In the last 200 years, as Jews have once again settled Eretz Yisroel, we have once again had the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvos of shemittah, the Sabbatical year.1 Most of the halachos of shemittah relate to farmers in Israel and those who use their produce, and this document will focus on those parts of hilchos shemittah which relate to those living out of Eretz Yisroel.
When is shemittah
The last shemittah year was the Jewish year 57682 which corresponded with September 13, 2007 to September 29, 2008. On a number of occasions this document will refer to “shemittah produce” and the Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 13b) tells us that the defining point as to whether an item is considered produce of the shemittah year depends on whether one is discussing a vegetable, grain or fruit. For vegetables the defining point for vegetables is harvest, which means that a pepper harvested after September 13, 2007 is considered a shemittah pepper even if it was planted and grew before shemittah. The defining point for grains is when they reach 1/3 of maturation, and most fruits are judged by when they reach chanatah (an early stage in the fruit’s development).
As such, fresh shemittah vegetables will be on the market at the very beginning of 5768 but shemittah fruits won’t be for sale until later in 5768 and into 5769. Processed foods, with an extended shelf life, such as wine and canned goods, will be on the market well into 5769 and possibly even beyond that point. As such, although the shemittah year lasts for one year, it affects consumers for longer than that.
The following is a brief overview of the basic halachos of shemittah:
Working the ground
Rights to the produce
One may not plow, plant, prune, water or otherwise cultivate items growing in Eretz Yisroel.3
Produce of the shemittah year is free for anyone to take, and the owner of the land may not restrict others from doing so.4
Contemporary Poskim rule that if someone works the ground on shemittah or restricts others from taking shemittah produce, the produce itself remains permitted in spite of the person’s violation of the halacha.5 Therefore, an American visiting Israel must be careful to not violate these halachos, but these two prohibitions are of little consequence for consumers purchasing Israeli products abroad. In contrast, the coming three halachos are quite relevant even in the USA.
Fruits, vegetables, grains, herbs and spices which are shemittah produce are endowed with a holiness known as “kedushas shevi’is” and therefore cannot be wasted, used for an atypical purpose, transacted in the traditional manner or taken out of Eretz Yisroel.6 [See the footnote as to whether these halachos apply to flowers].7 In the event that food with kedushas shevi’is is sold, the money used in the transaction also acquires kedushah (and the food retains its original kedushah).8
Once there is no more of a specific type of shemittah produce (e.g. grapes, figs) left in the field for animals to eat, one may retain 3-meals worth of that type of food for each member of their family and the rest must be declared hefker/ownerless.9 This procedure is known as ‘biur’. [Biur is done differently by Sephardim, see the previous footnote]. Once biur is done, anyone – including the original owner – may take possession of the food and eat or use it as before, with kedushas shevi’is. Rabbinic groups in Israel produce lists of when the time of biur occurs for each type of fruit.
If one did not perform biur at the correct time, the food becomes forbidden and must be destroyed.10 There is a disagreement as to whether this last strictness applies even if biur wasn’t performed due to a mistake or something out of the person’s control,11 and one should consult their Rabbi if they are faced with this question.
Chazal found that people were planting vegetables during shemittah and claiming that they had grown on their own, and therefore the Rabbis decreed that all items that are replanted annually – including vegetables, grains, herbs and spices – which grow during shemittah are forbidden.12 This far reaching prohibition potentially affects many of the foods exported from Israel.
In summary, Shemittah obligates the land-owner not to work his field and to allow anyone to take his produce, but if he neglected to do either of these the produce remains permitted. There are special halachos relating to the consumption of Shemittah produce, including not wasting it, taking it out of the country or doing business with it, and at a certain point there is also a mitzvah to declare the fruits hefker. In practice, these halachos are limited to fruits, as most annual produce grown during Shemittah – including vegetables, grains, spices and herbs – are completely forbidden as sefichin.
Clearly, most of these halachos are limited to those who reside in or visit Eretz Yisroel. However, much to the surprise of many consumers, some processed foods, and even fresh herbs or vegetables found in their local American grocery are of Israeli origin,13 such that some of the halachos of shemittah apply to Jewish consumers in all countries. Towards this end, we must first consider how Israeli farmers and companies confront the aforementioned halachos of Shemittah, and then see if and how they apply to those of us who reside in other countries.
