Shemittah for the Clueless

by | in Israel

“And the land shall rest.”
Vayikra 25:1-7

imageEvery seventh year, residents of the land of Israel are reminded that the land that flows with milk and honey is God’s property and domain. He grants the bounty of the six “regular” years and He commands that the land lie fallow during the seventh year, the shemittah year. During this period, landowners are required to relinquish ownership of their produce–whatever grows on their property must be made accessible to all. In this way, shemittah also serves as an antidote to greed and stinginess. Special halachot regarding the sanctity of the produce also prohibit their disposal as well as their profitable sale.

As evidence of His dominion, God promises that He will bless the produce of the pre-shemittah year in both quantity and quality so that it will last until the land can be sown and harvested again in the post-shemittah year.1

Since many of the concepts covered here may be completely new to some readers, we present these ideas in an easy-to-read format.

1. True or False: Nowadays, shemittah is not mandated by Torah law but by rabbinic law.

True. According to many rabbinic authorities, keeping shemittah nowadays is a rabbinic rather than Biblical injunction. This is because the majority of the world’s Jews are not living in Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel.

According to Sma, since in our time the observance of shemittah is rabbinic, the Biblical promise of bounty is no longer in effect.2 The Chazon Ish disagrees, and argues that the blessing of bounty applies to those who observe shemittah nowadays as well. Nevertheless, the Chazon Ish maintains that one should not rely on the Biblical blessing but should instead make arrangements for finding halachic ways to avoid some of the difficult restrictions of shemittah.3

2. True or False: One is not allowed to tend one’s garden during the shemittah year.

False. During shemittah, the Torah prohibits sowing, planting, plowing and pruning (of grapevines) as well as harvesting in the traditional manner. The Sages additionally prohibited fertilizing, irrigating, digging, weeding, pruning of all plants and most other activities intended to prepare for or to promote growth. However, the Sages permitted this latter set of activities when necessary to preserve the health and fitness of grain, trees and plants. Thus, one may tend one’s garden in order to perform “preventative maintenance.” One should consult with an experienced religious gardener for determining what is defined as such in each situation.

While one who owns a garden or greenery on an open porch is forbidden from doing the activities listed earlier when not preventative in nature, indoor gardening is permitted. As long as plants are in a place that has a roof and a floor, one may plant and care for his plants without restriction.

3. True or False: During the Shemittah year, a Jew is not allowed to sow, plant or plow on Gentile-owned land.

True. A Jew must not perform any Biblically prohibited labors during shemittah, even if the land is Gentile-owned. However, some rabbinic authorities permit performing the rabbinically prohibited set of labors on Gentile-owned land.

4. True or False: One is permitted to consume vegetables and grains that sprouted by themselves during the shemittah year.

False. In order to enforce the prohibition against sowing and planting, the Sages prohibited the consumption of anything sown or planted in the shemittah year. In addition, in order to prevent false claims of incidental sprouting, the Sages prohibited both the consumption as well as the use of annual plants (i.e., plants that must be planted anew each year, such as vegetables, grains and certain flowers) that sprouted during the Sabbatical year, even if they sprouted on their own. Plants that are prohibited during shemittah are called sefichin.

However, perennials (plants that need not be replanted every year, such as trees) do not bear fruit for some time after planting and are therefore not suspected of having been planted during Shemittah. Thus, fruits that grew during the seventh year are not considered sefichin and may be eaten.

5. True or False: Produce grown on Gentile-owned land is prohibited.

False. Produce grown by Gentiles on their own land is permissible. Only produce grown on Jewish-owned land is considered sefichin.

Although Gentile-owned land seems to be the ideal source for the supply of seventh-year vegetables, security and political considerations make Gentile produce a less-than-ideal option. First, many kosher consumers are justifiably opposed to supporting our enemies in any form; they fear that Jewish money will be used to finance terrorism. Second, because of the precarious security situation in Israel, it is oftentimes dangerous for a mashgiach to enter Arab areas to certify that the Gentile grower has not supplemented his harvest by importing prohibited Jewish-grown vegetables. Helicopter surveillance is sometimes used as a substitute for a mashgiach’s presence, but there are many problems with this method of supervision.

6. True or False: Israel’s Chief Rabbinate employs the heter mechirah as a way of avoiding some of the shemittah restrictions.

