Shmitta 5768

Published Fall 2007

Dates of Kedushas Shviis, sfichim, and biur can be found in our 2008 Pesach Directory, click here.

For over nineteen hundred years, the Jewish people have longed to return to Eretz Yisroel, the land of Israel.  It is only there that we can realize our full potential as a nation, and the Torah’s blueprint for life can be completely fulfilled.  Throughout the millennia, the most important dimen­sion of this yearning was to once again be able to fulfill the mitzvos hatluyos ba’aretz (agricultural laws), the commandments that can be observed only in the land of Israel.  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 shmitta, the year of Sabbatical rest for the land of Israel.  The Midrash perceives this multifaceted mitzvah as being so challenging and difficult, that it calls one who meets the challenge of shmitta in all its details an “angel”.   This article will outline some practical shmitta insights so that we can gain a greater understand­ing and appreciation of this beautiful mitzvah.

The laws of shmitta can be divided into three major categories:  laws regarding working the land, laws pertaining to the produce of the land, and consumer halachos of pairos sheviis, fruit grown during the shmitta year.

I. Working The Land – What Is Prohibited?
The laws regarding the land are extremely complicated and not very relevant to people who don’t own land in Israel, so we will deal with this only 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 not plow the land, plant seeds or saplings, or even prune trees because these activities promote growth and are considered forbidden forms of work.

Some other prohibited activities include watering, fertilizing, weeding and other essential field­work.  If the purpose of the work is to protect what has already grown from becoming ruined, or if trees are in danger of dying, certain activities are generally permitted.  Since these laws are very complicated, a posek, Torah authority familiar with these laws, should be consulted.

Flower pots at home in the land of Israel present their own problems.  A posek should be consulted for instruction on proper shmitta plant care.

II. The Produce of the 7th Year – Pairos Sheviis
In order to facilitate an understanding of fruits and vegetables that are permitted or forbidden, we must clearly define the four W’s:  Which produce are we speaking about?  When was the produce grown?  Where was the produce grown?  Who owns the land?

Which produce?  There are essentially three categories of produce concerning shmitta:  1. Veg­etables, e.g. tomatoes, lettuce, carrots; 2. Legumes (kitniyos), pulses and grains, e.g. corn, peanuts, wheat; and 3. Fruits of a tree, e.g. dates, figs, pomegranates.

When was the produce grown?  There are different time frames in effect for the different types of produce.

Fruit of a tree – New fruit trees cannot be planted 44 days or less before Rosh Hashanah of a shmitta year (there are many details as to when this prohibition applies.  A reputable posek should be asked if one wants to plant after that date).  Fruit that starts growing during shmitta is considered shmitta produce that is vested with kedushas sheviis and may be consumed.  (Fruit is considered to start growing after the flower falls off.)  The different halachos regarding the consumption of shmitta produce will be dealt with in Section III.

Vegetables – Vegetables cannot be planted after Rosh Hashanah during the entire shmitta year.  Vegetables planted before Rosh Hashanah, which start growing before shmitta and are picked during shmitta, do not get a shmitta prohibition.  This means they may be eaten, but the laws of kedushas shiviis discussed below still apply to them.  Therefore, practically speaking, if someone has tomatoes growing in his backyard, they can be eaten on the condition that the plant started growing in the sixth year.  (He must observe all the laws pertaining to working the ground during shiviis.)  Similarly, vegetables one buys immediately after Rosh Hashanah may be eaten.

Vegetables that start growing by themselves during sheviis are known as s’fichin.  Vegetables grown during sheviis may not be eaten at any time, since there is a Rabbinical prohibition against eating s’fichin.  This was instituted to deter dishonest people from planting vegetables and then claiming that they are wild.

Legumes (kitniyos), pulses and grains – These generally have the same rules as vegetables, except that legumes and grains planted before Rosh Hashanah will be permitted during shmitta only if they reached 1/3 of their growth before Rosh Hashanah.  Otherwise, they are prohibited as s’fichin during shmitta.

