Decades ago, while living in Jerusalem during a shemitta year, I was invited to a Bar Mitzva celebration at which the father announced the provenance of the various food items that would be served. “The potatoes,” he said with a large grin, “are from Holland,” and the vegetables were from England, and with that, the festivities began. It was a charming way to inform his guests that although we were living during the special shemitta year, in which the Jewish-owned land in Israel is to lie fallow, no guest need be alarmed by the produce being served—canned potatoes from Amsterdam were available.
It was not always so. In fact, during the early years of the modern resettlement of Israel, the proper observance of shemitta was a very difficult challenge. The early yishuvim were agricultural settlements whose precarious existence depended on farming. Shemitta was an existential threat, and in 1902 that threat was magnified. This year we are living through both a shemitta year and a pandemic in Israel, and exactly 120 years ago these same conditions were also present as the Jewish inhabitants of Ottoman Palestine faced the conjunction of a shemitta year and a terrible wave of pandemic cholera.
But first some background. Until the return of the Jews to Palestine, many of the halakhot that depended on a Jewish presence in the biblical Land of Israel were not observed. The agricultural laws of shemitta (literally, “release”) were the best-known example of these. They require that once every seven years the land lie fallow and not be worked. For many centuries these laws remained theoretical at best as there were virtually no Jewish farmers in the Land to observe them, but they enjoyed a renaissance as observant Jews from eastern Europe emigrated to Palestine in what became known as the “First Aliya,” the first wave of Jewish immigration that lasted from about 1881 until 1903. A significant minority of those who arrived found work as farmers. Among the earliest Jewish agricultural settlements, known as moshavim, was Petah Tikva, which was originally to be located near Jericho but later moved to land northeast of the old port town of Jaffa. Many of its first inhabitants caught malaria, and the land was of such poor quality that it became impossible for the settlement to sustain itself. The French banker Baron Abraham Edmond de Rothschild stepped in to support Petah Tikva as well as the other early Jewish settlements like Rishon Letzion and Zikhron Ya’akov, and through his philanthropy they managed to become somewhat stable. But in 1902 they faced a double challenge as a cholera epidemic and a shemitta year coincided.1
This was not the first cholera epidemic to occur in Palestine. There had been an outbreak in 1831 and another in Jerusalem in the summer of 1865, when a third of the population fled, leaving the streets “filled with wailing.” According to one American newspaper report, over six hundred and fifty Jews died there in one month, “and the number of deaths among the Mohamedans and Christians can scarcely be estimated. Hundreds of infants died, because the breasts of their mothers had been dried up by the hand of the Angel Azrael, and no other could be found to supply food to the famishing children.” To compound the misery, there was a famine, and food was in very short supply. “It appeared” the article concluded, “as if God’s curse had been let loose upon the city.”2 By the time it ended in November, cholera had killed as many as nine hundred Jews in Jerusalem.3
The 1902 cholera epidemic seems to have originated in Mecca, where Muslims had traveled to take part in the Hajj. Around 4,000 pilgrims died there from February through April 1902, and those who returned carried the disease back to Cairo, where an epidemic broke out. Refugees fleeing the disease there fled to Ottoman Palestine, and cholera spread with them.4 There were outbreaks in Lod, Jaffa, and the surrounding villages; somewhere between five hundred and one thousand people died in Lod, out of a population of about eighteen thousand. The epidemic spread north to Safed and Tiberias. About six hundred people in Tiberias fell victim to cholera, half of them Jews and half Muslims, a number that represents about ten percent of the town’s population at the time. A further eight hundred died in the surrounding villages.
In response to the cholera outbreaks, the Jewish settlements closed their gates to outside Arab labor in September and October 1902 (and in Rishon Letzion the local doctor also banned mail from being delivered). The closures helped safeguard the health of those within the moshavim, but the situation outside their gates was desperate. The weekly Hebrew language newspaper Hashkafa reported that the death rate from cholera in Jaffa had risen to twenty-five people a day. The outbreak in Gaza had by this time burned itself out, but the Ottoman authorities had placed Jaffa under quarantine, and Lod “had all but emptied itself of inhabitants.” “Fear ruled over every home” the newspaper recorded.
