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We are now a few months into year 5782, which is observed as a Sabbatical year (Shemittah) in the Land of Israel. For those who do not yet live in Eretz Yisrael, the impact of the Shemittah year is not as strongly felt. Nevertheless, many plan to visit, and Baruch Hashem will have the privilege to purchase products from Israel and thus need to be aware of the issues.

I hope to clarify what the three basic halachic approaches to observing Shemittah today are, and to raise awareness of how Shemittah affects those outside Eretz Yisrael.

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It is important to have a positive attitude towards purchasing products from Israel, and not fear that we are taking on unnecessary halachic problems. When I lived on the West Coast and often supervised kashrut in food plants, one of the most difficult issues for me to explain to food producers was why certain ingredients are considered generically kosher from anywhere – except Israel!! Of course, halachic observers understand this classification; given that there are issues such as Maaser, Terumah, Orlah and Shemittah associated with Israeli produce. While for large non-Jewish factories it is understandably easier to just avoid the issue, I believe that it is a reprehensible approach for a proud Jew anywhere in the world.

Using Israeli produce has at least three major benefits: One, it allows us to participate in the mitzvos Ha’Tluyos B’Aretz (MHB) – (mitzvot that depend on the Land of Israel). Two, we can significantly support the Israeli economy and our fellow Jews; and three, we can act in a way counter to the notorious BDS movement that is trying to isolate Israel politically and economically. (Besides, the produce is delicious!) All we need is some basic education regarding a few halachos, and we can gain much more than just physical nutrition when eating our Jaffa oranges.

 

Some Background

Shemittah is an especially holy time, referred to by the Torah as “Shabbat HaAretz” (Vayikra 26:6), the Shabbos of the Land. Just as we refrain from altering the state of anything on Shabbos to remind ourselves that Hashem owns the world, so too Shemittah reminds us that Eretz Yisrael, in particular, is owned by Hashem. Thus, in short, all acts that have the effect of growing produce or improving the land are prohibited during the Shemittah year. Fruits or vegetables produced in violation of these laws are prohibited for use as well. The farmer is not to assert any ownership over any produce that grows; the fruits are considered ownerless (hefker). It is forbidden to engage in any commercial activity with this produce.

Moreover, any fruit that grows on Jewish-owned land has kedushas shvi’is, (Sabbatical sanctity) and there is a special positive mitzvah (according to the Ramban) to eat that fruit. At the same time, there are special rules as to how the fruit may be prepared or eaten, how to dispose of leftovers, and – an important rule for us – that the fruit may not be taken out of Eretz Yisrael.

As the majority of poskim hold that Shemittah today is only on a Rabbinic level, two important leniencies exist: One, it is permitted to engage in activities that are not intended to grow crops but rather to prevent spoilage of either existent crops or of the lands, and two, it is permissible to eat grains and vegetables that grow, referred to as sefichin, as long as they were planted before Shemittah.

 

Practical Problems

A good case can be made for the proposition that Shemittah requires more self-sacrifice than any other mitzvah. Once every seven years the farmer must cease all commercial activities, and allow entry to anyone to take whatever they wish from his field. The farmer as well as the entire largely agrarian economy must rely on the Almighty, in a more tangible way than usual, to supply food for an entire year. The Torah itself presents the baffling nature of this rule: And if you should say, “What will we eat in the seventh year? … I will command My blessing for you in the sixth year, and it will yield produce for three years. (Vayikra 25:20-22)

This promise is fascinating and inspiring! Some moshavim that have completely kept Shemittah claim to have experienced the biblically promised bumper crop during the sixth year of every Shemittah cycle. Furthermore, there are reports of miraculous events surrounding the fields of those who meticulously keep Shemittah, as reported in the literature produced by Keren Hashviis, an organization that raises major sums to support those farmers who keep Shemittah scrupulously.

Nevertheless, notwithstanding bumper crop reports, the majority of the agricultural sector of the State of Israel as it exists in the present reality – with most kibbutzim and moshavim being non-religious – is not willing to fully abide by the Shemittah laws. It is thus the responsibility of the Chief Rabbinate to mitigate the problem of commerce in forbidden fruit – both of the producers and consumers – as much as possible. Furthermore, the urban majority of the population is unable (in a practical manner) to access the fields for free produce; and most people – including most religious people – are unwilling to live without their fruits and veggies.

Moreover, produce export constitutes a major part of the national economy and a very real danger exists that if Israeli producers do not supply their customers for a year, this important part of the economy will suffer crippling and long-lasting losses. It is thus understandable that not everyone has the strength of faith to scrupulously adhere to a strict approach towards Shemittah. As a result, three different approaches have been developed, each with its pluses and minuses.

