We are now in the month of Shevat and approaching the onset of spring, heralded by TuBishvat.   I would like to discuss some of the unique mitzvot that apply in the land of Israel.

Many of the various tithes and agricultural taxes follow the seven cycle of the the Sabbbatical year, Shemitta.  In the seventh year of the agricultural cycle, Shmittah, no new crops are planted and only maintenance work is done on crops and trees that already exist. Farmers may not sell their produce or prevent people (or animals) from entering their fields and consuming the crops. Most commentaries maintain 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. The observance of Shmittah fell into disuse during the long Jewish exile from the Land. Today, however, with the establishment of the State of Israel, the return of Jews to their homeland and the increase in Jewish observance among Israeli farmers, there are farms and kibbutzim that strictly observe the Shmittah laws.  These farmers spend much of their time during the Shmittah year revitalizing their connection to G-d by studying Torah.

There are tithes that are given to the priests, the Cohanim, to the Levites and to the poor.  One of the most interesting “taxes” is called “ma’aser sheni” – the second tithe. This tithe is separated from the crop and the produce (or its monetary equivalent) is taken to Jerusalem and eaten by the landowner and his family and friends in Jerusalem.  Now, to me this sounds like a bit of a scam, in which you are giving tithes to yourself!

Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook explains that since the Jewish people are supposed to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” it is important to remind ourselves regularly of this lofty objective.  Therefore, every few years we give tithes to ourselves; we eat them in Jerusalem in purity, holiness and joy acting as if we too are priests, Cohanim. We give ourselves tithes because we are in fact the Cohanim of the world.

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