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Shemittah: Deserting the Farms

Shemittah: Deserting the Farms

A digest of the pertinent laws of shemittat karka, the agricultural restrictions of the Sabbatical (Shemittah) year.

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For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in its produce. But in the seventh year, the land shall have a complete rest, a Sabbath to the L‑rd; you shall not sow your field, you shall not prune your vineyard, nor shall you reap the aftergrowth of your harvest . . . [The produce of] the Sabbath of the land shall be yours to eat for you, for your male and female servants, and for your hired worker and resident who live with you . . . (Leviticus 25:3–6)

The bulk of the agricultural laws of Shemittah apply only within the Land of Israel. Only in the Land of Israel is it a mitzvah to allow the land to lie fallow during this year, and only the produce which grows in Israel during the Shemittah year is considered holy, subject to special rules, as will be detailed in the course of this article.

Those who dwell outside the Land of Israel are impacted by the agricultural laws of Shemittah1 in two ways:

a) Produce It is the privilege of Diaspora Jewry to financially support the courageous Israeli Shemittah-observant farmerswhich is exported from Israel may be eaten only if it bears reliable rabbinical certification, attesting that it was grown in compliance with the rules of Shemittah.2

b) It is the privilege and duty of Diaspora Jewry to financially support the courageous Israeli Shemittah-observant farmers, “those mighty in strength, who perform His word,”3 by contributing to the special funds set up for this purpose. You can send your donations to the Keren Hashvi’it Fund, 42 Broadway, 14th floor, New York, NY 10004. Tel. (212) 797-9000.

Shemittah Land Laws

The following is a summary of some of the basic laws that apply in the Land of Israel. The practical applications are complex, especially with today’s modern agricultural and distribution methods, and one who lives in Israel and has a farm or a garden, or even a houseplant, should consult a rabbi there to find out the details. Even buying a bouquet of flowers demands extra knowledge this year. (While all of this may seem overwhelming, the practical applications of these laws are often easier to carry out than one might think. Also see “Shemittah Nowadays,” below, to get more of a picture of how Shemittah is observed in practice in Israel today.)

a) Only certain types of labor are specifically prohibited by the Torah during the Shemittah year: sowing, pruning and harvesting. All other agricultural work (such as digging, removing stones, fertilizing, applying pesticides, etc.) is forbidden by rabbinical decree, unless the work must be done in order to prevent permanent damage to the field.

b) For the duration of this year, personal ownership of land is relinquished. The gates surrounding farms may not be locked, and anyone may come into any field or garden and help him- or herself to the produce. One may gather into one’s home only enough food for one’s family.

c) One may not do business with Shemittah produce. It may not be used to pay a debt, and it may not be sold commercially. One may sell only small amounts of produce which might be left over from that gathered for personal use.4

d) Whenever a certain species of produce goes out of season and is no longer available to scavenging animals in the fields, that species of produce must be removed from the home too. This is called biur. The one performing biur takes the produce outside and declares it ownerless in the presence of three people. It may then be reclaimed.

e) Of special relevance to the consumer: Shemittah produce has special holiness.5

  • Such produce may be eaten only in the Land of Israel, and must not be exported.
  • Shemittah Of special relevance to the consumer: Shemittah produce has special holinessproduce, which has kedushas shevi’is, “the holiness of the seventh year,” must be treated with respect, and may be used only in the manner that it is commonly used. For example, if something is normally eaten raw, it may not be cooked; if it is ordinarily eaten by humans, it must not be fed to animals. Nothing may be degraded from its usual purpose. Of course, it must not be wasted.6
  • Food leftovers, too, must be treated with respect. Everything good should be eaten. If there are scraps and peels that cannot be eaten, they should be put somewhere that is designated for the “holiness of the seventh year” until they rot and become unfit for human consumption (at that point they can be thrown out).

f) In addition to these biblically ordained limitations, the rabbis also prohibited eating sefichim, which literally translates as “aftergrowths.” Originally, anything which grew on its own was free for the taking. But people started planting crops during Shemittah and then claiming that the growths were sefichim. To prevent this, the sages decreed that anything that one could potentially plant surreptitiously (and then claim not to have done so) would be forbidden to eat, thus eliminating any incentive to plant on Shemittah. Fruit is permitted, as fruit trees survive from year to year and there is no incentive to plant them during Shemittah.

This leads to a general distinction between fruits and vegetables. Fruit is restricted in terms of growing, selling and using, but it can be eaten, while sefichim, a word that has come to refer to all vegetables, grains and legumes,7 may never be eaten, now matter how it grew.8

Shemittah Nowadays

In the past, the Land of Israel was basically an agrarian society. In a certain way, this made Shemittah much simpler. True, it was forbidden to do commerce with Shemittah produce, but individuals could easily go to their own fields and pick fruit for their own consumption. And anyone who did not have their own farm could go to any neighboring farm and eat freely. Sefichim, such as grains and legumes, were stockpiled in advance.

