For me, Shmita has always been about the challenges in managing my kitchen and providing my family with fruits and vegetables during this special year. But to be perfectly honest, I never really thought much about the financial difficulties that farmers face due to not being able to work their fields during Shmita. But a recent event held in Ramat Beit Shemesh opened my eyes to the mystique of Shmita, the potential brachah that lies in its observance, and the incredible emunah and mesiras nefesh exhibited by the farmers who keep Shmita.
For the past seventy years, an organization called Keren Hashviis, currently run voluntarily by Rabbi Shia Markowitz, has been providing farmers with the financial assistance they need to fulfill the mitzvah of Shmita. Rabbi Markowitz explained that many view the mitzvah of Shmita as falling squarely upon the shoulders of the farmers here in Israel. But that is not the case. Since Eretz Yisrael belongs to every Jew, every Jew is obligated in this mitzvah and is able to tap into the brachah that Hashem promises us as a reward for keeping this mitzvah.
Keren Hashviis provides farmers with stipends that go towards paying their mortgages on the land, leases of farm equipment, and farm upkeep. But it doesn’t cover everyday expenses such as food, clothing, transportation, healthcare needs, school supplies, and Yom Tov expenses. This leaves the farmers and their families with quite a shortfall. Rabbi Markowitz travels the length and breadth of the country meeting with farmers from the moshavim to encourage them to keep Shmita, and to give them the feeling that he and all of Am Yisrael stand with them during this trying year. Rabbi Markowitz gets to know the families of the farmers and what their needs are, and tries to raise money to support those needs. He finds out who is expecting a baby. Who is making a Bar Mitzvah. A wedding. Rabbi Markowitz understands that if a mother is unhappy because she is unable to buy shoes for her children or put food on the table, her husband will go right back to the field to work. Knowing that a woman is often the deciding factor in helping her family fulfill the mitzvah of Shmita, a new initiative called N’shei Keren Hashviis was created this year. It’s an organization of women for women, which aims to support the heroic wives of farmers during this challenging year.
Rabbi Markowitz shared some of the stories he’s witnessed. He talked about Mazal and Osher and their seven children who live in Porat, near Netanya. When the representatives of Keren Hashviis went to visit them, Osher was in great debt and didn’t even have money for food for Shabbos. Rabbi Markowitz choked up when describing the dilapidated condition of their home. They live in a caravan with mattresses all over the floor. There are pots and pans all over the multi-purpose living room/dining room/kitchen. There is nowhere to put anything. Rabbi Markowitz asked Osher why he was keeping Shmita l’mehadrin under such conditions. Why didn’t he discuss the possibility of using heter mechirah with a rav? Osher, with the backing of Mazal, said he did not want any rabbi talking him out of keeping Shmita l’mehadrin. They are hoping to see the brachah of Shmita.
We were treated to hear from two wives of farmers who are keeping Shmita this year. Doron and Ilana Toweg, from Moshav Azaria, are keeping Shmita for the second time. Doron and Ilana grow cabbage, fennel, onions, and eggplants in open fields. About a year and a half before the last Shmita, they took out loans and invested in two state-of-the-art greenhouses. They planned to keep Shmita l’mehadrin in the open fields and to use heter mechirah in the greenhouses in order to repay their loans. Doron planted 20,000 eggplants in the greenhouses when they arrived after Rosh HaShanah. When the members of Keren Hashviis came to meet with the Towegs, they explained that in order to receive their support, they would have to commit to keeping Shmita l’mehadrin on all of their farmland, including the greenhouses. It was very scary to commit and they weren’t sure what to do. In the end, they made the commitment because Ilana remembered that her family had been asked to learn specifically Masechet Shviis for a siyum when her father had passed away several years before. Shviis deals with the laws of Shmita, and so she took it as a sign. Ilana smiled when she described the odd scene when a consortium of rabbis, dressed in suits and hats, came to their fields to address the issue of the eggplants, speaking a combination of Aramaic, Hebrew, and Yiddish. Not your typical occurrence.
Because the farmers are heroes of the field, the brachot that they give during Shmita are considered to be especially potent. Rav Chaim Kanievsky encourages those looking for brachot to seek out the farmers. When strangers ask Ilana for a brachah, she assures them that she will daven for them when she lights candles on Friday night. Her list of names grew so long that she was davening for several hours after candle lighting every week until a rabbi explained that she doesn’t have to daven for all the names all at once. She can eat the seudah with her family and continue davening later.
Ilana witnessed many of what she calls Shmita miracles. Two 21-year-old Chassidishe girls from Slonim came to visit her. One was a reporter who was writing an article about the wives of farmers during Shmita. After the interview, they asked Ilana for a brachah. Ilana assured them that she would daven for them at candle lighting and they kept in touch. Both girls were engaged within a few weeks. Ilana and her husband were guests at the Slonim chassidishe weddings, which she views as a miracle in and of itself, and they continue to maintain a connection with these families.
A group of girls from Kiryat Sefer came to visit their farm. They asked that she daven for two teachers. One had a 15-year-old son and the other had a 7-year-old son, but neither had been blessed with more children. Exactly nine months later, to the day, both women gave birth to baby boys. Eight days later, each made a bris for her son.
Michal from Moshav Yagel shared that when the Keren Hashviis came to speak with her family, they were deep in debt. The rabbis told them that if they would keep Shmita, they would see nisim v’niflaot - they would witness miracles. Her husband immediately accepted it upon himself to keep Shmita. Soon after, their financial situation improved.
At the end of the evening, Ilana and Michal were presented with beautiful genuine silver necklaces inscribed with the words “N’shot Yisrael Itach, the women of Israel are with you.” The N’shei Keren Hashviis encourages all women to indeed be with them, to support the wives of Shmita farmers in a great display of achdus, and to tap into the brachah that Hashem promises to all who keep the mitzvah of Shmita.