 

Three Approaches to Practical Observance of Shemittah

The first practical approach is hetter mechira – Sale of the Land of Israel. A great deal has been written about hetter mechira, one of the great halachic controversies of the past century. It was endorsed by many great rabbonim including Rav Yitzchak Elchonon Spektor and Rav Avraham Y. Kook, zichronam livracha, in response to the very real possibility of mass starvation and irreparable damage to the nascent agricultural efforts of the yishuv, which was developed with so much blood, sweat and tears.
The idea resembles the sale of chometz, with which we are all familiar. If a non-Jew owns the land, then the produce that grows on it does not have kedushas shvi’is and is free of Shemittah restrictions.

The hetter mechira was granted, however, subject to several restrictions:

1) The hetter is based on the fact that Shemittah today is Mi’d’Rabanan. Even so, only non-Jews may do activities that would be Torah-level prohibitions, such as sowing and harvesting.

2) Part of the field must be left completely fallow as per Shemittah requirements.

3) Only the minimum work necessary for this year may be done.

4) Most importantly, hetter mechira was given as a one-time leniency, subject to being renewed, based on pikuach nefesh, danger to life.

Since that time, hetter mechira has been renewed every seven years, and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel indeed sells all of the Land of Israel belonging to the State (which is virtually all of the land) to a non-Jew, and much of the Israeli economy functions under this rubric.

There are arguments for and against relying on the hetter mechira:
Arguments for hetter mechira include:

  • There is no other realistic way for the Israeli economy to continue its operations, and one should not rely on miracles.
  • The threat of PN is just as severe today, if not more so, now that there are over six million Jews who depend on Israeli agriculture, as opposed to the (perhaps) one hundred thousand at the time of Rav Kook’s hetter – how will Eretz Yisrael survive?
  • Many of those who do not rely on hetter mechira advocate buying produce from Arabs. Do we want to support many who are our enemies? Is it not true that much of the “Arab produce” is simply Jewish produce that was bought by Arabs and then marked up to sell back to Jews?

Arguments against hetter mechira include:

  • The Israeli economy could survive based on other areas such as hi-tech, tourism, and other exports. Israel is an economic powerhouse today, so the pikuach nefesh argument doesn’t wash.
  • Generally, it is forbidden to sell any part of Eretz Yisrael to non-Jews. The gedolim who devised the hetter mechira found a loophole around this, but it is an undesirable loophole.
  • Some poskim reject the entire basis of hetter mechira, saying that it does not remove Kedushas Shvi’is.
  • The hetter mechira is often not kept with the restrictions noted above. For too many, it is not taken seriously, and they engage in business as usual.

Perhaps the most serious argument against hetter mechira, from my perspective, is that it is a complete legal fiction. An incisive “Dry Bones” cartoon many years ago – written in response to a prohibition of cigarette smoking that had been published by the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv – mused that the Orthodox reaction to the prohibition against smoking might be for them to “sell their lungs to a non-Jew. . .” Imagine if the Arabs would know that virtually the entire State of Israel is for sale. They have untold billions of dollars; would they not buy it? And more importantly, would we really be willing to sell it? If we would not, is the sale then any more than a sham legal fiction?

Bottom Line: While the original rabbonim who instituted hetter mechira were gedolim of the highest stature, it is questionable whether, or to what extent, one may rely on it today.

The second practical approach is purchase of fruits and vegetables from Arabs. As mentioned previously, produce purchased from non-Jews (which in Israel means primarily so-called Palestinian Arabs), or imported from abroad, does not have kedushas shvi’is according to most opinions. The chareidi community primarily relies on this produce as the source of its food supply during Shemittah, except for what is available through Otzar Bais Din (below). While this solves some halachic problems, many consider it an unacceptable solution:
Arguments against buying Arab produce include:

  • A general argument against basing the entire food source on the Arabs, considering their enmity and fraud.
  • Doing so avoids the positive commandment to eat Shemittah fruit, which is a privileged opportunity.
  • This option relies on the opinion of Rav Yosef Karo, zt”l. However, arguably the greatest authority on mitzvos Ha’Tluyos B’Aretz in modern times – the Chazon Ish, zt”l – disagrees, following the shittah of the Mabit. (In Bnei Brak, which tends to follow the Chazon Ish, this method is not used nearly as much as it is in Jerusalem.
  • Arguably, Arab “owned” land is not theirs; it is Jewish land, Eretz Yisrael, that was stolen from us. If this is true, then its produce has just as much Kedushas Shvi’is as the produce of Israeli farmers.
  • This deprives Jewish farmers and suppliers of the ability to earn a living in those ways that are permissible according to the laws of Shemittah.