However, If Shemittah fruit may not be sold commercially, how can people get fruit to eat?in today’s complex industrial society, most people do not have a variety of fruit trees nearby. If Shemittah fruit may not be sold commercially, how do ordinary people in cities get fruit to eat? In addition, what about vegetables? Are the grocery shelves bare for an entire year?

There are many types of kosher-certified grocery stores, and they stock their shelves in a variety of ways.

1) Imported Produce

Some Shemittah-observant stores sell only imported fruits and vegetables during the year of Shemittah.

2) Local Produce Grown by Non-Jews

Other Relying heavily on non-Jewish-grown fruits and vegetables is controversialvendors sell fruits and vegetables grown by Arabs on their personal property in the Land of Israel. But relying heavily on non-Jewish-grown fruits and vegetables is controversial.9

3) Produce from “Non-Sanctified” Israeli Land

There are some portions of modern-day Israel which, since they were not under Jewish control in the days of Ezra, are not considered part of the Land for the purposes of Shemittah. These areas include the southern Negev and northeast Galil (around Kiryat Shmonah and Metullah). Produce grown in these areas is totally permitted and not subject to Shemittah laws.

In addition, a few halachic solutions have been devised:

1) Matza Menutak

Planting seeds indoors during Shemittah is forbidden. Planting seeds outside, in pots that are completely disconnected from the ground, is also forbidden. However, the Chazon Ish, a prominent Torah scholar who lived in Israel from 1933 until his passing in 1953, wrote that when both of these situations are combined—the planting is taking place indoors, in a pot disconnected from the earth—planting is permitted.

Based on this idea, farmers in Israel have adopted the technology of hydroponics, a method of growing plants in a mineral-nutrient solution contained in vessels rather than in soil. Using this technology, these farmers grow certain types of vegetables inside greenhouses in pots that are completely disconnected from the ground. Most contemporary halachic authorities consider this an excellent way of growing vegetables that do not come under the prohibition of sefichim. By buying these vegetables rather than imported or Arab produce, one can have the privilege of supporting a Jewish farmer who is keeping Shemittah. These vegetables do not have “the holiness of the seventh year.”

2) Heter Mechirah

The heter mechirah, or “sale dispensation,” is a legal loophole devised by three prominent rabbis in response to the life-threatening situation in Israel in the late 1800s. Jewish farmers were struggling to stay afloat, and 1889 was a Shemittah year. Farmers were afraid that if they would allow the land to lie fallow for an entire year, not only would they become entirely destitute, but everything they had built up to that point would be lost. The rabbis therefore came up with this loophole. The way it works is that the land is sold to non-Jews (similar to the sale of chametz before Passover) for the duration of Shemittah. This “non-Jewish” land is then permitted to be worked, and its produce sold.10

From its inception, the heter mechirah has been controversial, with halachic authorities on both sides of the debate. The most important factor in allowing a lenient stance is the fact that nowadays the Sabbatical year is not biblically required.11 Since it is only rabbinically ordained, more leniency can be applied.12

Some of the reasons of those opposed to the heter mechirah: a) It is prohibited to sell land in the Land of Israel to a non-Jew, and any such sale is invalid. b) According to certain halachic opinions, Shemittah observance today remains a biblical obligation. c) According to yet other opinions, non-Jewish produce is holy too, so the heter mechirah doesn’t accomplish anything. d) Originally, the provision was only intended as a temporary response to a state of emergency, and was not intended to be used once the state of emergency was over.

According to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook,13 this dispensation is similar to the permission—and obligation—to desecrate the Shabbat in life-threatening situations, as it is written: “The Torah teaches us that we should desecrate a single Shabbat for one whose life is in danger, so that he will be able to keep many future Shabbats.”14 As the economy in Israel becomes more established and there is no longer a state of emergency, the original basis for the loophole is gone.

The growing trend in Israel is to avoid relying on the heter mechirah.

3) Otzar Beth Din

A A less controversial halachic solution that many rely on is the otzar beth dinless controversial halachic solution that many rely on is otzar beth din, “the storehouse of the rabbinical court,” a mechanism by which farmers may have their produce distributed to consumers.

The way this works is that the beth din (rabbinical court) pays farmers a flat fee to harvest their own fruit and store it in a storehouse rented by the beth din. The beth din then distributes this fruit to the public, passing on the expenses they incurred in paying the farmers to pick the fruit. Farmers are paid for their time and work, just like any laborer, but do not market their own fruit, which is forbidden.

[If one relies on the heter mechirah, the produce may be treated just like the produce of any other year. By contrast, Shemittah holiness laws apply to all produce distributed by the otzar beth din, and vegetables may not be distributed or eaten at all, under the decree of sefichim.]