But the cholera situation is far more dire in the villages around Rishon Letztion and Petah Tikva. A day does not pass when we have not heard from one of the local Arabs who pass our borders about their brothers, fathers, sisters and mothers who have either died suddenly or slowly after a brief or lengthy episode of vomiting. These wretched Arabs do not pay attention to hygiene, nor to the rules passed by the [Ottoman] authorities or the physicians. They are still eating all sorts of unfresh vegetables, oils, and meat. Because of this they remain the primary victims, perhaps the only victims, of this cruel cholera epidemic.5
And as cholera raged, the shemitta year arrived. It had long been understood that it would be financially ruinous to leave the land unworked during the year as biblically dictated. To prevent this, the Jewish settlements had used a halakhic mechanism, the type of technical loophole known as the heter mekhira (“the leniency through selling”), wherein their land would be temporarily sold to a local Gentile. This allowed Jews to continue to farm, since although the fields were inside the borders of the biblical Land of Israel, it was technically no longer under Jewish ownership. Another ploy was for Arab workers to farm Jewish-owned fields, while the Jews would farm the Arab fields, for it was permitted for Jews to farm property that was owned by Gentiles. However, in 1902 the validity of the heter mekhira in Jewish law was still a matter of great controversy. This was only the third shemitta cycle after the start of the First Aliya. That first cycle in 1888–89 engendered great halakhic debate, and those who then offered a legal opinion understood that they were setting a precedent for future shemittot.6 Aware of this responsibility, some permitted the heter mekhira, but only as a temporary measure, and reserved the right to revisit their guidance later. Among those who agreed with the heter mekhira as a long-term strategy were a group of rabbinic leaders living in Poland including Rabbis Shmuel Mohilever (1824–1898), Yisroel Yehoshua Trunk of Kutno (1820–1893), and Shmuel Zanvil Klepfish of Kutno (1820–1902). In 1888 they issued a ruling in which they laid out what was at stake: “If we forbid the land to be worked and the vineyards to be tended, they will become desolate. The result will be the destruction of the settlement program (heaven forbid), and hundreds will die from a lack of food.”7
In Petah Tikva, where the population was mostly Orthodox Jews, these arrangements were especially important. At around one thousand people, it was the largest of the new settlements, and like nearly all of them its financial stability depended on the success of the agricultural enterprise. The settlement had recently expanded its operations and had leased more land to grow olives and tobacco. They therefore sold their land for the duration of the shemitta year of 5663, which began in October 1902. But a serious problem soon arose. “Our moshav is now closed to all” reported one member in a newspaper report. It had done this to control the spread of cholera. “No one is permitted to enter or leave, other than residents of Petah Tikva who left and now returned, after they completed twenty-four hours of quarantine. The stores and the wagon drivers are suffering greatly and cannot earn any income at all.”8 Who then, would farm its lands during shemitta?
The dire situation was outlined in a letter sent by a member of the moshav named Abraham Brill to the leadership of the Jewish Colonization Association in November 1902. This organization had been established in 1891 by Baron Maurice Hirsch with the express aim of helping Jewish emigrants from eastern Europe to settle agricultural farmsteads in Argentina, Brazil, and Canada, as well as in Ottoman Palestine. Brill described the dire conditions caused by the cholera epidemic, as well as the additional hardships that were the result of shemitta. “If our moshavim were less Orthodox we would have already started to farm the land, as they have done in Sarona” he wrote, referring to the Protestant Templar settlement just north of Jaffa. “If only we were able to obtain rabbinic approval to work the land, for now we have no Arab workers.” Writing in the newspaper Hashkafa, another member of moshav Petah Tikva named Natan Lifshitz also bemoaned the hardship created by the conjunction of cholera and shemitta.
Sadly we are doubly suffering this year, from cholera and from shemitta that have joined forces to make things challenging and hard for us… [You] do not really understand just how miserable we are. For example, the workers from Petah Tikva have leased additional fields from the Arabs. The rabbis have permitted them to plant crops in these fields, but because they are among the areas that are stricken with cholera, they are now not able to do so. It is also impossible for the Arabs to sow crops in our fields which they had leased from us (before Sukkot), for to do so they must pass through our moshav, and this is now against the law. As a result, this year the farmers of Petah Tikva cannot plant in the Arab fields, and the Arabs cannot plant in our fields. This is not only terrible for Petah Tikva, but also for the other moshavim. It will cause damage not just for the next month or two, as we had originally thought, but for the rest of the year… You should be aware that there are vineyards and fields that require a great deal of work, but there are not enough laborers from the families [on the moshav]. There will now be a great amount of suffering because of a lack of Arab workers.
