Profiles of Courage and Inspiration

Published Fall 2008

Part I – A Trip to the Otzer Bais Din
Dateline:  Erev Shabbos Kodesh, Parshas Balak, 8 Tammuz
Place:  Geula, Yerushalayim

Anyone who has had the opportunity to visit Yerushalayim Ir HaKodesh, as I recently did with my family, will tell you that a must see experience is a trip to the Geula neighborhood on Friday, erev Shabbos.  Rechov Malchai Yisroel could very well be dubbed the commercial heart of the Chareidi community.  The stores pulsate with vibrance, 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 upon one’s ability to handle the sheer masses of consumers.  The side streets are a labyrinth of quiet residential apartments, like Rechov Yonah.  For six out of seven years, the Stern family mirpeset (balcony) looks like any other mirpeset, but this year is not like the others.  During this year, shnas HaShmitta, this mirpeset undergoes an amazing transformation. 

Welcome to the Otzer Bais Din of Hagaon HaRav Nissim Karelitz, Bnai Brak – Jerusalem Branch.  In brief, the Otzer Bais Din is the legal entity that the Rabbis have established to serve as the legitimate agent to pick and halachically distribute fruit of farmers who are observing shmitta k’hilchasa.  Farmers cannot engage in normal commercial endeavors such as planting, harvesting and marketing fruit as they normally do.  However, the fruit is allowed to be eaten, albeit with strict adherence to the laws of shmitta.  Furthermore, the land can be maintained so that it will not fall into ruin.  Agents of the Otzer Bais Din tell the farmer that they will send their community representatives to pick and distribute the fruit.  They will establish fixed costs for the fruit and cover the costs of labor, delivery and distribution.  The fruits are not to be sold in a typical commercial manner, not by weight or count.  There is a fixed container price list posted on the railing of the mirpeset.

An American may view the Otzer Bais Din as a random selection of fruits provided by a select group of champion farmers who strictly adhere to the laws of shmitta.  The Otzer Bais Din may be the distributor of these fruits, but their beauty and taste are enhanced by their quality, quantity and price.

As we know, fruits cannot be sold in a regular commercial setting; hence, the Otzer Bais Din is set up in a home mirpeset.  Furthermore, the Otzer Bais Din pays the workers a set fee for their efforts in the field.  These costs include picking and packing the fruit into sturdy corrugated boxes, shipping the fruit to the Stern home, and maintaining the Otzer Bais Din.  Trucks can transport 1,000 cases of fruit per delivery, sometimes as much as four times a day.  At times, fixed prices for containers of plums, pears, apples and mangoes may be less than 50% of the market price.  According to the minhag Yerushalayim and minhag Bnei Brak, the custom is to eat produce grown on land and in orchards owned by non-Jews, yivul nochri.  According to minhag Yerushalayim, these fruits are not vested with Kedushas Shevi’is and do not require special handling.  The minhag in Bnai Brak, which follows the ruling of the Chazon Ish, is to consider yivul nochri vested with Kedushas Shevi’is.  According to both customs, fruits purchased from the Otzer Bais Din are vested with Kedushas Shevi’is and must be treated with special sanctity.  Fruits that are imported from chutz la’aretz, outside Eretz Yisroel, are regular produce and are not vested with any special sanctity.

When asked why she and her family have undertaken such an unbelievable task, Mrs. Stern provided the following response.  “I was born and raised on Komemiyus and my father, z”l, was unbelievably dedicated to the mitzvah of shmitta.  In fact, he was able to convince other farmers to observe shevi’is k’hilchasa, and through their adherence to this previous mitzvah have become 100% observant Yidden.  I am following my father’s legacy and that is why I maintain the Otzer Bais Din.”  As previously noted, Mrs. Stern’s son confirmed that there can be up to four deliveries of fruit daily. 

Walking by the mirpeset, there is a view of hundreds of empty cartons piled high to the sky ready to be sent back to the farm to be refilled.  Fruits arrive from various destinations, and at this particular time the major shipments of beautiful and tasty fruits are coming from the Golan.  According to Mrs. Stern’s son, “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 fruits must stay within Eretz Yisroel.”

One must be careful to wait until the fruit rots before disposing of the peels, pits and fruit remains in a special “pach shmitta,” a shmitta garbage pail.  In fact, one may purchase ready-made, fully waxed and lined disposable shmitta containers that are sold in packs of six, ready for the garbage in a day and a half.

“If you really want to see the Otzer in action, come back on Thursday,” said Mrs. Stern’s son.  You bet we did, and how true it was!

Part II:  The Grapes of Gratitude
Dateline:  Wednesday, 13 Tammuz
Place:  Bais Chilkiya

After we board the EGGED #451, it makes its way down the super highway from Yerushalayim to Ashdod.  We begin the trek down a dusty side road leading us to a quiet unassuming moshav comfortably nestled amidst Rehovot, Ashdod and Yesodot.  At the entrance to Bais Chilkiya, a moshav that strictly adheres to the laws of shmitta, visitors are greeted with an atypical “WELCOME” banner and sign that states, “Shabbos HaAretz, Shabbos L’Hashem”.  It is here that the incredibly special Shachar family treats their guests, usually comprised of school groups, to the Bais Chilkiya experience.  This consists of a ride on a camel or mule drawn wagon, a petting farm where one can get up close to the animals, and a water ride as well as a grand tractor tour through the moshav led by Mr. Shachar.

Mr. Shachar, a highly intelligent and unique tour guide, paints a colorful yet realistic tapestry of life, challenges and pathos of the residents in Bais Chilkiya, especially in a shmitta year.  Our last stop on the tractor tour was the Bais Chilkiya vineyard.  It was here that we had the z’chus to meet a real life champion of shmitta, who left his “Kerem” totally hefker, open to all.  This was no Larriland Farms (in Baltimore) fruit picking experience!  We truly experienced Kedushas shevi’is to its fullest.  Great care had to be taken when picking the grapes, and we had to make sure to eat all of the good fruit that we picked and save the inedible fruit for the farm animals.  Making the bracha on these grapes was a special experience that is never to be forgotten.  Of course, we could not pick the fruit in super abundance; the limit is three meals worth of grapes.  Since it is a shmitta year, there is no obligation to take terumos and ma’asros.  But, the grapes are vested with Kedushas shevi’is and cannot be discarded in a normal manner. 

The owner of the Kerem is a truly inspiring individual.  His sole means of support is caring for an assortment of elderly gentlemen.  Words cannot adequately describe these champions of bitachon, faith.  Ashreichem Yisroel Mi Kamocha!