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Shemittah: An Overview

Halachic Musings

Rabbi Shmuel Bloom of Keren Hashviis

Rabbi Shmuel Bloom
of Keren Hashviis

By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Many people are busy sending their children to seminary and yeshiva in Israel for the year, and some look forward to visiting them there as well. But this upcoming year, 5775, is Shemittah, and there will be all sorts of possibly unfamiliar terms floating around. Stores in Yerushalayim will advertise “yevul nochri” and “otzar beis din fruit,” and “pach Shevi’is” cans will be located in various places. What do all these terms mean? How come we never learned about all of this when we were in yeshiva?
Our children will be taught what all this means, but we may find ourselves lost out there with no guidance. That is why this article has been prepared.
Opportunity For Dveikus
Each mitzvah of the Torah is unique in respect to its halachic details as well as the manner in which it fosters dveikus Bashem, developing a close relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu, and this certainly applies to the mitzvos of Shemittah.
The Shemittah year—also known as Shevi’is—occurs once every seven years. It serves to remind us to look at and to place our trust in Hashem. In the Torah, Hashem promises Klal Yisrael that the produce of the sixth year will be blessed in both quantity and quality. During the seventh year, the owners of the fields do not own the produce that is produced. It is to be shared equally among all, owner and non-owner alike. The land belongs to Hashem, and the owners must not prevent access to the Shevi’is produce.
There are also two other reasons for the mitzvah of Shemittah. First, it reminds us of the inherent sanctity of our holy land. The verse in Vayikra (25:4) states, “It shall be a Sabbath of Sabbaths for the land.” Only the land of Eretz Yisrael has this holiness, and we must be reminded of this every seven years in order for us to appreciate it.
The final reason is found in Sefer Sh’mos, where we are commanded to provide for the tired and the poor: “And the poor of your nation shall eat.” Here we are enjoined to emulate the Creator, the Ultimate Giver, and be charitable and giving ourselves.
Biblical Or Rabbinical?
There is a debate as to whether Shemittah nowadays is still d’Oraisa, or whether it is rabbinic. The criterion as to whether it is rabbinic or biblical is quite fascinating. It depends upon demographics: If the majority of Klal Yisrael lives in Eretz Yisrael, then it is d’Oraisa. This is the opinion cited in the Sma (C.M. 67:2). The Chazon Ish, however, holds that even nowadays it is d’Oraisa (Shvi’is 18:1–4).
Forbidden Activities
During the Shemittah year, Jews are not allowed to work the land in Eretz Yisrael. This means no planting, no sowing, no plowing, and no pruning of vines (Vayikra 25:4). These four activities constitute the Torah prohibition. The rabbis extended it and forbade fertilizing, watering, other types of digging other than plowing, and pruning additional plants.
Chazal did not forbid everything, however. If the activity is necessary for the health of the tree, some forms of maintenance are permitted.
The prohibition applies to commercially grown foods and farms as well as to one’s own yards. What about indoor plants? If there is a floor below the plant, which separates the plant from the earth, and if the plant is under a roof, then the prohibition does not apply.
There is also something else that Chazal forbade, called sefichin—items that must be planted again each year, such as certain grains and flowers. These are forbidden even if they sprouted on their own. One of the reasons why Chazal forbade sefichin is so that people would not attempt to circumvent the prohibition against planting. People may try to plant and then lie about it. Therefore, Chazal forbade all incidentally grown produce that does not grow on trees. Fruit that grew on trees during Shemittah, however, may be consumed, provided that the halachos of how to deal with them are observed.
Forbidden Produce
There are two types of Shevi’is produce that are forbidden. First, if the produce was harvested after Rosh Hashanah, then it is considered peiros Shevi’is. Second, if more than a third of the plant’s growth occurred during the Shemittah year, the laws apply even if harvested during the next year.
Which Lands?
The prohibition against a Jew working the land in Eretz Yisrael applies whether the land is owned by him, another Jew, or even a gentile. However, some poskim are lenient regarding a Jew performing gardening actions forbidden only mi’d’rabannan on lands that are owned by a gentile.
If produce was grown on land that was truly owned by a gentile, most poskim hold that it is permitted. Some poskim forbid produce that was grown on gentile-owned land. Both minhagim are prevalent in different circles in Eretz Yisrael. Some stores label such produce as “yevul nochri.” Others, as a matter of course, do not label it at all.
Even according to the permissive view, there are still some halachic issues. A growing problem, however (no pun intended), is the fact that it is becoming increasingly difficult to ascertain whether this produce truly came from a gentile.
Market forces would generally cause produce grown by Jews to cost less than that grown by a gentile. There would therefore be large financial incentives to misrepresent the origin of the gentile-produced produce. In addition to this, the areas in which gentiles generally own land are not the safest of places.
Can production be overseen with proper hashgachah to ensure that no Jewish produce entered the source? This is a very serious question.
Since agriculture forms a large part of the economy in Eretz Yisrael, and particularly did so in the early stages of the yishuv, alternative methods were developed.
