With the start of the Jewish New Year 5761, powerful rabbis in Israel have enforced an observance of an ancient biblical injunction that could cause financial bankruptcy for farmers and food retailers, and high prices for secular consumers. Part of the Book of Leviticus (25:3-4), the contentious edict states: "Six years thou shalt sow thy field, but in the seventh year shall be a Sabbath of rest unto the land." And now that the ultra-orthodox rabbis, who have campaigned for its observance, have gained significant influence in Israeli politics, the law of "shmita" has been passed. The farmers must let the land lie fallow for one year in every seven. They must cease cultivation this Friday (29 September).

The strictly orthodox rabbis, known as the Lithuanian group and associated with the United Torah Judaism party, now hold the majority of seats on the municipal council of Jerusalem. Also, the "Lithuanian" leader, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, pressured the more moderate rabbis, including Israel's Sephardi chief rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, into agreeing with the shmita under the threat of excommunication. Rabbi Bakshi-Doron appeared on the nightly television news and said that he would support the literal interpretation of the shmita because he "feared becoming a social outcast."

However, the livelihoods of Israel's 30,000 farmers, are quite literally hanging in the balance. Israel is a world leader in the production of sub-tropical and tropical fruit, and also forefronts the breeding and genetic improvement of sheep and cattle. As well as jeopardising the country's future in this, the law will cost farmers an estimated £3bn. One farmer was furious: "It will be a catastrophe. We will be unemployed for a year. We will have to lay off our workers, and if left untended, our soil may turn saline."

Government backing farmers

The Ministry of Agriculture is backing the farmers. They argue that while leaving the land for one year in seven may well have been a practical suggestion at one time, suitable to the desert farming of 5,000 years ago, contemporary technology does not require the same observance. In fact, they say the edict could now cause long-term damage.

Previously, a "sale permit" has meant that agricultural produce can continue to be cultivated because the land is symbolically sold to a non-Jew for the sabbatical year. With the new rejection of this method by the Lithuanian group, however, many farmers have adopted other techniques to circumvent the literal biblical interpretation. Some have plans to install electrical systems with time-delayed switches, as shmita rules will not be violated if humans do not physically work the land. Others will use greenhouses with thick sheets of plastic, pots and elevated surfaces so the plants do not touch the ground.

Kosher licences could be revoked

Full observance of the edict means that a ban will become statutory on the production and retailing of all fruit and vegetables grown on Israeli soil. The radical Lithuanian group has threatened to revoke all kosher licences of business found selling domestic produce, and the extortionate cost of imports will be passed straight to the consumer. It remains to be seen if the government is successful in enforcing the ban, however. It seems unlikely that the large supermarket chains will just dump the domestic produce, and the secular population is used to working out compromises with the more moderate rabbis. The Israeli parliament, the Knesset, appeared to take the first step, however, when fresh flowers at the entrance were replace with plastic versions.

The ancient Israelite law is defended by those who believe that contemporary society has lost the understanding of the importance of God in the world. Theoretically, the edict allows for an agrarian egalitarianism, with all living things allowed to eat what grows naturally on the land according to what is needed for nutritional survival. But, practically, it also spells economic disaster for the range of businesses that rely on the profits of agricultural produce for financial survival.