Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff, Rav & Rosh Kollel in Neve Yaakov, Jerusalem | Guest Contributor
An Otzar Beis Din is literally ‘a storehouse operated by Beis Din.’ Why would Beis Din operate a warehouse? Before explaining more fully the true purpose of an Otzar Beis Din, which is a halachically approved method of distributing Shemita produce, we must first review the halachos of Shemita. These rules fall under two general categories:
(1) Laws of the Land
The Torah teaches that every seventh year is Shemita, and we are prohibited from working the land of Eretz Yisroel. One may not plow, plant, prune, or harvest one’s grapevines as an owner, or perform most other agricultural work. Furthermore, one may not allow one’s land to be worked during Shemita, even by an aino Yehudi. One may perform activities whose purpose is to prevent loss, such as watering plants and trees so that they do not die.
The landowner may not treat what grows during Shemita as his own; rather, he must allow others to enter his field or orchard and help themselves. They may take only as much as their family will eat, and the landowner himself may also take this amount. One may not sell Shemita produce in a business manner.
(2) Laws of the Fruit
Shemita produce is imbued with special sanctity called kedushas shevi’is. The Torah provides specific rules that govern how one treats it. These laws fall under the following categories:
- Commerce with Shemita Produce
One must be careful not to sell Shemita produce in a way that implies that one is its true owner. For this reason, Shemita produce may not be sold by weight or measure nor sold in a regular store. Instead it should be distributed in a way that implies that this is a division of produce rather than a sale.
The Torah permits eating produce that grew by itself without working the field during Shemita. However, Chazal felt it necessary to prohibit grains and most vegetables that happened to grow on their own during Shemita year or were planted in violation of the laws of Shemita. This was because even in the days of Chazal it was unfortunately common to find Jews who deceitfully ignored Shemita laws. One practice of enterprising, unscrupulous farmers was to plant grain or vegetables and market them as produce that grew on its own.
To discourage this illegal business, Chazal forbade even grains and vegetables that grew on their own, a prohibition referred to as sefichin (literally, ‘plants that sprouted’). Several exceptions were made, including produce grown in the field of an aino Yehudi, who has no obligation to observe Shemita.
- Hefker – Ownerless
Since all Shemita produce is halachically ownerless, every consumer has the halachic right to ‘help oneself’ to whatever his family might eat. The poskim dispute whether one has the right to do this if the owner refuses entry.
The Otzar Beis Din
With this introduction, we can now discuss an Otzar Beis Din.
The owner of a vineyard is not required to produce wine for me, only to allow me to harvest the grapes for myself. If I do not have the equipment or expertise to press and process grapes into wine or olives into oil, I will be unable to utilize my rights to these fruits. Similarly, although I have a right to travel from Yerushalayim to pick citrus, mangos and bananas grown along the coast or in the northern part of the country, it is not that convenient for me to go. How then can I possibly utilize the benefit of Shemita?
Enter the Otzar Beis Din. The Beis Din represents the consumer and hires people to gather the fruit, crush the grapes and olives into juice and oil, ferment the juice into wine, package the product, and then distribute it to the consumer. The Otzar Beis Din acts as the consumer’s agent and hires pickers, truckers, and other laborers; rents wine production equipment; purchases the bottles; produces Shemita fruits, wines and oils; and delivers them to a convenient distribution center near my house.
Obviously, the Otzar Beis Din cannot expect the pickers, truckers, and other laborers to work as unpaid volunteers, nor can they use the production equipment without paying rent. Similarly, the managers who coordinate this project are also entitled to a wage for their efforts. The Otzar Beis Din divides these costs among the consumers. However, no charge is made whatsoever for the fruit, since they are hefker; the charges are only for the labor and other costs involved. Thus, Otzar Beis Din products should cost less than regular retail prices for the same items.
Similarly, the farmer is required to allow anyone to enter his field and help himself to his crops. However, since it is inconvenient for a resident of Yerushalayim to travel to an orchard in the northern part of Israel or along its coast to pick oranges and bananas, the Otzar Beis Din picks and transports the fruit to the consumer. All the other halachos of Shemita apply to this produce.
The Development of a ‘Modern’ Otzar Beis Din
The rabbonim and Beis Din of Yerushalayim organized the first ‘modern’ Otzar Beis Din over 110 years ago. In 5670 (1910), Rav Tzvi Hirsch Cohen, a talmid chacham from Rechovot who owned vineyards and orchards, came to the rabbonim of Yerushalayim requesting that they function as his Beis Din to distribute the wine and fruit from his orchards for the coming Shemita. The written contract, signed by Rav Chayim Berlin, Rav Yosef Chayim Zonnenfeld, Rav Pesach Frank, Rav Yisroel Yaakov Yaavetz and Rav Moshe Nachum Wallenstein, enabled Yerushalayim residents to receive wine and fruit from Rav Cohen’s orchards.
