgement that, since everything ultimately belongs to God, it may only be used for purposes that are in keeping with God’s plan for the world.  We are only free to use the fruit or grain after bringing some to Jerusalem to eat or use as an offering, acts which impress upon us that everything we have is a gift of God.

The prohibition against mixing seeds and grafting different species together, kilayim, applies both in Israel and outside.  One of the ideas behind this prohibition is the principle that just as in nature there are laws that delineate species, so too there are moral laws that are part of the fabric of creation.  The same God Who commanded the plants and animals to appear “in their own species” also has moral demands on the human being.  Do not change the nature of Creation, is the central idea of this command.

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