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Agriculture in Israel: Famine & Drought

For centuries, agriculture in the Land of Israel was highly dependent on irregular rainfall, making drought and consequent famine of frequent occurrence.

The paradoxical appreciation by Deuteronomy 11:10ff. of this disadvantage (as involving God in constant attention to the land) puts a good face upon what Ezekiel 36:30 bluntly calls the land's "reproach among the nations for its famine." Kimhi comments on this as follows: "The land of Israel stands in greater need of rain than other lands [being mountainous in contrast, e.g., to the great river valleys of Mesopotamia and Egypt]; hence famine is more common in it than elsewhere. And when one has to leave his land for another because of famine – as witness Abraham, Isaac, and Elimelech – it is a reproach to it." Another cause of famine through natural causes was the failure of the crop through pests and disease. In addition to these two "acts of God," famine was caused by siege in time of war. Of the famines in Ereẓ Israel mentioned in the Bible (the most famous, the seven years' famine predicted by Joseph in Egypt, included also the Land of Israel – Gen. 41:54, 43:1) most were due to drought (Gen. 12:10; 26:1; 41:54; Ruth 1:1; II Sam. 21:1; I Kings 18:1–2; II Kings 8:1; and apparently Amos 4:6 (cf. verses 7ff.), two to the result of siege – that of Samaria by Ben-Hadad (II Kings 6:24–29) and of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar (ibid. 25:3) – and one the result of a visitation of locusts (Joel 1:4–20). A vivid description of the effects of drought occurs in Jeremiah 14:1–6. The same conditions, both natural and man-made (cf. Jos., Wars, 5:424–35), continued during the period of the Second Temple, but to them were added famine, or at leastshortage of food, which resulted from the strict adherence to the law requiring that land should remain untilled during the Sabbatical year, to which there is no historical reference in the Bible. The frequency of famine is reflected in the fact that of the seven calamities said in the Mishnah to afflict the world because of sin, three are famines of various degrees of intensity: the "famine of drought," which does not affect the whole population, the "famine of panic," which affects all, and the "famine of utter destruction" (Avot 5:8).

The traditional triad of major catastrophes consists of "pestilence, sword, and famine" (cf. Jer. 14:12; 21:7, 9; 24:10; Ezek. 6:11, etc.; compare the Hashkivenu and the Avinu Malkenu prayers). The fact that, given a choice of one of these three, David chose pestilence suggests that it was the least of them (II Sam. 24:14f.). Lamentations gives a preference in the scale of suffering to famine over the sword (4:9). This would indicate that famine was the greatest evil of all: it is in fact difficult to envisage the terrible suffering endured through famine in ancient times. The grim picture, given by R. Johanan, imaginative though it is, of the consequences of the seven-year famine predicted by *Elisha (II Kings 8:1) – that in the fourth year people would be reduced to eating unclean animals, in the fifth reptiles and insects, in the sixth their children, and in the seventh their own flesh (Ta'an. 5a) – is probably not so exaggerated as may appear. Both during the famine caused by the siege of Samaria by *Ben-Hadad and of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, the eating of human flesh is mentioned (II Kings 6:29; Lam. 2:20–31; 4:10). Ashurbanipal, king of Assyria (669–27) claims that the Babylonians under siege by him ate their children. Similarly, Assyrian treaties threaten potential violators that they will bereduced to eating their children. Josephus mentions the eating of children in Jerusalem during the Roman War (Wars 6:201–13, cf. I Bar. 2:2ff.). A pathetic story is told of one of the wealthiest women of Jerusalem picking out grain from animal dung after the Roman War (Git. 56a). There are at least three historical references to famine caused by the observance of the Sabbatical year, one during the siege of Jerusalem by the forces of Antiochus IV (Ant. 12:378 = I Macc. 6:49–54), one in the war of Herod against Antigonus (ibid., 14:476) and one during Herod's reign (ibid., 15:7). The Midrash (Ruth Rabbah 1:4) enumerates ten famines which visited the world. It includes only seven of those mentioned in the Bible as due to drought, and makes up the complement by one ascribed to the time of Adam, one to the time of Lamech and a spiritual famine for lack of God's word (Amos 8:11, usually taken as eschatological). This midrashic passage also differentiates between the famine of Elijah which was a sporadic "famine of drought" and that of Elisha which was one "of [economic] panic." One of the three things "which the Holy One, blessed be He, proclaims in person" (Ber. 55a), famine was regarded as the direct result of transgressions. This is, of course, specifically mentioned in the Bible where the rule is that famine and drought are either threatened (Lev. 26:19f., 26; Deut. 11:17; 28:23; I Kings 17:1; Zech. 14:17) or suffered for sins. Amos (4:6ff.) interprets occurrences of these calamities as prods to repentance – warning notices of God's wrath aimed to bring the people to contrition and thus avert final destruction. The tendency of the rabbis was to make famine the punishment for specific transgressions – the failure to give the tithes and other dues from one's produce, as a kind of quid pro quo (Avot 5:8; Shab. 32b; for the contrary promise of abundance as a reward for bringing tithes – cf. Mal. 3:10–11). As a result, fasting and supplicatory prayers and fasts were instituted (for biblical examples cf. Jer. 14:12 and Joel 2:14–15 for famine caused through pestilence) and the prayers of both pious individuals and people possessing special virtues were regarded as effective in bringing the drought to an end (BM 85b; TJ, Ta'an. 1:2, 65b). The rabbis permitted emigration from Ereẓ Israel in the case of famine, but only when it reached serious proportions (BB 91b; Gen. R. 25 end). Basing themselves on Genesis 41:50 the rabbis (Taan. 11a) forbade procreation during the years of famine.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

A.L. Oppenheim, in: Iraq, 17 (1955), 77–8; W. Shea, in: ABD II, 769–73; A. Berlin, Lamentations (OTL; 2002), 75–76.