True. A century ago, when Jews began to resettle the Land of Israel (then Palestine), the settlers were in dire economic straits. In light of the severe financial difficulties, many rabbis permitted the bulk sale of large tracts of Eretz Yisrael to Gentiles for the shemittah year. Without the sale, the populace would have faced an acute food shortage. This halachic-legal sale is known as heter mechirah. The heter mechirah is comparable to the commonly practiced sale of chametz before Pesach, but it is more halachically problematic. It is important to note that many rabbinic authorities maintain that the heter mechirah was created as an emergency provision for a particular time and circumstance, and that it is therefore no longer applicable today.

Although nowadays the population in Eretz Yisrael is no longer as dependent on domestic produce as it once was, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate still employs the heter mechirah. It is beyond the scope of this article to rule on the validity of the heter mechirah or on its applicability to the current population in the State of Israel; this topic has been fully debated in rabbinic literature.

If, according to its detractors, the heter mechirah is halachically invalid, then the land sold to Gentiles is still regarded as Jewish land. In that case, all the grain, vegetables and certain flowers grown during shemittah on those lands are considered sefichin, and are, therefore, prohibited. The OU Kashrut Division does not rely on the heter mechirah.

7. True or False: Produce grown on Jewish-owned land during shemittah, intentionally or not, has kedushah (holiness).

True. Because the shemittah year is sanctified to Hashem, most things that grow during that year, intentionally or not, have inherent sanctity. These crops are known as perot shevi’it.

For more information on how to treat produce that is sanctified, see questions 9-10.

8. True or False: Even produce grown on Gentile-owned land in Eretz Yisrael has sanctity.

True, according to the custom of Jews in Bnei Brak.

False, according to the custom of Jews in Jerusalem.

There are two different schools of thought regarding this question: In the past, those who lived in Jerusalem considered Gentile produce devoid of any sanctity; in Bnei Brak, residents followed the view that shemittah produce has inherent kedushah irrespective of who owns the land on which it was grown.

Nowadays, people follow either custom irrespective of where they live. Produce grown on Gentile-owned land during shemittah is often, but not always, marked as “yevul nochri” (Gentile produce). The OU follows the Jerusalem custom, and certifies Gentile produce or products containing Gentile produce. The OU maintains that such produce does not have kedushah, and therefore certifies it for export as well. (Perot shev’it should not be exported. See question 10.)

How does one determine whether produce has the status of perot shevi’it? This depends on whether it is considered a crop of the seventh year. This is not such a simple matter to determine. As a general rule, annual plants have kedushah when harvested in the shemittah year. Therefore, herbs and vegetables that will be harvested this year (that is, after Rosh Hashanah 5768) are considered perot shevi’it, even though they will have grown mostly before the shemittah year began.

Further, the fruit of perennial plants have sanctity if they begin to form during the shemittah year, even if the harvest occurs after the year is over. Olives, grapes, grain and legumes are considered perot shevi’it if they attain one-third of their growth during shemittah. This year’s olive harvest will not be sanctified, even though it will be harvested in the shemittah year, since it attained one-third of its growth during the previous year, 5767.

While vintage 2007 is not affected by shemittah, consumers of Israeli wine should be mindful of shemittah issues when purchasing vintage 2008. Even though many of the grapes used in these wines will be harvested after the shemittah year is over, they will have attained one-third of their growth during the shemittah year. They are therefore considered perot shevi’it and should be treated as such. Consumers should carefully check the labels on wine bottles to determine whether the kosher certifying agency relied on heter mechirah or other halachic alternatives, such as otzar beit din, during the shemittah year. (See question 13 for more information on the otzar beit din.)

9. True or False: Perot shevi’it cannot be treated as ordinary produce.

True. Produce with sanctity cannot be wasted or treated in an undignified manner. Therefore, there are several issues to keep in mind when dealing with perot shevi’it:

Although one may dispose of minute scraps of food that customarily remain on the dinner plate, one must collect larger quantities of leftovers from serving dishes, pots and pans and edible odds and ends resulting from the food preparation process and allow them to rot on their own before discarding them. Foods that are inedible even for animals, such as peels, may be discarded in the usual fashion. Some maintain a special container into which they deposit shemittah leftovers wrapped in plastic. After they rot, the leftovers are then discarded in the regular garbage.

Since perot shevi’it are sanctified, one must derive maximum benefit from the produce; anything less is considered degrading. Therefore, one must consume the produce in its usual manner and not waste any of it. One may not cook produce ordinarily consumed raw, nor eat raw produce that is ordinarily cooked. Furthermore, one may not use applesauce to mask the taste of a bitter medicine, as this would spoil the taste of the apple. One may mash a banana only for a baby, who is accustomed to eating fruit in such a manner. Although one may juice a lemon, one may not squeeze a peach for its juice.

