JERUSALEM — Few millennia ago, Moses picked his way down the dusty scrub of Mount Sinai to relay another of God's edicts to the children of Israel: "When ye come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath unto the Lord" every seventh year.
But with the beginning of Jewish year 5671 on Sept. 30 and the onset of another agricultural sabbatical, Israelis are bickering fiercely about how to honor the order not to "sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard."
The squabbling has led to death threats, denunciations, and predictions of economic woe. It has set rabbi against rabbi and roiled farmers, consumers, and politicians.
But if the sabbatical year is making Israelis behave like a stiffnecked people, as Moses would say, the furor is also revealing the growing strength of religious conservatives and the difficulty of building a modern state in a land heavy with biblical history.
At the heart of the matter is a question that has troubled Israel since its founding: Is it simply a country for Jews to call their own? Or is it the holy place where the children of Israel are meant to fulfill their religious destiny?
These days, that problem is rooted in the parched and dusty soil of Israel itself. The fallow year - shmita in Hebrew - has always been a challenge. Indeed, scholars argue about whether 2nd- and 3rd-century farmers even obeyed the directive from on high. It presented a special dilemma for the Jews who came to Palestine at the turn of the century. For those fledgling communities, leaving farms untouched for a year threatened the very survival of their Zionist experiment.
An early religious leader hit on a solution. Jews would "sell" their land to a non-Jew for the year, allowing the land to continue to be worked. The land transactions are on paper only, with no money changing hands. This has become such accepted practice that the Chief Rabbinate, the national religious body, arranges the transactions and issues deeds of sale.
But for ultra-Orthodox Jews, who don't recognize the secular state or the Chief Rabbinate, this compromise has always been second best. Last month, a leading Jerusalem rabbi announced that enough was enough. Israel now has the economic strength to end the "deed-of-sale" fiction and observe shmita properly by importing produce.
In short order, the rabbinate of Jerusalem declared that any restaurant, hotel, or grocery store selling vegetables and fruit from Israel would lose its kosher license - a serious economic threat since most religious Jews won't eat food that doesn't adhere to kosher dietary laws.
Then last week Chief Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, the national representative of Sephardim, or Jews of Middle Eastern origin, said that farmers could still use deed of sale waivers. As one of the ultra-Orthodox newspapers put it, a "world war" was on.
The rabbis who declared the waivers unacceptable threatened Rabbi Bakshi-Doron with excommunication and castigated him in newspaper editorials that omitted his honorific title - a shocking rudeness.
Within days, Bakshi-Doron was reporting death threats and talking about resignation. He explained that excommunication in the ultra-Orthodox world means "that I cannot go out in public, I cannot pray in synagogue, and I cannot participate in ceremonies and events. My children cannot go to school," he said. "I am afraid."
Politicians stepped in to broker a shaky rabbinical compromise that allows individual communities to set their own rules and exempts larger cities from strict shmita observance. But the clash has left many Israelis asking themselves where their country is headed.
Menachem Friedman, a sociologist at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv, notes that the Chief Rabbinate has long symbolized a moderation that allows religious and secular Jews to build a community together.
"And now a chief rabbi, who is like a pope, is admitting he is afraid. Of whom? The [ultra-Orthodox] rabbis! It's unbelievable," says Mr. Friedman.
"It represents a dramatic change in status and power of the [ultra-Orthodox]."
That growing power might be best symbolized in the verdant grounds surrounding Israel's national parliament, where workers are preparing flower beds to observe shmita for the first time in history.
Workers will dig up the beds and put down a layer of special plastic so that the flowers and shrubs technically will not be part of the land of Israel.
They will be tended to by non-Jewish gardeners.
For many Israelis, economics are the central issue. "Every shmita, we have the question of how to provide food for people who refuse to eat Israeli produce, and it becomes political. Is it meeting the needs of a minority group or is it having a minority drag down everybody else economically?" asks Jerusalem-based Rabbi Arik Ascherman.
Some suggest that some ultra-Orthodox will benefit financially. "There are going to be a lot of [religiously] observant people who make money," says Marc Miller, the economic director of a farm in the Golan Heights. "There are an awful lot of jobs involved in shmita inspection and importing."
Farmers, worried about losses in the millions, are unhappy with the rabbinical compromise solution. Some plan to sell their food directly to customers, who are already fretting about soaring prices.
"It'll be an expensive year," says Randi Fietelberg, an ultra-Orthodox woman buying produce at a downtown supermarket. She says she sees no alternative to following the Jerusalem rabbinate's strict directive on shmita.
But a fellow shopper, who chose not to give her name, was less concerned.
Browsing the produce aisles with the solid, practical air of a woman who has run a household through Israel's leaner economic times, she said she had little patience for the strict ruling on shmita. "It's a pity that they have to waste all that food."
*Grace McMillan contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society