Anyone who has had the opportunity to visit Yerushalayim Ir HaKodesh, as I recently did, will tell you that a must-see experience is a trip to the Geula neighborhood on Erev Shabbos.
Rechov Malchai Yisroel could very well be dubbed the commercial heart of the Chareidi community. The stores pulsate with energy and electricity, while the streets teem with traffic tie-ups, both on and off the sidewalks. It could be termed a businessman’s dream or nightmare, depending on one’s ability to handle the sheer crush of consumers. The side streets, on the other hand, are a labyrinth of quiet residential apartments. One such quiet street is Rechov Yonah.
For six out of seven years, the Stern family’s mirpeset (balcony) on Rechov Yonah looks like any other mirpeset, but this year is not like the others. During this year, shnas haShemita, the Stern’s mirpeset undergoes an amazing transformation. Welcome to the Otzar of Bnei Brak – Jerusalem Branch!
In brief, the Otzar Beis Din is the legal entity that the rabbis have established to serve as the legitimate agent to pick and halachically distribute the produce of farmers who are observing Shemita k’hilchasa. Farmers cannot engage in normal commercial endeavors such as planting, harvesting and marketing produce as they normally do. Their produce may be eaten, albeit with strict adherence to the laws of Shemita. Additionally, the land may be maintained so that it will not fall into ruin.
To meet all the halachic restrictions, the Yerushalmi Otzar Beis Din is set up on this residential mirpeset. Agents of the Otzar Beis Din tell the farmer that they will send their community representatives to pick and distribute the produce. The Otzar Beis Din also establishes fixed costs for the produce; it also covers the costs of labor, delivery and distribution, since the produce cannot be sold in a typical commercial manner – not by weight nor by count. A fixed container price list is posted on the railing of the Stern’s mirpeset.
The Otzar Bais Din pays the farm workers a set fee for their efforts in the field. These costs include picking and packing the produce into sturdy corrugated boxes, shipping the produce to the Stern home, and maintaining the Otzar Bais Din. Trucks can transport a thousand cases of produce per delivery and, according to Yidel Stern, Mrs. Stern’s son, there can be up to four deliveries a day!
Walking by the Stern’s mirpeset, one can view a tower of empty cartons piled high to the sky, ready to be sent back to the farm to be refilled. Produce arrives from a variety of destinations; the major shipments are currently coming from the Golan.
Yidel Stern notes, “We get some of the best fruit that you won’t see during the other six years of the cycle, because they are generally exported. This year, the produce must stay within Eretz Yisroel.” The fixed prices for containers of premium-quality plums, pears, apples and mangoes are often a fraction of the regular market price.
Both minhag Yerushalayim and minhag Bnei Brak follow the custom is to eat produce grown on land and in orchards owned by non-Jews, yivul nochri. According to minhag Yerushalayim, this produce is not vested with kedushas shevi’is and so does not require special handling; minhag Bnei Brak follows the ruling of the Chazon Ish, which considers yivul nochri to be vested with kedushas shevi’is. (Produce imported from chutz la’aretz, outside Eretz Yisroel, is not vested with any special sanctity.)
According to both customs, produce purchased from the Otzar Beis Din are vested with kedushas shevi’is and must be treated with special sanctity. Disposing of any portion of produce with kedushas shevi’is is not a simple matter. One must be careful to wait until the produce rots before depositing any peels, pits and leftovers into a special pach Shemita, a dedicated Shemita garbage pail. One may actually purchase ready-made, fully waxed and lined disposable Shemita containers for this purpose, sold in packs of six, ready for the garbage in a day and a half.
The selection of produce offered by the Otzar Beis Din varies. While you won’t find the cornucopia of fruits and vegetables available in Machane Yehuda, what you will find is an array of gorgeous and delicious produce supplied by a select group of champion farmers who strictly adhere to the laws of Shemita. The Otzar Beis Din facilitates the distribution of rarely available, top-quality produce throughout Eretz Yisroel.
When asked why she and her family have undertaken such a daunting task, Mrs. Stern answers simply, “I was born and raised on Komemiyut, and my father z”l was unbelievably dedicated to the mitzvah of Shemita. In fact, he was able to convince other farmers to observe shevi’is k’hilchasa, and through their adherence to this precious mitzvah they became 100% observant Yidden. I want to preserve my father’s legacy, and that is why I maintain the Otzar Beis Din.”
Yidel Stern chimes in, “Anyone who wants to see the Otzar in action really should come by on Erev Shabbos.” I would wholeheartedly second that!