The third practical approach is the Otzar Bais Din (OBD). As noted, it is a mitzvah to eat the Shemittah fruit, and ideally, all would go down to the fields and take what they need and bring it to their homes. But already in the times of the Second Temple it was apparent that this was not workable for those who lived in the cities, or even for those who lived rurally, since they were not adjacent to the field that had the particular produce that they wanted on a particular day (Tosefta Shevi’is 8:1-4).
Our Sages, therefore, devised a system consisting of an otzar – storehouse – administered by Bais Din, the quasi-governmental authority that assists with this situation while staying firmly within the boundaries of halacha.

The basic premise of OBD is a system whereby farmers, truckers, and store owners act as the Bais Din‘s agents in harvesting the fruits (or permitted sefichin), preparing it to come to market. This might include processing in a factory, making it into wine or oil, transporting it to urban centers, and distributing it to consumers while avoiding sale through normal means. As there are significant costs involved in all these activities, the agents are entitled to be compensated at fair market rates for their labor, time and expenses. They are not, however, paid for the produce itself, and thus the produce is substantially less expensive than the usual prices paid in stores. The Bais Din determines how much the produce should be “sold” for based on an apportionment of the costs, “hires” the workers, and “pays” them. In our time, the primary guide for the Otzar Bais Din system was the Chazon Ish.
Arguments for Otzar Bais Din include:

  • The consumers get the mitzvah of eating Shemittah fruit while treating the produce with the special rules that apply to produce with kedushas shvi’is.
  • It is a way of supporting the Jewish agricultural workers who are observing Shemittah who, while making far less money than in a regular year, will have some income to support themselves and their families in a halachically acceptable way.
  • It does not have the problems associated with Arab-grown produce.

Arguments against Otzar Bais Din include:

  • OBD can only supply a limited number of types of produce. Vegetables, in particular, are a problem, as the leniency regarding Sefichin is only for those planted before Shemittah.
  • The produce is not as predictably available as people are accustomed to when frequenting their local stores.
  • The pricing structure, where some fruits cost more than others, shows that it is not purely reimbursement of labor and expenses, in which case the price should be uniform.

We are very fortunate that a very responsible Otzar Bais Din system was set up by Machon HaTorah veHaAretz under the auspices of Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, zt”l, and Rav Yaakov Ariel, which in my view is the optimal system that should be used if at all possible. They have: a properly supervised OBD system, as described above; a large amount of produce procured from before Shemittah and kept in suitable storage (otzar) for use during the Shemittah year; and a hydroponic system to grow some produce during Shemittah, which is permissible as it does not grow in the ground.

In addition, certain areas in the Bet Shean valley, Negev and the Arava have been determined by Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l, as not having the same sanctity of Eretz Yisrael and thus may be used during Shemittah. (The hetter mechira is used as a backup lechumra for these areas.)

One can find out more about their program at the website www.toraland.org.il. This is an extremely worthy organization, and supporting it while abroad and using their system while in Israel is the best way for us to participate in the mitzvah of Shemittah, in my opinion. I note that there are other Otzar Bais Din systems as well, particularly the one run by Rav Landau in Bnei Brak, that also services the public. I am not aware of an online site to support them.

Finally, it is important to note that Otzar Bais Din products have kedushas shvi’is, and thus are not to be taken outside Eretz Yisrael. This is particularly relevant with regard to Israeli wine, as OBD wine is sometimes exported by those not aware of the halacha.

 

Final Thoughts

When it is not Shemittah, we can certainly use Israeli produce outside the Land by becoming familiar with the simple procedures for separating the tithes (terumos and maasros). This year, however, due to kedushas shvi’is, one may not use Israeli produce outside the Land.

Nevertheless, there are important ways of participating in the mitzvah of Shemittah, even outside Eretz Yisrael. There is Keren HaShviis, who arrange for partnerships between heroic farmers who leave their fields fallow and those who help their families get through the year. There is Ayelet HaShachar, who provide encouragement, information, and support to many potential observers of Shemittah. And there is Otzar HaAretz, who need your support in setting up a beautiful Otzar Bais Din.

(There are other organizations that are less worthy, in my view. One particularly strange organization is Agudas hetter mechiraita, which advocates purchasing a small (worthless) piece of land in Israel before Shemittah which will not be worked on, thus giving the owner the status of a Shemittah observer. It seems to me that this is not what the Almighty had in mind when asking for the great mesirus nefesh inherent in the mitzvah of Shemittah.)

May we all have the merit in fully participating in Shemittah. Multiple sources teach that this mitzvah is especially important in bringing the Final Redemption, speedily in our days.

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Rabbi Yehuda L Oppenheimer, former Rav at several congregations in the United States, lives in Israel and is an educator, writer, and licensed tour guide. He eagerly looks forward to showing our wonderful land to his brethren, especially those who still live in the Diaspora. He blogs at libibamizrach.blogspot.com and can be reached at lenopp@gmail.com.