Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
On Thursday, August 28, leading rabbis convened in the home of Rabbi Moshe Shternbuch, rosh beis din of the Eidah Hachareidis of Jerusalem, to focus on the laws of Shemittah for the upcoming Jewish year of 5775. Rabbi Shternbuch, who previously served as rav of Johannesburg, South Africa, is the prolific author of Moadim U’Zemanim and Teshuvos Ve’Hanhagos, amongst many other important works. The meeting was attended by all the members of the Vaad HaShemittah and Vaad HaKashrus of the Eidah Hachareidis. Its proceedings were carefully recorded.
The program covered many aspects of applying Shemittah laws to the current growing and processing of agricultural foods in Israel. Several of those participating rabbis raised the possible enactment of a relatively unknown chumrah (stringency) of limiting the use of fresh milk to only that from cows whose food supply was planted and reaped before the prohibition of the Shemittah year began. This proposed chumrah is almost totally unknown and heretofore had never been enacted.
The chumrah would enable one to avoid benefiting from sefichim, produce that grows on its own during the Shemittah year. This is in accordance with the rabbinic enactment of gezeiras sefichim, lest one quietly sow his field in the middle of the night and allow people to assume that the food grew on its own (Rambam Hilchos Shemittah VeYoveil 4:2). Presumably, the proponents of this almost unknown chumrah were of the opinion that today’s food supplies are plentiful and that everyone, both rich and poor, has ample access to bountiful foods. The heter mechirah, the selling of land in Israel to non-Jews for the Shemittah year, somewhat similar to the selling of chametz to non-Jews for Pesach, was temporarily enacted by rabbinical decree in 5649 (1888–1889) because of the scarcity of food for the mostly impoverished Jews then residing in Eretz Yisrael (then Palestine).
The heter mechirah was enacted by Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor, zt’l (1817–1896), chief rabbi of Kovno and author of Be’er Yitzchok, and was accepted by notable rabbis including Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook, zt’l (1864–1935), who served as chief rabbi of Jerusalem and was appointed as Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine in 1921; Rabbi Zvi Pesach Frank, zt’l (1879–1960), chief rabbi of Jerusalem and author of Har Zvi; Rabbi Yechiel Michel Tukachinsky, zt’l (1872–1955), author of Gesher Hachaim; Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, zt’l (1888–1978), founding editor of the Encyclopedia Talmudis; and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, zt’l (1920–2013), chief rabbi of Israel and author of Yabia Omer, amongst many others. The heter mechirah was vigorously opposed by many other rabbis.
In addition to heter mechirah, produce during Shemittah is available in Israel through many different arrangements. Produce grown on land fully owned by non-Jews, produce imported from outside the halachic borders of Eretz Yisrael, produce under the authority of otzar beis din, and produce grown through hydroponics are fully permitted. Otzar beis din is produce technically owned by a beis din. Hydroponics is a method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions in water without soil. Various kosher certifications are available, each with differing certification criteria.
The suggested chumrah of “Shemittah milk” that was rejected at the meeting stems from the actions of a renowned chassidish rebbe from Williamsburg, no longer alive, who visited Israel in 1952. He instructed the household members that joined him to pack all food needed for the duration of the visit, so as to avoid eating any Israeli food that may be in violation of Shemittah rules. Though his family members and attendants did use fresh milk that was readily available in Israel with appropriate kosher certification (from the Eidah Hachareidis in particular), the rebbe used only powdered milk. The rebbe declined using fresh milk that was milked from cows in Israel, fearing that the feed given to the cows may possibly have been in violation of the above-mentioned gezeiras sefichim. The rebbe practiced this chumrah only for himself and did not instruct or impose it upon anyone else, even for his own household.
When the rebbe’s conduct was noticed and publicized, everyone wondered about it. The rebbe was renowned for his exceptional piety and his scrupulous adherence to kashrus. This additional caution on the part of the rebbe in regard to Shemittah milk was unheard of and raised curiosity throughout Israel. When Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz, zt’l (1879–1953), revered author of Chazon Ish, was told of the rebbe’s conduct, he was baffled. The Chazon Ish dispatched his longtime close confidant Rabbi Dovid Frankel, zt’l, to speak with the rebbe and learn the basis for the chumrah.
The rebbe shared with Rabbi Frankel that his chumrah was not based in halachah but derives from an interpretation by Rabbi Aryeh Leib Tzintz, zt’l (d. 1833), known as the Maharal Tzintz, in his sefer Kometz HaMinchah, Parashas Behar, that the reason the Jewish nation descended to idol worship during the First Temple period was that they did not adhere to the laws of Shemittah. The produce during the Shemittah year ennobles and sanctifies the soul, not only of man, but also of animals. Therefore, we must only eat that which is wholly sanctified during Shemittah. Though not halachically mandated, the rebbe sought to achieve and maintain the highest possible level of holiness for himself. Though he did not subscribe to the chumrah, this interpretation greatly impressed the Chazon Ish. Rabbi Yitzchok Zev Velvel Soloveichik, zt’l (1886–1956), the Brisker Rav known as the Griz, also marveled at the rebbe’s chumrah, but nevertheless did not join or recommend the practice.
Those assembled at Rabbi Shternbuch’s home heard the suggestion of introducing the chumrah to all Jews in Israel, reviewed all of its particulars, and decided to decline its recommendation. The decision was based on the Talmudic principle of not imposing a “strict interpretation that can be misunderstood as a leniency.” In recommending eating a larger amount of matzah as a minimum to fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzah at the Pesach Seder, one might later decide that eating a lesser amount does not obligate one to recite Birkas HaMazon. Thus, being strict could bring one to be lenient. If the chumrah would be accepted, the current produce in line to be reaped and replanted would have to wait two rainfalls, something that would bring it into the calendar year of Shemittah 5775.
However, in response to the new proposal, an additional instruction will be issued to Jewish farmers in Israel to use last year’s feed crop for cows first. As for other food supplies, such as chickens and eggs, etc., Shemittah feed may continue to be used. v
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.