BET UZIEL, Israel -- For a while, farmer Eli Sella was caught in a vise. Whether he kept the Bible's commandments or defied them, he faced financial ruin.
Every seventh year, according to the Leviticus, the fields must be fallow. For many years, Israel's rabbis allowed Jewish farmers to get around the law by arranging fictitious sales of their farms to non-Jews.
But this year, the country's most influential rabbi dug in his heels. This coming year, beginning at sunset Friday, was the sabbatical year. And this year, the farming sabbatical -- called "Shmitta" in Hebrew -- must be kept to the letter, he said.
This was Sella's dilemma: Skipping a growing season would mean defaulting on loans and losing his farm and home. But defying a rabbinical ban would render his artichokes non-kosher, inedible to the half of the Israeli population that keeps the dietary laws.
In the end, the 51-year-old farmer was spared the decision. A compromise was reached that allowed the old system to remain in place.
Still, the controversy reverberates, reflecting continuing conflicts between traditional Jewish Israelis versus secular Israelis, and Orthodox Jews against ultra-Orthodox.
"Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield," Leviticus says. "But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard."
Simple enough. But this year, rabbinic wisdom on the issue was all over the map.
Rabbi Shalom Elyashiv was unbending. The generation's premier adjudicator of Jewish religious practice, Elyashiv ruled that there would be no planting, no harvest for an entire year, and no fictitious sales of land to non-Jews.
Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron was humiliated. Bakshi-Doron, the chief rabbi of Israel, had supported the symbolic sales, only to be overruled by the nonagenarian Elyashiv, who holds no office but outranks him in the unwritten consensus world of rabbinic authorities.
Rabbi Doniel Hartman was furious. The modern Orthodox Zionist educator criticized Elyashiv's ruling as too strict, but was even more critical of fellow Zionist rabbis who did not come to Bakshi-Doron's defense.
Hartman pointed out that another verse in Leviticus asks the question, "What are we to eat in the seventh year?" The biblical response: "I will ordain my blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years."
In other words, a miracle, Hartman said. Since there are no miracles these days, he said, the strict Shmitta laws need not be kept.
Jumping into the fray, Yosef Lapid, leader of the secular political party Shinui, or Change, encouraged farmers to set up rabbi-free markets. "We'll buy their produce," he pledged.
Lapid said in a modern nation, secular citizens should not have to pay more for their food to get a rabbinical certificate of approval they don't want.
There have always been degrees of strictness in observing Jewish laws, and the Shmitta is no exception. Most Jews accept the century-old practice of circumventing the Shmitta. But stricter ultra-Orthodox Jews do not eat fruit or vegetables grown in the Holy Land during this year, paying more for food grown in Gaza, Jordan or the Golan Heights, outside biblical boundaries.
At its heart, the dispute is over dueling interpretations of another commandment from Leviticus: "You shall keep my laws and my rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live: I am the Lord."
The ultra-Orthodox who devote their lives to studying religious tomes, do not recognize the state of Israel and refrain from contact with the secular world, take this it to mean that the biblical laws must be followed literally.
Modern interpreters of the phrase emphasize the word "live," and guard against rulings that would make it impossible for people to live by the commandments.
"My brand of Zionism combines religion with life," Hartman said. "The ultra-Orthodox have no connection with daily life." Instead, he said, they took an opportunity to undermine the chief rabbinate, associated with religious Zionism.
Rabbi Eliahu Klugman, a follower of Elyashiv, disagrees. He said Elyashiv outlawed the fictitious sale of land on the basis of today's reality. "The conditions that applied 120 years ago no longer apply today," said Klugman.
When the sham sales were first allowed, agriculture was the mainstay of the economy, food could not be imported, poverty was widespread and untilled land was in danger of being taken over by non-Jews. The solution then was to bend the rules.
"Israel can live without this now," said Klugman.
There are some who see other solutions.
At his institute for the study of the commandments of the Holy Land, near the entrance to Sella's farming village, Rabbi Shneour Revach has developed ways to grow fruit and vegetables without breaking the Shmitta laws and without selling the land.
Revach persuaded some farmers to prune their grapevines before the start of the Shmitta. Usually farmers wait until the winter. Deftly handling a pruned vine, he said his experiments showed that there is almost no financial risk from early pruning.
Revach wants the laws to be followed, "but not by coercion. That makes religion hateful."
Sella, a mild, muscular veteran of three previous Shmitta years in Beit Uziel, a modest village of small family farms in central Israel, can only agree. The ultra-Orthodox attempt to force compliance with a stricter code left him angry.
"They're driving people away," said Sella, "and I don't mean just people who have no feeling for religion at all. I mean people like me who are traditional and respect religion."
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