BEIT UZIEL, Israel (AP)--Farmer Eli Sella considered the choices: bankruptcy or blasphemy. It was a no-brainer. He defied a religious edict and planted his artichokes.
Farmers like Sella are rebelling against a prominent rabbi who has done away with the wink-and-nod deception traditionally used for getting around the biblical command that fields in the Holy Land must lay fallow once every seven years.
As part of the old arrangement--condoned by most rabbis--farmers would sell their land to non-Jews in make-believe transactions during the seventh year, the so-called Shmitta year, and keep tilling their fields.
However, Rabbi Shalom Elyashiv, considered the greatest living adjudicator of religious issues, has ruled that the sabbatical must be strictly enforced this year.
This would mean that no Jewish-owned farm in the Holy Land can grow crops for a full year, starting Sept. 30, the Jewish New Year.
For consumers, even the non-religious, it means importing food and sky-high prices. Most Israeli farmers are secular, but in the past have sought rabbinical approval in order to appeal to the widest possible market. About half of Israel's Jews observe dietary laws and might not buy produce without a rabbinical seal.
However, secular farmers have threatened to ignore Elyahsiv's strictures and set up their own rabbi-free markets. Yosef Lapid, head of Shinui, a secular rights party, offered practical backing. ``We'll buy their produce,'' Lapid said.
Those who follow the strict interpretation will buy food from outside the biblical boundaries, including places like the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and Jordan, paying higher prices for their piety.
Sella, 51, a traditional Jew, said following the new ruling would have meant defaulting on loans and losing his property. ``I was facing bankruptcy,'' said the mild-mannered muscular veteran of three Shmitta seasons, looking out at his artichoke fields from the picture window in his living room.
Rabbi Shneour Revach, who oversees religious practice in Beit Uziel, a farming village of 70 families in the center of Israel, said Elyashiv's ruling was too unbending.
Revach, who opened an institute to study agriculture according to Jewish law, said that 120 years ago, when Jews started setting up farms in the Holy Land, rabbis realized that fulfilling the biblical commandment would lead to disaster. The agrarian economy would be ruined and non-Jews would take over the unused land.
So they devised the fiction of selling the land to non-Jews for a year. The farmers hired non-Jews to work it during that period and the produce was sold under rabbinical supervision. ``A fiction, but an acceptable fiction,'' smiled Revach.
Elyashiv's decree undermined Chief Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, who had endorsed the sale concept. Faced with medieval whispers of banishment and excommunication, Bakshi-Doron, at one point close to tears, issued a clarification saying he would abide by Elyashiv's ruling but would supply sale certificates to farmers who could not survive without them.
A political power struggle is being played out behind the religious debate, said moderate Rabbi Doniel Hartman. He said ultra-Orthodox Jews, who reject the concept of a Jewish state, saw a chance to undermine the chief rabbi, symbol of religious Zionism. Hartman complained that not a single modern Orthodox rabbi came to Bakshi-Doron's defense. ``It's the end of religious Zionism,'' he said.
Rabbi Eliahu Klugman, who has known Elyashiv for 20 years, said no one suspected him of ulterior motives. Elyashiv ruled that the Israeli economy is now strong enough to withstand a Shmitta year, and that there is no longer a compelling reason to sidestep the biblical commandment.
But Revach, the rabbi of Beit Uziel, said observance should be voluntary and that new ways need to be explored that allow farmers to follow the rules as much as possible.
For example, grapevines could be pruned in September, just before the sabbatical begins, instead of waiting until the winter, he said. Then the grapes would be kosher.
Though Revach's goal is total sabbatical observance with no fictitious land sales, he said it must not be done by coercion.
``That would make religion hateful,'' he said.