Selling the land. One such method, which was generally not embraced by the chareidim, is known as the heter mechirah: Jewish lands were “sold” to gentiles so that the land could be worked. This was fraught with numerous halachic difficulties. Also, many in the chareidi world maintain that this method was a one-time emergency heter for use during a famine, and that it was not to be extended to other times.
What are the problems? First, there is a prohibition of selling Jewish land to gentiles. Second, one may not act as a messenger for a prohibited act; the appointment as messenger is invalid. This is because of the principle of “ein shaliach l’dvar aveirah—there is no agency when dealing with a forbidden action.” The chief rabbinate of Israel still does a sale every Shemittah year.
Otzar beis din. A second workaround is called otzar beis din. Originally, this enactment was made to prevent people from taking excess produce from the Shevi’is fields. Beis din hired workers to collect the produce and then distributed it to others. Nowadays, the beis din hires the farmers, and the infrastructure of wholesalers and shops are appointed as distributors. The beis din allows them to keep a certain fee for this role. When purchasing food from an otzar beis din hechsher, one must be aware that there are many organizations that call themselves otzar beis din. Some have more reliability than others, and some exist just in the form of the ink that is stamped upon the label of the produce.
Supervising non-Jewish production. Another way to purchase produce is through non-Jewish produce grown under supervision. This, however, is not a popular choice among those who wish to promote the economy of Jewish Israelis, as opposed to the economies of those that are not supportive of Israel.
Among these workarounds, the otzar beis din was advocated by Rav Elyashiv, zt’l. Although it, too, causes numerous halachic problem, it is the best halachic choice, as deemed by the gedolei Yisrael of the yeshiva world as well as a growing percentage of the frum Dati Leumi world.
Excess Produce
There is also an obligation to rid the home of all excess Shevi’is produce when it is no longer available in the fields. Excess Shevi’is produce is defined as “more than one day’s supply of Shevi’is food.” The purpose of this biur is to prevent hoarding of foods. If one does not do the biur, the food becomes prohibited—not just to the owner, but to everyone. There are different dates for the biur of different foods, depending upon what is found in the fields.
The biur process involves active removal of the food to an outside public area, and a declaration recited in front of three unrelated people that do not live in one’s home that the food is hefker, ownerless. An opportunity must be given for others to take the food. Afterwards, the person may take it once again.
The otzar beis din agents are exempt from this requirement. Also, there are times when one is exempt from the biur. If one purchased otzar beis din food after the biur date for that food, then one does not have to perform a biur.
Proper Use
And Consumption
When one consumes Shevi’is fruit that was obtained properly, it may not be wasted or treated in a manner that is not in accordance with its inherent holiness. Larger amounts of Shevi’is leftovers that are more than just what is left on the plate must be collected and placed in a “pach Shevi’is”—a can that is specifically used for leftover Shevi’is produce—so that it can rot. Only after it has rotted to the point where it is no longer even fit for animals may it be disposed of.
There are other limitations on Shevi’is produce too.
• The buying and selling of Shevi’is fruit for a profit is forbidden.
• Neither the fruit nor its products may be taken out of Eretz Yisrael.
• It may only be given to those who have been given the land of Eretz Yisrael as an inheritance. Thus, although first- through sixth-year produce of Eretz Yisrael may be given to non-Jews, that which grew in the seventh year may not.
• The produce may only be used in a manner that gives the user maximum benefit in the manner that it is normally used. A lemon may be juiced, but pears and peaches, whose most common use is not for the juice, may only be eaten.
• When Shevi’is fruits are actually sold, such as when the leftovers of that which was collected are sold, the moneys received are considered infused with kedushas Shevi’is. These moneys may only be used to purchase foods. Those foods are likewise infused with kedushas Shevi’is. Thus, one should not buy Shevi’is fruit from an irreligious Jew or someone who is not careful and knowledgeable of these halachos, because he will probably not be careful to properly treat the money or the food.
The laws of Shemittah are complex. The observance of this mitzvah may at first seem to be quite a challenge. Yet both observing these laws and studying them provide us with unique opportunities for developing our relationship with Hashem. What matters most in this world is how successful we are in emulating Hashem, as well as our relationship with Him. The mitzvah of Shemittah helps us develop the relationship, to realize the remarkable kedushah of the gift of the land that He has given us, and the opportunity to emulate Him in giving the produce to all who need it.
The Talmud tells us, “B’Shevi’is nigalin.” One interpretation of these words is that the mitzvah of Shevi’is will create within us the level of spirituality that will quickly result in Hashem’s commanding the redemption.
This year, for the first time in quite a long time, more than half of the arable land in Eretz Yisrael will be at rest. Hopefully, this is a sign of what is to come. May Hashem bring about the redemption of our people and cease the rockets, the killings, and the kidnappings of our youth, our citizens, and our soldiers. Amen. v
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Posted by on September 11, 2014. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.