Navigating the Challenges: Shemita 5782

For over nineteen hundred years, the Jewish people have longed to return to Eretz Yisroel. It is only in Eretz Yisroel that we can realize our full potential as a nation. It is only in Eretz Yisroel that the Torah’s blueprint for life can be completely fulfilled.

For the millennia, the most important dimension of this longing was the yearning to once again be able to fulfill the mitzvos hatluyos ba’aretz (agricultural laws), the commandments that can be observed only in Eretz Yisroel. With Hashem’s help, many of us in this past generation have realized part of this two thousand year old dream. Yet, this realization has presented us with new challenges.

Without a doubt, one of the greatest mitzvah challenges of all times is the fulfillment of the mitzvah of Shemita, the year of Sabbatical rest for the Land of Israel. The Midrash perceives this multifaceted commandment as being so challenging and difficult that he who meets the challenge of Shemita in all its details is called, in the words of the Midrash, an angel. True, observing the mitzvah may be spiritual, but the details involved are down to earth and fairly complex.

What follows are some practical Shemita insights that will allow us to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of this beautiful mitzvah.

The halachos of Shemita can be divided into three major categories:

(1) Prohibitions regarding working the land

(2) A proper definition of peiros shevi’is

(3) Halachos regarding the handling of peiros shevi’is

  • Working The Land: What Is Prohibited?

The laws regarding the land are extremely complicated and not very relevant to people who do not own land in Eretz Yisroel, so it will be dealt with very briefly. In general, all work intended to enhance the land, to prepare the land for producing a yield, or to enhance vegetation is forbidden. Therefore, one may notplow the land, plant seeds or saplings, or even prune trees because these activities promote growth and are considered forbidden work.

Some other forbidden activities include watering, fertilizing, weeding and other essential fieldwork. If the purpose of the work is to protect what has already grown prior to Shemita so it should not get ruined, or if trees are in danger of dying, certain activities are generally permitted to protect them. Since these laws are very complicated, a posek (a Torah authority familiar with these laws) should be consulted.

Flower pots at home in Eretz Yisroel present their own problems. Therefore, a posek should be consulted for instruction on proper Shemita plant care.

  • The Produce of the Seventh Year: What Constitutes Peiros Shevi’is

In order to facilitate an understanding of what fruits and vegetables are permitted or forbidden, we must clearly define the four W’s:

  • Which produce are we speaking about?
  • When was the produce grown?
  • Who owns the land?
  • Where was the produce grown?

Which Produce?

There are essentially three categories of produce that we deal with: (a) vegetables; (b) grains and legumes; and (c) fruit grown on trees.

When Was The Produce Grown?

New fruit trees cannot be planted 44 days or less before Rosh Hashanaof a Shemita year. Seeds cannot be planted within three days before Rosh Hashanaor during the entire Shemita year. [The halachos regarding the produce included in this prohibition and the produce to which the laws of shevi’is apply will be dealt with in section (3).]

Who Owns The Land?

  • Land owned by a non-Jew: There is a difference of opinion among the poskim as to whether produce grown on land owned by a non-Jew living in Eretz Yisroel is considered produce of shevi’is. In Yerushalayim,the custom is not to consider it produce of shevi’is, while in Bnei Brak,it is.
  • Land owned by a Jew: In some cases, land owned by a Jew is sold to a non-Jew through a heter mechira. This practice is halachically questionable.

The heter mechira was formulated and instituted by many very prominent rabbonim (including the Gadol Hador, Harav Yitzchok Elchanan Spector) in the year 1887. There was a great deal of controversy among other prominent rabbonim surrounding the heter, the foremost of whom was the Netziv (HaravNaftoli Zvi Yehuda Berlin) of Volozhin.

Most of the controversy centered around the problem regarding the Torah prohibition of selling any part of Eretz Yisroel to non-Jews. Those who proposed the heter claimed that the situation in Eretz Yisroel was so precarious that not working the land for an entire year would put the entire Jewish settlement in danger, thus warranting this drastic measure. Others claimed that the prohibition of selling the land was worse than the prohibition of working the land.

Since then, every Shemita there have been rabbonim who have sold the land. Harav Avraham Yitzchok Kook institutionalized the sale (although he, too, agreed it was to be done only under grave duress). Since its inception, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel has sold the land every Shemita. However, there are presently many rabbonim who question whether the current situation in Israel warrants this type of sale.

Furthermore, there is another more serious problem the consumer faces. The produce that is sold in the regular stores during the year of Shemita predominantly comes from non-religious kibbutzim and moshavim, who would never agree to sell their land. This is compounded by the fact that the non-religious kibbutzim do not observe those prohibitions which HaravKook instituted, and HaravKook never permitted their current practices.

Certainly, a tourist who is not knowledgeable concerning the dinim of Shemita should buy produce only from stores that do not rely upon the heter mechira.