10. True or False: Perot shevi’it can be sold without restriction.

False. Produce with sanctity must be sold in a special, dignified fashion, and may not be consumed by just anyone or in any place. The following must be taken into consideration when selling such produce:

* Perot shevi’it cannot be purchased with the intent to resell it at a profit. This restriction results from the produce’s inherent holiness, and also ensures that it won’t be hoarded but left available for all to partake. When the sale of shemittah produce is permitted, such as when one sells the leftovers of collected produce, the money or goods received in exchange are invested with the same sanctity as the produce that was sold. The kedushah inherent in the produce thus extends to its barter. Therefore, one must use the money, which is invested with sanctity, for the purchase of food, and then treat that food—whether it’s imported, nonagricultural or otherwise exempt from the laws of shemittah—as the original perot shevi’it.

* One may not give perot shevi’it to a Gentile.

* One may not purchase perot shevi’it from someone who is ignorant of or does not care about shemittah laws, as he cannot be trusted to treat the proceeds of the sale in accordance with their sanctity.

* The sanctity of perot shevi’it also dictates that such produce cannot be taken out of Eretz Yisrael. Therefore, perot shevi’it cannot be certified as kosher for export unless they are grown on Gentile-owned land, and then only according to the Jerusalem custom, which maintains that such produce is not sanctified. During shemittah, most OU-certified exporters will ship only sixth-year inventory or Gentile-grown produce of the seventh year. Some OU-certified exporters may also ship produce grown in the southernmost areas of Israel near Eilat, areas in which shemittah does not apply.

11. True or False: Trespassing on your neighbor’s field, orchard or vineyard is considered legal during the shemittah year.

True, to a degree. Shemittah advances the idea of equality among men—God desired that the indigent and wealthy alike should share in shemittah produce.4 Thus, during shemittah, all owners of fields, orchards and vineyards must relinquish ownership of their perot shevi’it. They must leave the gates open, providing access to others to share in the bounty. In this way, we demonstrate that the land is God’s. Ideally, each person may take the choicest fruits from wherever they are found; it is therefore acceptable to enter gardens, yards and orchards without securing permission and without paying. The Midrash considers the landowner’s silent endurance of this legal trespassing as an act of self-control of angelic proportions.5 (Of course, the landowners are still entitled to prevent trespassing for purposes other than food gathering.)

12. True or False: When entering a neighbor’s fields during a shemittah year, one may claim as much produce as he wants.

False. During the time of the Mishnah, the Sages came to the realization that allowing people to enter other people’s property, unsupervised, led to exploitation. Some individuals took far more than they needed with the intention of stockpiling for future profit. At first, the Sages appointed guards at the cities’ gates who inspected the harvesters and confiscated any produce in excess of the harvester’s family’s needs. Eventually, the Sages decided to empower the local rabbinical courts to hire workers to harvest the crops on their own, and then distribute them as needed among the townsfolk. This rabbinically ordained and supervised community stockpile is known as otzar beit din.6

13. True or False: The otzar beit bin concept is becoming obsolete.

False. Actually, this concept is becoming increasingly popular. Since its initial conception, the otzar beit din has undergone some transformation and modernization in order to keep up with the times. Today’s economy is global and interdependent, such that community stockpiles no longer provide feasible and equitable distribution systems. In addition, the otzar was adapted to secure the livelihood of shemittah-observant farmers and proprietors.

Instead of hiring independent help, the modern-day beit din, or rabbinical court, hires the farmers themselves as its agents to tend and harvest (as permitted) the crops. The beit din then appoints the usual distributors and shopkeepers as its distribution agents, allowing them to keep a certain markup as their distribution fee. The beit din calculates its expenses per unit, and passes these along as the “purchase price.”

To some, the modern-day otzar might seem to be nothing more than a legal sleight of hand. All the regular players are still in place, and distribution rolls along as usual. However, in reality, it is identical only in appearance as prices are controlled, and may correspond only to expenses, with no profit allowed. In addition, the otzar beit din dows not own the produce. Sine it’s simply a mechanism for open distribution, any individual is still entitled to collect produce from a field or orchard on his own. Furthermore, all agents of the beit din are appointed only if they commit to distributing the produce in accordance with the restrictions that result from its sanctity.

In recent years, more and more people are turning to otzar beit din as the alternative of choice. This is because many question the validity of the heter mechirah, as mentioned above. In addition, many who, in previous shemittah years, preferred kedushah-free Gentile produce (according to the Jerusalem custom) to otzar produce are now turning to the home-grown produce afforded by otzar beit din due to political and security considerations.