Lifshitz ended his report by putting the economic problems of the moshav into perspective. “This worry is nothing compared with the health concerns, which are on everyone’s minds. We hope that soon this epidemic in our midst will end.”9
Because the heter mekhira by which land belonging to the moshav was sold remained controversial, further steps were needed to legitimize it. In late December 1902, the farmers wrote to Rabbi Shmuel Salant and Rabbi Eliyahu David Rabinowitz-Teomim (known by his acronym as Aderet), the leading rabbinic figures of the day in Jerusalem, asking for approval for them to work on their own (sold) land, since it remained dangerous to allow outsiders onto the moshav. But their request went unanswered, and as a result they were forced to hire Arab workers from outside the moshav and risk the further spread of cholera.10 Arab laborers were already working on several other moshavim; some were required to quarantine for twenty-four hours, and all were required to stay away from sources of drinking water. Some of the moshavim provided these workers with sanitized tools, and many posted guards (at a distance) to ensure that the protocols were followed.11 Perhaps, because of these measures, there were no cases of cholera during the grape harvests, which were the main source of income for the moshavim. It is also possible that this outcome was a result of the timing of the harvests, which occurred as the cholera epidemic was waning. On some moshavim like Petah Tikva that were less dependent on grapes, the new measures resulted in a disastrous crop yield. However, on another moshav, Mazkeret Batia, which had leased its land to local Arabs, the harvest was very successful and exceeded that of the prior year. And so the 1902 cholera pandemic petered out. The next time a pandemic of similar proportions in Israel would coincide with shemitta was this year, when COVID and shemitta were in conjunction.
The shemitta-cholera year of 1902 is now hardly remembered. It has been forgotten among the many existential threats that Israel has faced and that far exceed a lack of food to a few hundred farmers. But in the winter of 1902 cholera and shemitta were all that those Jewish farmers could think about as they kept the perimeter safe and the yishuvim free of infection. Rather quickly, the 1902 epidemic was not just remembered as having coincided with shemitta; it was reinterpreted as having been a punishment for its lax observance. In 1909 Rabbi Yaakov Dovid Wilovsky (1845–1913), known by his acronym as Ridvaz, published An Essay on Shmittah (Kuntrus ha-Shemitta) in which he criticized the heter mekhira. “For the last two shemitta cycles our brethren who are part of the settlement enterprise have, as a result of our sins, relied on the heter [leniency] that was given to them as a temporary measure, and sold their land to a Gentile…these “mourners of Zion” in the settlements and their leaders have ignored the words of the true geonim and tzaddikim and have been lenient.” Sin has consequences of course, and for Ridbaz the consequences of the heter mekhira were two natural disasters that had occurred in the interim. The first was a plague of locusts that followed the end of the shemitta in 1882, and then, “in the second [shemitta of 1901–1902] God sent an even greater chastisement: cholera (heaven forbid). There were many victims, and there was an enormous punishment that afflicted the majority after that second shemitta. The land spewed them out because of their sins. Woe to us, for we have sinned…many settlers left the land for the diaspora, and they were scattered to the four corners of the globe. Some ended up in Africa, some in America, and some in Argentina.”12 And so the heter mekhira became one more sin for which God sends a pandemic as punishment. But in truth, it was the rabbinic hesitation in allowing the farmers to use the heter mekhira that had been the real threat, for it brought the moshavim dangerously close to financial ruin and could have resulted in the spread of cholera. One hundred and twenty years later, the validity of the heter mekhira remains a point of religious contention, while around us a pandemic rages. Only now, we have potatoes from Holland. And a vaccine.
Dr. Jeremy Brown trained as an emergency physician and works at the National Institutes of Health. This essay is adapted from his forthcoming book The Eleventh Plague: Jews and Pandemics from the Bible to COVID-19 to be published later this year by Oxford University Press.