What will we eat in the seventh year?

An overview of shmita for the kosher consumer

The year 5782 (2021-2022), is a shmita (sabbatical) year during which the Torah commands us to let the land lie fallow. Plowing, planting, pruning and harvesting are forbidden by Torah Law [1]. Moreover, the shmita year produce has a special status of kedushat shvi’it [2] (sanctity of the 7th year) and may not be ruined, discarded or used for commerce.

Obviously, shmita has strong halachic implications for Israeli farmers and private garden owners and can impact the entire agricultural industry in Israel. However, this article will focus mainly on the implications of shmita for the urban kosher consumer.

The main issues affecting the kosher consumer are deciding which fruits and vegetables to buy and how to deal with the issue of kedushat shevi’it. The question of what we will eat during shmita has already been anticipated by the Torah itself:

And if you should say, “What will we eat in the seventh year? … [Know then, that] I will command My blessing for you in the sixth year, and it will yield produce for three years. (Vayikra 25: 20-21)

14-05/Barren-field-300.jpgCan Israel today rely on this blessing and assume that the produce of the sixth year will provide all of our needs for the following two years?
Apparently not.
According to many authorities, the promised blessing applies only when shmita is binding mi-d’oraitha (by Torah law) [3]. However, as long as the majority of world Jewry does not reside in Israel, shmita is binding only mi-d’rabanan (rabbinic decree) [4]. Consequently, today we cannot rely on the promised blessing, and must do our best to assure the availability of produce throughout the seventh and eighth years. [5]

For many decades, rabbinic authorities have deliberated over the question of how to best observe shmita on a nation-wide level, providing for the needs of both farmers and consumers while keeping within the scope of halacha (Jewish Law). Every proposed option has its advantages and drawbacks.

The major sources of produce available to the kosher consumer during the shmita year are:
1) Sixth year produce
2) Otzar Beit Din.
3) Heter Mechira.
4) Raised Beds
5) Western and Southern Negev
6) Imports
7) Local Arab produce

Sixth year produce

As mentioned above, the Torah’s intent is that under ideal conditions, the produce from the sixth year would suffice for all of shmita and the following year. Today, many sixth year products are available during shmita in the form of canned and frozen foods. Also, some sixth year fruits and vegetables (i.e. apples, plums, lemons, carrots, onions and potatoes) are kept in storage several months past their harvest date.
Although this option conforms nicely to the Torah’s conception of shmita, it can only serve as a partial solution today. The supply and variety of sixth year produce are limited and do not meet the needs of either the consumer or the agricultural industries in Israel.

Otzar Beit Din

The Otzar Beit Din (lit. storehouse of the rabbinical court) is a framework set up by a rabbinical court to allow distribution of shmita produce. The shmita produce distributed by the Otzar Beit Din is sanctified with kedushat shevi’it and cannot be sold, exported or destroyed. The growers and distributors are agents of the Beit Din and act on its behalf. The Beit Din pays them a salary for their work; the consumer pays to cover these costs and not for the produce itself.

Many consider Otzar Beit Din as the preferred solution for the shmita year. Not only does it provide a means of income for the farmers, it also allows the public to fulfill the mitzvah of eating shmita produce [6]. Nevertheless, this option does have certain disadvantages which are difficult to overcome. It is impractical to expect hotels, restaurants and other food industries in a modern society to fully comply with the restrictions of kedushat sheviit. Also, since it is forbidden to engage in commerce with shmita produce, this solution is unsuitable for the agricultural industries especially in exports and sale to non-Jews.

Otzar Beit Din is appropriate for fruits, but less appropriate for vegetables. New crops of vegetables may not be sown on land owned by Jews during the shmita year. Consequently, Otzar Beit Din can only provide vegetables that were sown during the sixth year and harvested in the seventh. It can therefore only be a partial solution for the shmita year.

