Revivim, rabbi Eliezer Melamed

The Book “Ve’zeh D’var HaShmita” By Rabbi Yitzchak Yaacov Reines

After the entire manuscript was burned and only an abbreviated pamphlet remained, Rabbi Reines’ book on matters of shmita was published this week by the Har Bracha Institute * His worldview, which saw great importance in the Zionist movement, fits well with his halakhic conception in the interpretation of the term “bi’at kulchem” * His method regarding shmita is based on the fact that it is not  de’oraita at this time, and even the year it is meant to be observed is uncertain * Rabbi Reines agreed to pay a high personal price for his belief in the Zionist enterprise, and refused to change his mind about it, even when the Chofetz Chaim tried to dissuade him

Last week, we had the privilege of celebrating at the Har Bracha Yeshiva, the publication of Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Reines’ book on shmita (the Sabbatical year) – ‘Ve’zeh D’var Ha’Shmita’. Approximately 134 years ago, Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Reines ztz”l wrote a detailed halakhic book on how the Moshavot (agricultural colonies) should act in the shmita year. However, the full manuscript was burned, leaving only a pamphlet that was an abbreviation of the book. The pamphlet, like other important writings of the eminent rabbis of the Mizrahi movement, laid abandoned and neglected in the cellars of the Rabbi Kook Institute. About two years ago, under pressure from Rabbi Reines’ granddaughter, Mrs. Nechama Gordon, a lawyer from the United States, Rabbi Reines’ writings were transferred to the National Library which scanned them, and made them available to the public.

Rabbi Dr. Boaz Hutterer

The person who deciphered the manuscript, edited the writings, and wrote a beautiful and important introduction to them, is Rabbi Dr. Boaz Hutterer, a rabbi of the Har Bracha Yeshiva, and also a lecturer in the fields of Oral Torah and history. In recent years, as part of the Har Bracha Institute, Rabbi Boaz has devoted most of his time to studying and researching the subject of shmita and the heter mechira (the sale of Israeli farmland to a non-Jew to avoid the prohibition of working the land in Israel during the Sabbatical [shmita] year), both from the halakhic and historical sides of the issues. To date, he has published two volumes via the Institute about the first three shmita’s in the days of the First Aliyah 5649-5663 (1888-1902). The third volume will deal with the shmitot for which Rabbi Kook was responsible during the days of the Second Aliyah, as the Chief Rabbi of Jaffa and the Moshavot, and later as Chief Rabbi of Israel. Rabbi Boaz’s books are the most comprehensive in this field, both from a Torah and empirical perspective.

Eve of the Launch of the Book

In honor of the book, Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Meir shlita, who is one of the most knowledgeable and incisive researcher in this field and in others, happily participated. Rabbi Doron Peretz, chairman of the Mizrahi World Movement, which was founded by Rabbi Reines about one hundred and twenty years ago, also participated. It is interesting that in his remarks, Rabbi Boaz recalled that when he arrived at the Beit El Yeshiva as a first year student, as he was walking down the path leading to the dormitories, he ran into Rabbi Doron Peretz, who, at the time, was himself in his first year in Israel and in the yeshiva, and was on his way to the Beit Midrash (study hall). He greeted Rabbi Boaz warmly, returned with him to the dormitory, found him a room, and helped him settle in. Rabbi Boaz said his beautiful reception was a significant reason for his decision to study at the Beit El Yeshiva. The special point about the story, in my opinion, is that Rabbi Doron was a new immigrant, did not yet know Hebrew well, and already felt a responsibility to host as a native Israeli.

Also participating by video was the Rosh Yeshivot Bnei Akiva, Rabbi Chaim Druckman shlita, and the Rabbi of Jerusalem, Rabbi Aryeh Stern shlita.  In this column, I will present the essence of my remarks.

Rabbi Reines

Rabbi Reines was born in 5600 (1839). From an early age, he excelled as a prodigy and a diligent student, and even before he reached the age of twenty, he was well versed in both Bavli and Jerusalem Talmud. At the age of twenty-three, he was appointed his first rabbinate, and at the age of forty-four, he was appointed Rabbi in Lida, where he served until the end of his life. His genius was immense, and he had a tremendous memory and great diligence. In his method of study, he tended to define and analyze the logical elements of each issue.

Summary of His Explanations on Shmita

In the issue of shmita as well, which he dealt with many years before the establishment of the Mizrahi movement – even before reaching the age of fifty – his genius was evident. This issue was not yet familiar, as there had been few Jewish farmers in the country for over a thousand years. From the book that has now been published, it is clear that Rabbi Reines was one of the only geonim (Torah geniuses) who was knowledgeable in all the issues related to the matter, compared to other rabbis who dealt with only one side of the issue.

The summary of his words: First, he explained that in the opinion of most of the poskim (Jewish law arbitrators), shmita at this time was d’Rabanan (rabbinic), and there is no Rishon who believes that it is from the Torah. Second, some poskim are of the opinion that it is a minhag chassidut (a custom deriving from extreme piety) that is not obligatory at this time. Third, there is controversy among the Rishonim as to when shmita ensues, thus placing its entire obligation in doubt. Consequently, the most appropriate solution for agriculture to exist in the Land of Israel is in the sale of the land in Shevi’it (Sabbatical year) to non-Jews, and thus, to expropriate the obligations of Shevi’it d’Rabanan, which are also disputed.