Israeli Farmers and Companies
Israeli farmers and companies take 5 basic approaches to the restrictions of shemittah:
Disregard the halacha
Unfortunately, many Jews living in Israel aren’t religious and completely ignore the halachos of shemittah. As noted above, foods grown by such farmers isn’t ipso facto forbidden, but vegetables, grains, spices and herbs would be forbidden as sefichin, and fruits would have kedushas shevi’is and be subject to biur.
Purchase ingredients from Arab farmers
A century ago, Rabbonim of great stature permitted the land of Eretz Yisroel to be sold to a non-Jew for the duration of shemittah, to help struggling Jewish farmers avoid financial ruin. Since then there has been much heated debate as to whether this sale – known colloquially as the heter mechirah – is valid, if and how it should be performed and what it permits the farmers (and consumers) to do. The Israeli Chief Rabbinate has traditionally supported the heter mechirah, but has taken a somewhat stricter stance for shemittah 5768. Rav Y.D. Soloveitchik zt”l suggested that the entire discussion of the heter mechirah is predicated on a financial need which doesn’t apply to American consumers, and he therefore recommended that they not rely on it.
The strict position is almost uniformly accepted by the mainstream hashgachos in the United States, and by many Israeli kosher certifications. As a result of this, some Israeli items such as wine will lose their regular hechsher for an entire year, as the company chooses to rely on the heter mechirah but the hashgachah doesn’t accept it. Therefore, consumers should be particularly vigilant to check labels for proper kosher certification during this time, as products that they are used to buying may temporarily not be certified.
Otzar Beis Din
There are manufacturers who choose to buy their ingredients from Arabs who own and farm land within the halachic borders of Eretz Yisroel. As the security situation in the West Bank and Gaza has deteriorated, this type of setup – which, among other things, requires Mashgichim to ensure that the “Arab” produce isn’t actually Jewish produce diverted to Arab lands – has become less practical.
A common thread between the previous two methods is that any leniency is based on the land belonging to non-Jews. In this regard, Beis Yosef and Mabit had a fundamental disagreement; the former held that such produce doesn’t have kedushas shevi’is and the latterargued that it does.14 According to Mabit, it would be forbidden to sell the produce commercially or to export it from Israel (among other restrictions noted above). The custom in Yerushalayim and most communities is to accept the lenient opinion, while in B’nei Brak and some other areas they follow Chazon Ish who defended and promoted the strict position.15 [All agree that the prohibition against sefichin doesn’t apply to produce of a non-Jew’s field].16
Use non-shemittah produce
Farmers who participate in an otzar Beis Din do not do any prohibited work on their fields and allow public representatives to harvest any fruits that grow on their own. These fruits are sold to the public for the minimal cost needed to compensate the people who harvested and delivered the fruit to the market. The public representatives are appointed by a Jewish court (Beis Din), and in many cases the owner of the field is chosen to serve as the representative so as to provide him with some income during shemittah. Items distributed via otzar Beis Din have kedushas shevi’is.17
Some companies make arrangements during shemittah to purchase ingredients from foreign countries or from parts of the State of Israel that are outside the halachic borders of Eretz Yisroel. A modern variation of this is to grow products in specially built greenhouses that are located in the borders of Eretz Yisroel but are technically considered to not be “produce of the land”. Others, stockpile ingredients or finished goods from before shemittah so they’ll be able to produce and service their customers during the Shemittah year.
Shemittah for Americans
Having seen the many issues relating to shemittah produce, it is prudent for consumers in the United States to be alert for such produce and preferably avoid purchasing it. This is most important for fresh produce (peppers, tomatoes, dates, grapes, herbs etc.), and is also relevant to processed foods where consumers should be more careful to check for proper kosher certification than they are during other years. If someone already bought shemittah produce, they should consult with their local Rabbi for detailed instructions as to whether those foods are forbidden as sefichin, how to treat the food with kedushas shevi’is, and when and how to perform biur.
Americans who visit Eretz Yisroel during the shemittah year will have many more issues to confront – both relating to the foods they eat, and in making sure that they don’t violate the intricate halachos of ‘working the land’; details of those halachos are beyond the scope of this article.
End of shemittah
As noted above, the restrictions of shemittah produce commonly apply even after shemittah ends, particularly relating to fruits – where shemittah produce doesn’t come to market until well into the shemittah year or the year after – and packaged goods with an extended shelf-life. This issue is particularly relevant to Jews in the diaspora who choose to use an Esrog from Eretz Yisroel for Succos 5769, and consumers are encouraged to seek guidance from their local Rabbi in dealing with this issue.