Heter Mechira

Heter mechira is the most controversial halachic solution for shmita. Similar in nature to mechirat chametz, the selling of chametz before Passover, the prohibitions of shmita are circumvented by selling the land to non-Jews for a period of two years, after which, the land is bought back. Land not owned by a Jew can be cultivated and its produce sold without any restrictions.

Heter mechira could have been an excellent solution for modern day Israel except that its halachic basis is contested by many leading poskim. Some claim that the sale of Jewish land is in itself prohibited (lo techonem) and therefore has no validity. Others contend that even if the sale is prohibited, it is valid after the fact and the produce may be consumed. The proponents of heter mechira claim that there is no prohibition to sell land to a non-Jew for a temporary period of time, especially if it is for the good of the nation.

Raised Beds

Many authorities permit growing potted plants in a ‘house’ during shmita. Based on this leniency, crops are now grown on elevated platforms within closed greenhouses.

This method of cultivation is relatively expensive to set up. To meet various halachic requirements, the plants are grown in pots or thick plastic bags on the elevated platforms. The ground beneath the plants is covered with a double layer of plastic sheeting. The infrastructure must be set up to include proper irrigation (carefully placed drip pipes) and good drainage. The roof must keep out the rain and partially block the sunlight. [7]

This method of cultivation is considered mehadrin (strictly kosher) by some authorities. [8] There are no work restrictions in these greenhouses and the crops are not subject to kedushat sheviit.

However, others claim that a greenhouse set up especially for agricultural purposes cannot be considered a ‘house’. They forbid all work in the greenhouse during shmita just like in an open field [9].

Western and Southern Negev

The Mishnah (Sheviit, chapt. 6) teaches us that the land of Israel is divided into 3 regions with respect to shmita observance.

  • Olei Bavel – the parts of Israel that were settled by Jews returning from Babylonia and sanctified by the prophet Ezra. Here, the laws of shmita are fully binding by Torah law.
  • Olei Mitzrayim – the areas conquered by Joshua after the exodus from Egypt (excluding the Olei Bavel region). Here, the shmita restrictions are only partially binding. Heter mechira is less problematic in this region, and there is no prohibition of sefichin [10]. According to many, parts of the western Negev are within the boundaries of Olei Mitzrayim and crops can be grown there based on these leniencies .
  • Eretz Yisrael – the entire Land of Israel promised to Abraham (excluding the above two regions). These lands have no sanctity in regards to shmita and therefore it is entirely exempt (with some exceptions) from shmita observance. The southern Arava and Negev, as well as the northern tip of the Golan, fall into this category.

Some produce (including exports) are grown outside the boundaries of Olei Bavel where there are fewer restrictions,  providing a reasonable, albeit limited, solution for shmita. The major drawback here is the uncertainty as to where the borders of these regions lie. For this reason, some authorities do not accept any leniencies in these areas and rule that shmita must be fully observed in all of Israel [11]. Others define approximate boundaries based on various sources and rule leniently on the produce grown therein.[12]

Imports

Since the laws of shmita do not apply to produce grown outside of Israel, produce imported from other countries may be freely purchased and eaten with no restrictions. This is probably the most widely agreed upon option for the consumer and usually is the basis for a ‘mehadrin’ kashrut certificate, especially in the Haredi community.

However, here too there are some drawbacks. Although this may be a good option for the consumer, it is bad for the agricultural community. Over 60% of Israel’s produce targets the domestic market [13]. Should imports become the primary source of fruits and vegetables during shmita, the agricultural industries would collapse.

Also, by relying on imports, we are actually evading the fulfillment of a mitzvah. For those of us that do not own a farm or a garden in Israel, eating shmita produce is the predominant form of fulfilling the mitzvah of shmita.