He further added a chiddush (novel interpretation) that the obligation d’Oraita (Torah ordained) in mitzvot dependent on “bi’at kulchem,” (all Jews residing in the Land of Israel), such as terumot and ma’asrot (tithes), does not depend on a majority, but on sovereignty. This is an understanding I have not seen in other poskim and it is very much in line with his method according to which he joined the Zionist movement which sought to achieve Jewish sovereignty over Eretz Yisrael. Indeed, Shevi’it also depends on Yovel (the Jubilee year) which hinges on the distribution of the Land into tribes and all of Israel, and is a much higher stage in the settlement of the Land.

His Joining the Zionist Movement

His sensitivity and concern for Israel’s suffering was immense. He analyzed the dire plight of the Jews of Eastern Europe, the growing anti-Semitism and persecution, and recognized the danger to their existence.

In his memoirs he said that as he was always accustomed to analyze carefully and calmly every sugiyah gedolah (major halachic issue), so did he regarding his joining the Zionist movement. Thus, it turned out that despite being one of the greatest lovers of Zion, and his friends had already taken part in the First Zionist Congress held in 1897, he further researched and looked into the matter for two years. “And in all these two years I did not take my mind off of it, I researched and looked at all its details, both from a religious and an intellectual perspective. I also investigated and researched the man who heads this movement (Herzl), to know if he is the type of man worthy of leading such a popular movement, how much he could be relied upon, and how talented he is for the task. And after the result of all my research and investigations were positive, then, and only then, was I drawn to it, and also began to take part in it. I travelled to all the Zionist assemblies and congresses.”

He added: “When it became known that I had joined this movement, some of the leaders of the opposition came to me, to speak to my heart, and try and persuade me to distance myself from it because they were afraid that by joining it, I would add strength to the movement, and more people would join… However, not only did they not persuade me with their words, they made me even more willing to join this movement, because I saw how empty their words were, what total lack of knowledge and understanding they had of this entire issue, and just how far they are from it. Some of their claims even made me laugh.”

The Attempt of the Chofetz Chaim

Truth be told, even the Chofetz Chaim tried to dissuade him from joining the Zionist movement. He came to him in Lida, and talked to him for about two hours. In the words of Rabbi Reines: “At first, he put forward some religious claims he had on this matter. After I showed him that in all his arguments I did not see a single claim of any substance and after debating the issue, he realized he could not change my mind with his claims, and then attempted to persuade me from a completely different angle. He began to explain to me the damage I was doing to myself in this matter, and said that had I not joined, they (the eminent rabbis) would have approached me in every issue [since he was one of the greatest rabbis], and nothing important would have been done without me, or without my consent. However, now that I am taking part in such a movement that many will demonstrate against, they will distance themselves from me. He went to great length to show me the huge loss I was making for myself. I then answered him saying that, concerning myself, I was very aware of the consequences, and knew in advance all that I would suffer, and specifically for that reason, I joined the movement. As long as they cannot clarify for me the moral evil that exists in this movement, I will not change my mind. Because in my opinion, not only should one not distance himself from this movement, rather, each and every Jew has a sacred obligation to join it. I also told him he was wrong especially in thinking that the rabbis are opposed to this idea, for as far as I know, I can say that the majority of the rabbis are very dedicated to this idea. They are only afraid to support it publically after the success of some of the heads of the well-known dissidents, well versed in their craft, who know that the best way to destroy a good endeavor is by spreading slander about religious doubts. For they know that their defamatory words will find pathways to the hearts of the masses who lack the knowledge to examine every enterprise for themselves, and consequently, they will distance themselves from this enterprise, and all those who support it will be chastised, and thus, the rabbis are forced to hide their opinion…”

Establishment of the Mizrahi Movement

About three years later, at the age of sixty-two, this wondrous gaon of the generation, took upon himself the heavy burden of establishing the Mizrahi movement, within the Zionist movement. All the movements and organizations of the National-Religious public grew out of the Mizrahi movement. Incidentally, in recognition of the value of science, Rabbi Reines also established a large yeshiva high school in Lida.

Our teacher and rabbi, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook ztz”l, would always point out that the Mizrahi movement was founded by talmidei chachamim geonim (genius Torah scholars), headed by Rabbi Reines, while Agudat Yisrael was founded by baal ha’batim (laymen).

The Truth of His Path

In those days, the Jewish people numbered approximately eleven million. The Arabs who lived in all areas of the Biblical borders, including Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, numbered a little more than five million, while on both sides of the Jordan, there was just a little more than half a million Arabs. Had Rabbi Reines’ position been accepted, and had millions of Jews immigrated to Eretz Yisrael and multiplied in it, today there would more than fifty million Jews living in Eretz Yisrael, on both sides of the Jordan.

However, the refusal to fulfill the mitzvah and immigrate to Israel when it was possible, was in the sense of today’s ‘Sin of the Spies’. The price paid for that was dreadful. We suffered the Holocaust, the rule of Communist oppression, and assimilation. Today, there about fifteen million declared Jews throughout the entire world, and in Israel, approximately seven million Jews. In contrast, the Arabs living in the vicinity of Eretz Yisrael have benefited from the fruits of the Industrial Revolution, the expansion of food production, and the improvement of medicine, and they number more than eighty million.

Religiously, too, it turned out that the Haredim were wrong. Among those remaining in the Diaspora assimilation increased, and only ten percent remained religious. While in Israel, the number of religious is close to thirty percent, another forty percent are traditional, and even the majority of the secular are at a level close to that of traditional Jews abroad.

This article appears in the “Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.

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