Who owns the land? There is a difference of opinion among the poskim as to whether produce grown on land owned by a non-Jew in the land of Israel is considered produce of sheviis.  The custom in Jerusalem is not to consider it produce of sheviis; the custom in Bnei Brak is to consider it produce of sheviis

Selling the land (heter mechira) – The system of selling the land was formulated and instituted by many very
prominent Rabbanim (including the Gadol Hador, Harav Yitzchok Elchanan Spector) in the year 1887.  Those who proposed the heter claimed that the situation in the land of Israel was so precarious that not working the land for an entire year would endanger the entire Jewish settlement, thus warranting this drastic measure. There was a great deal of controversy surrounding the heter, and it was opposed by many other prominent Rabbanim, the foremost among them being the Netziv (Harav Naftoli Zvi Yehuda Berlin) of Volozin.  Most of the controversy centered around the problem of the Torah prohibition of selling any part of the land of Israel to non-Jews.  Some felt that the prohibition of selling the land was worse than the prohibition of working the land.  Since then, there were Rabbanim who sold the land every shmitta.  Harav Avraham Yitzchok Kook institutionalized the sale, although he agreed it was to be done only in situations of grave duress.  Since its inception, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel has sold the land every shmitta.  However, there are many Gedolim who question whether the situation warrants the sale, and whether the sale is effective. In addition, for the consumer there is another more serious problem.  The produce that is sold in the regular stores during the year of shmitta 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 don’t observe those prohibitions which Harav Kook instituted, and Harav Kook never permitted their current practices. The Rabanut Harashit is trying to see to it that the heter mechira is limited as much as possible.

Even if the laws of shmitta are observed, shmitta fruit may be eaten only with certain restrictions.  Certainly, a tourist who is not knowledgeable concerning the dinim of shmitta should buy produce only from shmitta-free stores.  

Where is the location of the land where the produce was grown?  The laws of shmitta apply only to produce grown within the boundaries of Eretz Yisroel.  The boundaries of Eretz Yis­roel are defined as those areas which were occupied by the people of Israel in the period of the Second Temple.  These boundaries are not the boundaries of the State of Israel. Where these boundaries extend is a matter of great controversy.  Some authorities say 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.  Each supervising orga­nization will follow the psak of its own Rabbis and advise companies and facilities where produce can be purchased.  Produce grown outside the boundaries of Eretz Yisroel are not bound to the laws of sheviis.

III. The Practical Laws of Produce of Sheviis:
There are many laws regarding produce of sheviis. They are:

  • The Rabbinical prohibition against eating s’fichin.

As stated above, the prohibition applies only to vegetables, legumes, pulses and grains which started growing during the year of sheviis.  The prohibition does not apply to any fruit from trees.  Produce grown in a non-Jewish field, even according to those who consider it produce of sheviis, is not s’fichin.

  • Produce of sheviis must be used in their 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.  Fruits usually eaten by people may not be given to animals.
  • Produce of sheviis should be treated as hefker, ownerless, and should not be 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 fruit themselves for those who request it.  Fruit under the auspices of an “Otzar Beis Din” should not be taken without its permission.  There are some authorities who forbid consumption of any produce that is guarded during sheviis.
  • Produce of sheviis is not permitted to be sold in its usual commercial manner.  This means that it 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 sheviis becomes sanctified, and whatever is bought with that money must be treated in the same sanctified manner as produce of sheviis.  Because of these potential complications, a system of shmitta produce distribution has been organized 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 Otzer Beis Din.  Fees are permitted to be charged by the Otzer Beis Din to offset the cost of maintaining the warehouse, picking the produce, and performing work that is permissible in the orchards to maintain the fruit, but not for the fruit itself.  
  • All authorities agree that it is not permissible to destroy produce of sheviis, as 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 disposed of if it was left unrefrigerated for an entire night and has spoiled.  Similarly, an esrog grown during shmitta must be discarded in this fashion after being used during Sukkos.
  • Under normal circumstances, produce of sheviis should not be exported.  It is for this reason that Israeli fresh produce and Israeli manufactured goods must clearly state that they are shmitta-free.  Many authorities permit the export of esrogim for Succos.  When products come to foreign markets from the land of Israel, one should look for a reliable kosher certification.

At the end of the season, one is required to remove from his possession all produce of sheviis for each type of fruit or vegetable.  This requirement is called biur.  The custom is to take all produce at the end of the season into the street, in front of three people, and declare it ownerless.  The same person may take it back into his own possession.  The exact time of biur for most produce varies from one shmitta to the next, and for different types of vegetables.  Charts have been published in Israel to give the consumers exact dates of biur for each fruit and vegetable.

  • There are some authorities who consider it a mitzvah to eat produce of sheviis; most authorities disagree.

Shmitta is a mitzvah that lasts for a full year and requires great mesiras nefesh.  But if we look at the accomplishment of the mitzvah as the fulfillment of our merit to keep Eretz Yisroel, this will be a source of blessing and spiritual enhancement to us all for eternity.