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As many of you know, I’m working on a new book about the Bible in America. One of the things I write about is the Liberty Bell, which has a quote from Leviticus 25 on its side. The words say, “Proclaim Liberty Throughout the World unto all the Inhabitants Thereof,” but the quote itself comes from Lev. 25, which is about the jubilee year. Every seven years farmers are supposed to give their fields a sabbath; after seven sets of seven years they are supposed to give their fields a sabbath of sabbaths, a fiftieth year. A jubilee year.
Turns out whether to follow these rules is causing havoc in Israel.

Beginning next week, Israeli farmers face a strange challenge: how to avoid going bankrupt while observing an ancient biblical commandment ordering them to stop working their fields for a year.
First practiced in an era of primitive scythes, but still in force in an age of GPS-guided combines, the commandment requires Jewish farmers in Israel to let their fields rest every seventh year, just as Jews are required to rest every seventh day. The coming sabbatical starts with the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana, on Wednesday evening and continues across the nation until fall 2008.
The sabbatical, known in Hebrew as shmita, sparks arguments between mainstream Israelis and strict ultra-Orthodox clergymen, prods the Jewish state into strange arrangements with Palestinian farmers in Hamas-controlled Gaza, and forces farmers and rabbis to devise creative loopholes that allow fieldwork to continue without violating the letter of the law.
Even nonreligious Israeli growers find themselves respecting the biblical directive so they don’t lose the business of Orthodox consumers.
According to an official guide for farmers published by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, the commandment makes the point “that we live in a holy and special land that isn’t like other countries” and “implants in us the knowledge that this land belongs to the Creator of the Universe.”

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