Note: This post, which is also entitled “The Challenge of Shemita – Part Two”, primarily addresses those who live in Israel. Readers in the Diaspora are of course also invited to read it and to contemplate the questions raised.
Just before Shemita started, I wrote about the conceptual idea of this mitzva, and the inspiring values that Shemita represents. Now, after half a year of eating holy vegetables, teaching about Shemita and taking people on tours to learn the history of Shemita and meet farmers who struggle to observe it in the best way they can, I want to talk a bit about practicalities.
For those of us who aren’t farmers, observance of Shemita is expressed primarily in the question of which fruits and vegetables we consume. Although there are numerous possibilities, in broad strokes we have three types of options (See The Kosher Consumer’s Guide to Shemita for more detailed explanations):
- We can buy the “standard” produce sold in most stores under supervision of the Chief Rabbinate, grown using the Heter Mechira, on land that has been temporarily sold to a non-Jew in order to remove its sanctity and exempt us from observing Shemita Although there is a broad consensus that it is necessary for many farmers to rely on this leniency, some kashrut organizations refuse to certify this produce and many individuals are reluctant to consume it, for both halachic and philosophical reasons.
- We can seek out produce grown and marketed by Jewish farmers in ways which are permissible during Shemita without selling the land. These farmers also rely on leniencies and loopholes, but they are actually observing the mitzvah, not bypassing it. Some of the products grown this way (those marked “Otzar Bet Din”) have kedushat shvi’it (Shemita sanctity) and must therefore be handled with special care and used according to special regulations.
- Or, we can avoid the issue altogether by buying produce grown by non-Jews (typically local Arabs) or imported from outside of Israel.
Although I understand the halachic reasoning and the thinking behind all three approaches, my personal preference is clear: I try very hard to support Jewish farmers! Whenever possible, I invest the effort and expense to use Otzar Bet Din products or others from category #2. If that is not possible I will use Heter Mechira. Buying from non-Jews is my last resort.
Contemplating this decision allows us to explore two fascinating philosophical questions.
One question has to do with how we relate to Kedusha (holiness). While I seek out and relish the opportunity to consume produce with kedushat shvi’it, many people do the exact opposite: they avoid it, because of the restrictions on how this produce may be used, and because one must try to avoid destroying it. When I teach about Shemita, I explain how it isn’t difficult to observe the restrictions, but still many people find them stressful. Why worry about mistakenly doing something wrong? It’s much easier, and safer, to buy non-holy vegetables, such as those grown by non-Jews.
But as always, there’s another side to that coin. Eating Otzar Bet Din fruits and vegetables is a rare opportunity for us to bring kedusha into our homes and lives (in the present halachic epoch, it is the only such opportunity).
So the question is: Is kedusha something to be feared, or embraced? We pray for the Mashiach to come and for the Temple to be rebuilt. When those prayers are answered, are we going to run with joy to gather there? Or will we stay home for fear of incurring God’s wrath by violating the sanctity of the place?