Lastly, there is one mitzvah of shemittah which applies to Jews in all parts of the world – shemittas kesafim. Briefly, this mitzvah requires that once shemittah ends, no one may claim a debt from anyone who owes them, unless the creditor has written a pruzbul before the end of shemittah.18 The details of this mitzvah are deserving of a separate treatment which is beyond the scope of this article.
* Unless otherwise noted, all references to Rambam
and Derech Emunah
are in Hilchos Shemittah V’yovel
, and all references to Mishnah
and Chazon Ish
are in Shevi’is
hold that nowadays, the mitzvah
since there is no mitzvah
towards the beginning of Y.D. 331 with Beis Yosef ד"ה ובשביעית
, Chazon Ish
3:7-8, and the many opinions cited in Derech Emunah
, Tziun HaHalacha
2 The first shemittah was shortly after the Jews entered Eretz Yisroel approximately 3,280 years ago, and has occurred every 7 years since then. Coincidentally, the year of shemittah is always divisible by 7 without a remainder (i.e. 5768 / 7 = 824).
3 These halachos are delineated in chapters 1-3 of Rambam.
5 Chazon Ish 10:6 (and Tzitz Eliezer VI:39:3), Iggeros Moshe O.C. I:186 and Minchas Shlomo I:44 ד"ה מבואר , accepting the opinion of Rambam 4:15 & 8:12 as opposed to Ra’avad 4:15 and Rabbeinu Tam (cited in Tosfos, Succah 39b ד"ה במה דברים אמורים ), who are respectively machmir on these two issues. [See Derech Emunah, Tziun HaHalacha 4:316 for others who agree with Rambam and in 4:188 & 4:312 for other Rishonim who follow the strict approach]..
6 These halachos are delineated in chapters 5-6 of Rambam.
7 [Much of the following is based on Chazon Ish 14:9]. Mishnah 7:6-7 says that there is kedushas shevi’is on flowers that are used to impart taste into foods. Yerushalmi 7:1 questions whether the same applies to spices which have a fragrance but no taste, and as Yerushalmi doesn’t resolve the issue, it is generally accepted that one should treat them with kedushas shevi’is (see end of Chazon Ish ibid). Contemporary Poskim debate whether the aforementioned Yerushalmi is limited to spices whose primary use is for fragrance or even includes the many decorative flowers that happen to have a pleasant fragrance (see Mishpitei Eretz 14:2 and there in footnote 10 citing Rav S.Z. Auerbach as taking the former position and Rav Elyashiv as accepting the latter.
8 Rambam 6:1, 6 & 7. The money with kedushas shevi’is must be used to purchase food items, at which point the kedushah transfers off the money and onto the foods (and those foods must be treated with kedushas shevi’is at outlined in the text) (ibid.).
9 The halachos of biur are delineated in chapter 7 of Rambam. There are 3 opinions as to what the mitzvah of biur entails (see Chazon Ish 11:6-8 & Derech Emunah 7:17 for more details):
- Ramban (Vayikra 25:7) holds biur merely requires the person to declare the food hefker on the given day, and only if he doesn’t do so does the food become forbidden.
- Rambam (7:3) holds that all food (other than 3 meals worth per person) must be destroyed on its respective day of biur.
- Ra’avad (ad loc.) holds that there are two forms of biur, an earlier one (when the food is unavailable in the cities) which is like Ramban, and a later one (when the food isn’t available in the fields) where the mitzvah is as described by Rambam.
On this matter, Ashkenazic Poskim generally follow Ramban’s position (see for example Chazon Ish, Seder HaShivi’is point #1 (reprinted after chapter 26 of Chazon Ish, Hil. Shevi’is)), while Sephardim accept Rambam.
11 Among the Poskim who’ve expressed opinions on this matter are Chazon Ish 14:13, who is strict regarding someone who בשוגג or באונס didn’t perform biur, and Minchas Shlomo (I:51 point 15 or 16 depending on the print) who is lenient.
14 See Avkas Rochel 22-25 and Responsa Mabit I:11, 21, 217 & 396. See also Responsa Maharit I:42-43 (by the son of Mabit) who claims that Beis Yosef changed his mind later in life.
15 See Pe’as HaShulchan 23:12 and Chazon Ish 3:25 & 20:7 who respectively defend the lenient and strict opinions.
17 The halachos of Otzar Beis Din are based on Tosefta, Shevi’is 8:1-3 (cited in Ramban, Vayikra 25:7) as clarified by the later Poskim; see many details in Derech Emunah 6:19.
18 The halachos of shemittas kesafim and pruzbul are delineated in chapter 9 of Rambam.