Local Arab produce (yivul nochri)

Although local Arab produce is sometimes sold as ‘mehadrin’ during shmita, halachically it is probably the least desirable for the following reasons [14]:14-05/negotiating-with-arab-farmer(AP).jpg

  • Lo techonem. The increased income during the shmita year (and the following year) allows the Arab farmers to get better established in Eretz Yisrael and motivates some of them to expand their farmland (legally or otherwise).
  • Resale of Jewish produce. In order to reach their quotas, some of the Arab farmers purchase prohibited Jewish produce on the black market and resell it as their own. The illegal produce is sometimes distributed in the Arab fields to deceive the supervisors into thinking that it grew there. This Jewish produce is not only prohibited due to shmita but also includes orla (fruits of the first 3 years which is forbidden by the Torah) and cannot be sold on Jewish markets.
  • Abetting the enemies of Israel and the Jewish people. Purchasing produce from the Palestinian Authority helps strengthen the anti-Israel regime and terrorist groups.
  • Many of the Arab farmlands are located in hostile areas. The Badatzim that supervise the Arab produce admit that their supervisors are under constant danger when they travel to these areas.
  • As with imports, this option also hurts the local Jewish farmers.

[1] Vayikra, 25:3-5

You may sow your field for six years, and for six years you may prune your vineyard, and gather in its produce. But in the seventh year, the land shall have a complete rest – a Sabbath to the Lord; you shall not sow your field, nor shall you prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the after-growth of your harvest, and you shall not pick the grapes you had set aside [for yourself], [for] it shall be a year of rest for the land

[2] Guidelines for the Shmitta Year, From “Chemdat Yamim” Parsha Sheet, Eretz Hemdah.

[3] Sefer Me’irath Enayim (Sema) 68,2

Specifically at the time when shmita and yovel were binding by Torah law, the blessing was fulfilled to grow on the sixth year enough for three years.

[4] The prevalent opinion amongst almost all contemporary halachic authorities is that shmita today is mi d’rabanan. There are dissenting opinions. See: “L’toldot Kiyum Mitzvat Hashmita” by Rav Moshe Tzvi Neriyah (in Hebrew).

[5] Although some farmers do opt to abstain from all agricultural work during the shmita year, this would not be a viable option for nation-wide observance. Farmers would suffer a drastic cut in their yearly income. Shmita produce would not reach neighborhood markets (due to the prohibition on commerce), so fruits and vegetables would have to be imported. The agricultural industries would collapse. Israel’s 2.4 billion dollar agricultural exports business would come to a halt, resulting in the loss of a solid customer base in foreign competitive markets which would take several years to rebuild.

[6] The [produce of the] Sabbath of the land will be for you to eat” (Leviticus 25:7).
Some say this is a positive commandment to eat shmita produce, others say that there is no commandment to actually eat the produce but rather we are commanded not to use it for any purpose other than food.  (שבת הארץ, הרב אברהם יצחק קוק, פ”ו הלכה א אות ב)

[7] גידול ירקות במצע מנותק בשמיטה בגוש קטיף, אגרונום מרדכי שומרון’ כסלו תשנ”ה, מכון תורה והארץ,

[8] מורה נבוכים לשנת השמיטה, הרב יוסף צבי רימון

[9] שו”ת מנחת יצחק חלק י סימן קטז(הרב יצחק יעקב וייס, פוסק ראב”ד של העדה החרדית, ירושלים

[10] Sefichim (or sefichin) are vegetables that grow, without human intervention, on Jewish land during shmita. These are permitted by Torah Law but forbidden by the Sages in order to prevent fraud and deception.

[11] “הגבול הדרומי־מזרחי של ארץ־ישראל” מאת הרב יוסף אפרתי. הליכות שדה, גליון 87,שבט תשנ”ד, עמ 5-16

[12] “שביעית בנגב המערבי” מאת הרב יהודה הלוי עמיחי, ו-“יתרון תוקף היתר המכירה בנגב המערבי” מאת הרב יואל פרידמן מתןך החוברת “אמונת עתיך”, גליון 103, ניסן תשע”ד

[13] Agriculture in Israel – 2013“, Central Bureau of Statistics, Israel

[14] שמיטה לכתחילה במדינת ישראל כיום – תוצרת נכרים” מאת הרב יוסף כרמל, ראש כולל “ארץ חמדה”

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