Otzar produce is sanctified, and must be treated identically to any produce that is collected by an individual during a shemittah year. However, since the otzar is a communal entity, it exercises a number of leniencies that an individual cannot: the otzar’s agents may harvest in the usual manner and they may hold the fruit indefinitely (see discussion of biur that follows).

It is important to note that not all otzarei beit din are created equal. The validity of an otzar depends on how well its beit din enforces the above rules. If a beit din is lax in its oversight or loose in its regulations, its otzar could be nothing more than a legal sham, serving as cover for prohibited harvest and commerce. As in all areas of kashrut, the consumer must determine which otzar meets his standards.

14. True or False: During the shemittah year, households must engage in biur, a process similar to the purging of chametz before Pesach.

True. The Torah states that one may store perot shevi’it only as long as that product is still available in the fields for animals to eat.7 Once a particular species is no longer available in the field, one must rid his house of it, leaving only one-day’s rations for his household. This process is called biur and is similar to the more well-known erev Pesach purging of chametz. Biur is a way of ensuring that field owners do not hoard all the produce for themselves by forcing them to share their stock with others once a particular item is no longer available in the field. If one does not perform biur at the appropriate time, the produce becomes prohibited to all.

The procedure is simple. On the appointed day, one must remove all the relevant produce, and all products containing such produce, from his home and take it to a public area, such as a sidewalk. Once there, the individual declares the produce ownerless in front of three people who do not live with him. He then waits to give the witnesses a chance to claim the produce. Once they have taken what they want, he is permitted to reclaim whatever remains. It is permissible for one to choose three people whom he knows will not claim the produce for themselves, even though they are legally entitled to do so.

The obligation of biur applies at different times for different produce. To ensure that biur was followed correctly, the Sages established a set of dates listing when certain types of produce are no longer growing in the fields. For some produce, the Sages determined the dates. For others, modern-day charts list the relevant dates based on current agricultural information.

The laws of biur apply to all produce invested with shemittah sanctity. Therefore, they do not apply to Gentile produce (according to the Jerusalem custom). Readers should be aware that those who rely on the heter mechirah do not perform biur on produce since they feel that such produce is not sanctified. Hence, if you do not abide by the heter mechirah, after the appointed time for purging a certain item has passed, it is forbidden for you to partake of such heter mechirah produce.

One final point to consider is that an otzar beit din need not perform biur, because it holds the produce for the community. Since the purpose of biur is to ensure equal access to shemittah produce, which the otzar is already accomplishing, there is no need to reinforce this notion with biur. Therefore, one may acquire produce from the otzar’s agents after the time of biur has passed and need not worry about performing biur himself. However, if one acquired produce from the otzar before the specified time of biur, one must perform biur on his own at the appropriate time.

15. Shemittah is relevant only to those who live in or visit Eretz Yisrael.

False. Produce grown in Eretz Yisrael during the shemittah year retains its shemittah status even if exported. Jews in the Diaspora may not purchase Israeli produce that does not have a reliable kashrut certification. In general, such certification attests that the produce was either grown before shemittah or in a manner that does not violate the halachot of shemittah. According to some opinions, produce that is sanctified as perot shevi’it may not be consumed outside of Eretz Yisrael, except in limited circumstances.

It is always a privilege to visit Eretz Yisrael, but during shemittah it is also a challenge. May Hashem grant us the opportunity to fulfill all His mitzvot with love.

After working in the Kashrut Division of the Orthodox Union’s New York office for six years, Rabbi Kuber made aliyah with his family in 1999, and continues to work there for OU Kosher. This article is meant to familiarize the reader with various halachot of shemittah; it is not presented as a compendium or as definitive pesak halachah. 8 Readers are encouraged to consult their local Orthodox rabbi for guidance.

Notes
1. Vayikra 25: 20-22
2. Choshen Mishpat 67:2; see also Gittin 67a with Rishonim.
3. Chazon Ish, Sheviit 18:4
4. Shemot 23:11
5. Tanchuma Vayikra, sec.1
6. See Tosefta Shevi’it 8:1, 2
7. Torat Kohanim Vayikra 25:7
8. Most of the laws presented in this article are culled from Mishpitei Eretz-Shevi’it by Rabbi Shaul Reichenberg (Machon L’limudei Mitzvot Hatluyot Ba’aretz, Yerushalayim, 5754). In some instances, we cite only one of many opinions presented by Rabbi Reichenberg.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Winter 2007.

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