Someone had to arrange to harvest the fruit, process the grapes into wine, and transport the products to Yerushalayim. Since Rav Cohen was the most qualified person to take care of these arrangements, the Beis Din appointed him to be their representative on behalf of the general public. As an agent, he was entitled to a wage for his work, as were the other employees who harvested, crushed, packaged, and transported the crop, but no one was entitled to any profits on the produce.
The Beis Din established several rules to maintain that the laws of Shemita were scrupulously kept in this arrangement, and to guarantee that Rav Cohen was paid as a manager and not as an owner of the product. For one thing, they predetermined the price that the consumer would pay for the wine, guaranteeing that it was significantly lower than its usual market price.
Because of the laws governing the harvest and use of Shemita products, the Beis Din also insisted on the following rules:
- The wine and fruits could be distributed only to people who would observe the Shemita sanctity of the products.
- The vineyards and orchards had to be available for any Shemita-observant person to enter and harvest for his own needs.
- The products were not distributed through stores, but were divided as a communal division of bulk product.
- The products were not weighed or measured. Each individual who participated in dividing the Shemita produce paid Rav Cohen as Beis Din’s agent, for which the consumer was entitled to ‘shares’ of wine and produce, which were delivered in bulk containers without an exact weight.
- The actual harvest of the product was performed by aino Yehudim and in an atypical way.
In his analysis of the procedure of an Otzar Beis Din, the Chazon Ish follows a more lenient approach than that of the above-mentioned Beis Din of Yerushalayim. He ruled that representatives of an Otzar Beis Din may harvest in the normal way and use Jewish labor. Thus, the Otzar Beis Din of a modern farm following the Chazon Ish’s ruling allows Jewish staff to use tractors and other equipment to harvest and process the Shemita produce.
In addition, the Chazon Ish permitted weighing and measuring produce sold through Otzar Beis Din. In his opinion, the prohibition against weighing and measuring Shemita produce is only because this indicates that I am the owner of the produce. However, weighing and measuring Otzar Beis Din produce is to determine a fair division of costs involved in supplying the produce, and not to demonstrate ownership.
Today, in a modern Otzar Beis Din, the grower plants everything before Shemita and is given extremely detailed instructions regarding what he may and may not do during Shemita. The grower must allow any Shemita-observant person to enter the field or orchard and help himself to the produce.
The Heter Otzar Beis Din Controversy
The modern term, Heter Otzar Beis Din, is used pejoratively. The purpose of an Otzar Beis Din is to service the consumer, not the producer, as explained above.
Unfortunately, unscrupulous individuals sometimes manipulate the rubric of Otzar Beis Din to allow a ‘business as usual’ attitude and violate both the spirit and halacha of Shemita. I know of farms that call themselves Otzar Beis Din but in reality bar free entry of their fields during Shemita, or where the field owner treats the produce as completely his own and charges accordingly.
Since this contradicts the meaning of Otzar Beis Din, these cases are called heter Otzar Beis Din, meaning permissibility based on an abuse of the concept of Otzar Beis Din. Because of these concerns, some hechsheirim discourage the use of Otzar Beis Din. Thus, in practice, Otzar Beis Din becomes a michshol when it degenerates into a heter Otzar Beis Din. Indeed, as with every ‘treasure,’ one must make every effort to ensure its principle stays intact. How much more so with the principles of the Otzar Beis Din!
All too often we find a wide chasm between what should be in theory and what exists in reality. It is truly remarkable, then, that during Shemita in Eretz Yisroel, where you have the zechus to live, breathe, and experience kedushas shevi’is, you can visit that unassuming Otzar Beis Din quietly nestled in Geula’s Rechov Yonah, and see for yourself where halachic theory becomes a halachic reality.
 Avodah Zarah 15b.
 Moed Katan 3b; Rambam, Hil. Shemita 1:10; Cf. Chazon Ish, Shevi’is 16:4, 21:14, who is more lenient.
 Rambam, Hil.Shemita 4:1.
 Ibid., 6:1.
 Mishnah Shevi’is 8:3.
 Yerushalmi Shevi’is 7:1.
 Mishnah Shevi’is 6:5.
 Beis Ridbaz 5:18; Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 1:186.
 Rambam, Hil. Shemita 4:29.
 Sefer Minchas Yerushalayim, 161.
 Ibid., 163; see also Tosefta Shevi’is 6:11.
 Sefer Minchas Yerushalayim, 181.
 Katif Shevi’is, 125.
 Shevi’is 11:7 s.v. b’mashekasavti
 Sefer HaShemita, 21.
 Mishpetei Aretz, 103.