Where The Produce Was Grown?

The laws of Shemita apply only to produce grown within the boundaries of Eretz Yisroel, which are defined as those areas which were occupied by the people of Israel in the period of the Bayis Sheini. These are not the same boundaries of the State of Israel that exist today. To which boundaries this does extend is a matter of great controversy. Some authorities state that anything grown south of Ashkelon is outside of the boundaries of Eretz Yisroel. Others extend the boundaries well into the Negev desert until Eilat. In the north, the Golan Heights is questionable.

  • The Practical Laws of Handling Peiros Shevi’is

There are numerous laws regarding the consumption, sale, and disposal of peiros shevi’is. The most important are highlighted below.

  • There is a rabbinical prohibition against eating sefichin. Sefichin is defined as produce that grows by itself during shevi’is. The prohibition does not apply to any fruit from trees. The prohibition applies only to vegetables which started growing during the year of shevi’is, and grains and legumes that reached one third of their growth during Shemita.

The custom is that any vegetables grown from a plant which germinated before Rosh Hashanamay be eaten. Therefore, all vegetables (tomatoes, lettuce, etc.) that one buys immediately after Rosh Hashana, while the laws of shevi’is apply to them, may still be eaten. Charts are available in Eretz Yisrael providing dates for each fruit, legume, and vegetable regarding when the different halachos apply.

Produce grown in a non-Jewish field, which may or may not be considered peirosshevi’is, are not sefichin. Produce planted during Shemita in Jewish fields have the prohibition of sefichin.

  • All authorities agree that it is not permissible to destroy peiros shevi’is so long as it is fit for consumption. Leftover food should be put into a bag and discarded only after it spoils. If this is impossible, it should be put into a sealed plastic bag and discarded. Cooked food may be discarded if it was left unrefrigerated for an entire night and has spoiled. Similarly, an esrog grown during Shemita must be discarded in this fashion after being used during Sukkos of the post-Shemita year.
  • There are some authorities who consider it a mitzvah to eat peiros shevi’is but most disagree.
  • Peiros shevi’is must be used in its usual manner. This means that fruits usually eaten raw may not be cooked, and fruits usually eaten cooked may not be eaten raw. Fruits not usually squeezed may not be squeezed, and fruits usually eaten by people may not be given to animals.
  • Peiros shevi’is should be treated as hefker, ownerless, and not withheld from the public. Ideally, fences should be left open and permission given for anyone to harvest. However, since most people don’t know how to pick fruit without ruining the trees, tree owners can insist on picking the fruit themselves for those who request it. Fruit under the auspices of an Otzar Beis Din should not be taken without its permission. Many authorities forbid consumption of any produce that is guarded during shevi’is.
  • Peiros shevi’is are not permitted to be sold in their usual commercial manner. This means that the produce should not be sold in regular stores, where it is weighed and/or sold for profit in its usual manner. Furthermore, the money used to buy produce of shevi’is becomes sanctified and whatever is bought with that money must be treated in the same sanctified manner as produce of shevi’is.

Because of these potential complications, a system of Shemita produce distribution has been organized in order to ensure a steady supply of produce for the urban population in a proper halachic manner. The distribution of this produce is administered by the local Beis Din of each city, commonly known as the Otzar Beis Din. Fees are permitted to be charged by the Otzar Beis Din to offset the cost of maintaining the warehouse, picking the produce, and doing permissible work in the orchards to maintain the fruit, but not for the fruit itself.

  • Under normal circumstances, peiros shevi’is should not be exported. It is for this reason that Israeli fresh produce and Israeli manufactured goods must clearly state that they are Shemita-free. Many authorities permit the export of esrogim for Sukkos. When products come to foreign markets from Eretz Yisroel, one should look for a reliable kosher certification.
  • At the end of the season for each type of fruit or vegetable, one is required to remove from his possession all peiros shevi’is. This requirement is called biur. The custom is to take all produce whose season has come to an end into the street in front of three people and declare it ownerless. The same person may then take it back into his own possession. The exact time of biur for most produce varies from one Shemita to the next. Charts will be published later this year in Israel to give the consumers exact dates of biur for each fruit and vegetable.

Although Shemita lasts for a full year, peiros shevi’is are sold during the following year and beyond. Therefore, this mitzvahextends far beyond the seventh year of Sabbatical rest. We suggest that before buying wine from Eretz Yisroel, even with a good hechsher, one should read the label carefully. If the label states Otzar Beis Din, one should consult their rav as to how to proceed.

Unquestionably, Shemita is a mitzvahof great mesirus nefesh. However, if we look at the accomplishment of the mitzvahas the fulfillment of our merit to keep Eretz Yisroel, this will be a source of blessing and spiritual enhancement for us all.