In practice, to keep Shemittah in Israel today means buying fruits and vegetables only from a grocer that has trustworthy kosher certification. (A big contrast to life everywhere else in the world, where even the strictest kashrut observer feels free to buy and eat any fresh produce.)

In Summation

We have seen that there are widely differing opinions about Shemittah produce, both regarding the best source of produce (heter mechirah or grown by Arabs?) as well as the status of that produce (does it have “the holiness of the seventh year” or not?). Because these opinions involve so many important issues, if you live in Israel, or if you intend to visit the Holy Land during the Shemittah year (or shortly thereafter, while Shemittah products are still on the market), consult with your rabbi, who will advise you on how to proceed. He will tell you which kosher certifications to seek out, and which items contain “the holiness of the seventh year.”

Footnotes
1.

As opposed to the loan-cancellation aspect of Shemittah, which applies worldwide (see Loan Amnesty for more information on this topic).

2.

As will be explained later in this article, Shemittah produce may not be exported out of Israel. However, it is possible to buy “kosher” Israeli produce outside of Israel. For example, if it was grown outside the areas in Israel which are subject to the laws of Shemittah, or if it was grown via the heter mechirah loophole (both these ideas will be explained later in this article).

4.

Even such a sale may not be done in a normal way; for example, quantities may not be weighed or measured precisely. (This is in order to make clear that what is being sold is hefker [“ownerless”].) Furthermore, the money that one earns from selling Shemittah produce is holy—it may be used only to buy food, and then that food, whether it was originally produce of Shemittah or not, takes on the holiness of Shemittah produce with all of its restrictions.

5.

Determining whether a particular plant belongs to the sixth year (no restrictions), the seventh year (restrictions) or the eighth year (no restrictions again) depends on the species, the “cutoff date” varying from species to species. The general rules are as follows: fruit, grains and legumes reach their “cutoff date” when they are one-third developed, and green vegetables, when they are picked. There are other species which have unique deadlines. Produce which has reached its “cutoff date” before Rosh Hashanah of Shemittah is still considered produce of the sixth year, and it is free of any of the Shemittah restrictions, regardless of when it is picked or eaten. Produce which reaches its “cutoff date” before Shemittah is over will retain the restrictions of Shemittah, even after Shemittah is over.

6.

This is true even if the wastage is for the purpose of a mitzvah. For example, if one uses Shemittah wine for havdalah, he must drink the entire cup. He may not perform the usual customs of purposefully overfilling the cup so that it overflows, or extinguishing the havdalah candle in the wine at the end of the ceremony.

7.

Flowers, too, may come under this prohibition. If buying flowers in (or from) Israel, they too need rabbinic certification.

8.

There are some instances when vegetables, grains and legumes that grew on Shemittah would be permitted for consumption. For example, greenhouse tomatoes are permitted, because they do not grow from the ground. They never come under the restrictions of Shemittah in the first place, and are not considered sefichim. See below under matza menutak.

9.

Some of the problems posed by this “solution”: a) The enemies of Israel prosper as a result of our buying their produce, and this gives them a “foothold in the Land.” This problem is especially poignant today, when Israelis pay inflated prices to buy produce grown on lands and fields which were forcibly taken away from Jewish settlers and given to Arabs. b) Arab farmers or distributors may buy fruit from Jewish farmers who do not keep Shemittah, then repackage and sell it as their own. It is difficult and costly to ensure that no switching has taken place. c) There is halachic disagreement concerning the status of produce which grows on non-Jewish land in Israel. There is a minority opinion that Shemittah laws apply even to produce grown in non-Jewish fields.


Another problem inherent in this solution, as well as the solution of using only imported produce, is the idea of practicing a personal stringency at the expense of others—in this case, Jewish farmers who will be adversely economically impacted. As Rabbi Kook writes, “Certainly it is not proper to look for leniencies and loopholes by purchasing produce from non-Jews, in a situation when this will cause lose of income for Jewish farmers and undermine their livelihood. In general, in any situation where we desire to be strict for ourselves, it is correct to make certain that this stringency does not induce any negative repercussions of financial loss or disrepute for others.”

10.

The loophole does not completely nullify all the Shemittah restrictions, only those of rabbinic origin. The biblically prohibited labors of sowing, pruning and reaping must be done by non-Jews.

11.

The observance of many of the Torah’s agriculture-related laws—including the agricultural rules of Shemittah—are dependent on all twelve tribes of Israel living in the Holy Land. Such conditions existed only until the mid-6th century BCE, when the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel and sent the majority of its population, the “ten lost tribes,” into exile.

12.

This is according to the principle of sfeika de-rabbanan le-kula—when doubt exists regarding a rabbinic precept, one may be lenient.

13.

Rabbi Kook (1864–1935) was the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of the British Mandate for Palestine.

14.

Talmud, Yoma 85b.

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