For over nineteen hundred years the Jewish people have longed to return to Eretz Yisroel, the land of Israel. It is only in land of Israel that we can realize our full potential as a nation; it is only in the land of Israel that the Torah’s blueprint for life can be completely fulfilled. Over 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 only be observed 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 mitzva challenges of all times is the fulfillment of the mitzvah of shmitta, the year of Sabbatical rest for the land of Israel. The Midrash perceives this multifaceted mitzva as being so challenging and difficult that he who meets the challenge of shmitta in all its details is called, in the words of the Midrash, an angel. True, observing the mitzva may be spiritual, but the details of the mitzva are very practical.
This article will outline some practical shmitta insights so that we can gain a greater understanding and appreciation of this beautiful mitzva.
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 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 not plow the land, plant seeds or saplings, or even prune trees because these activities promote growth and is 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 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 the land of Israel present their own problems, therefore, a posek should be consulted to instruct the homeowner on proper shmitta plant care.
II. The Produce of the 7th Year – Pairos Sheviis
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? Where was the produce grown? Who owns the land?
Which produce? There are essentially three categories of produce that we deal with: a. vegetables, b. grains and legumes, c. fruit.
When was the produce grown? New trees cannot be planted 44 days or less before Rosh Hashana of a shmitta year. New seeds cannot be planted after Rosh Hashana during the entire shmitta year. Produce planted before Rosh Hashana which ripens during shmitta do not get a shmitta prohibition and is permitted during shmitta. The different halachos regarding the consumption of shmitta produce will be dealt with in section III.
Who owns the land? There is a difference of opinion among the poskim whether produce grown on land owned by a non-Jew living in the land of Israel is considered produce of sheviis. The custom in Jerusalem is not to consider it produce of sheviis and the custom in Bnei Brak is to consider it produce of sheviis.
Selling the land: The heter mechira was formulated and instituted by many very prominent Rabbanim (including the Gadol Hador, Harav Yitzchok Elchanan Spector) in the year 1887. There was a great deal of controversy surrounding the heter by 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. 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 put the entire Jewish settlement in danger and warranted this drastic measure. Others claimed that the prohibition of selling the land was worse than the prohibition of working the land. Since then there were Rabbanim every shmitta who sold the land. Harav Avraham Yitzchok Kook institutionalized the sale (although he, too, agreed it was only to be done in situations of grave duress). Since it’s inception the Chief Rabbinate of Israel has sold the land every shmitta. However, now there are many Rabbanim who question whether the situation warrants the sale. 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 with the fact that the non-religious kibbutzim don’t observe those prohibitions which Harav Kook instituted, and Harav Kook never permitted their current practices. Certainly, a tourist who is not knowledgeable about 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 applies 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. To where these boundaries extend is a matter of great controversy. Some authorities say anything grown south of Ashkelon (including Gush Katif) 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 it’s own Rabbis and advise their companies and facilities accordingly.
III. The Practical Laws of Produce of Sheviis:
There are many laws regarding produce of sheviis. They are:
There is a Rabbinical prohibition against eating s’fichin.
S’fichin is defined as produce that grows by itself during sheviis. The prohibition does not apply to any fruit from trees. The prohibition applies only to vegetables and grains which started growing during the year of sheviis. The custom is that any vegetable plant which germinated before Rosh Hashana can be eaten. Therefore, all vegetables (tomatoes, lettuce, etc.) one buys immediately after Rosh Hashana while they are s’fichin may still be eaten. Produce grown in a non-Jewish field even according to those who consider them produce of sheviis are not s’fichin. Produce planted during shmitta in Jewish fields have the prohibition of s’fichin.
There are some authorities who consider it a mitzva to eat produce of sheviis. Most authorities disagree.
All authorities agree that it is not permissible to destroy produce of sheviis so long as it is fit for consumption. Left over food should be put into a bag and should be discarded only after it spoils. If this is impossible it should be put into a sealed plastic bag and be discarded. Cooked food may be discarded 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 (5762).
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 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 them. Fruit under the auspices of an “Otzar Bais Din” (see related article) should not be taken without it’s 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 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 Bais Din of each city, commonly known as the Otzer Bais Din. Fees are permitted to be charged by the Otzer Bais 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 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 for each type of fruit or vegetable one is required to remove from his possession all produce of sheviis. 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 to declare it ownerless. The same person may take it back into his own possession. The exact time of biur for most produce varies from shmitta to shmitta and charts will be published later this year in Israel to give the consumers exact dates of biur for each fruit and vegetable.
Shmitta is a mitzva that lasts for a full year. Unquestionably it is a mitzva of great mesiras nefesh. But if we look at the accomplishment of the mitzva as the fulfillment of our merit to keep Eretz Yisroel, this will be a source of blessing and spiritual enhancement for us all.