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April 28, 2013 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Bekar

This week’s portion contains the commandment of shmitta, requiring the Jews to let the land lie fallow every seven years (Lev. 25:4-5). At first glance this commandment seems irrational; in fact, I remember hearing the apparent irrationality of this commandment used as proof of the Torah’s truth (on the theory that the Jews would have never followed such a crazy law if it wasn’t God-given).

But the JPS commentary suggests that this rule actually makes agricultural sense. Prof. Levine explains that allowing the land to rest “helped to reduce the amount of sodium in the soil.”  An additional commentary at the end of the JPS Leviticus book explains further: allowing arable land to rest “served to reduce the quantity of alkalines, sodium and calcium, deposited in the soil by irrigation waters.”  In fact, JPS writes that one reason for the decline of the Sumerians was high alkaline content in the soil, which lead to declining crop yields.  Shmitta guards against this problem.

But why, then, did 20th-century Jewish farmers try to avoid shmitta?  JPS explains that today shmitta is not scientifically necessary because crop rotation and fertilizers allow the soil to be more productive even in the absence of a year or rest.

My caveat: I don’t know enough about agriculture to independently evaluate this explanation- but it does sound interesting.

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One Comment

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  1. Shira Salamone / Apr 29 2013 3:00 pm

    Good news–crop rotation. From a purely practical perspective, crop rotation replaces shmittah in function, allowing the land to rest, if I understand correctly. Bad news–fertilizer, if chemical-based. Just what we need, more chemicals in our food. 😦

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