According to tradition, it took Joshua seven years to conquer the Land of Israel, and another seven years to divide it among the various tribes and individuals. The Talmud tells us that only after these fourteen years, when the conquest of the land had been completed, was it endowed with kedushah, holiness, with respect to the observance of the various agricultural mitzvos. Thus, the fifteenth year after the entry into the Land of Israel was the first year counted for the purpose of determining the shemitah and yovel cycles. Every seventh year thereafter was to be observed as shemitah, the sabbatical year, and after seven such shmittos, the fiftieth year was to have special observances as yovel, the Jubilee year.
Towards the end of the period of the first Temple, ten of the Twelve Tribes of Israel were exiled. The Torah states concerning the Jubilee year, “You shall proclaim liberty to the land and to all its inhabitants.” The Talmud derives from this statement that the yovel laws are binding only when all the tribes are present in the Land of Israel. Accordingly, during the last years of the first Temple period, the special mitzvos of the yovel were no longer Biblically binding (mid’oraisah).
Many years later, after the destruction of the second Temple, the rabbis of the Talmud had a dispute regarding the interpretation of the Torah passages referring to yovel. If there is neither a majority of the world Jewish population present in the Land of Israel, nor a representation of each of the tribes, the yovel year will not be observed Biblically. Would the Biblical mitzvah of shemitah be similarly precluded? The accepted view is that of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, that the mitzvah of shemitah is Biblically binding only when the majority of the world Jewish population is living in Eretz Yisrael, and there can be an observance of seven shmittos leading to a yovel year. As a result, it is generally accepted today that the laws of shemitah are binding mid’rabonon, according to Rabbinic law, not Biblical law, since we do not yet have the majority of the world Jewish population living in Eretz Yisrael, nor can it be established that there is representation of each tribe present today in Israel.
About a hundred years ago, a group of European gedolim (sages) suggested the following kula (leniency) regarding the observance of the shemitah laws. The Talmud states that there are sections of Syria which have the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael mid’rabonon, and that in those areas, selling the land to non-Jews canceled the entire need to observe the shemitah laws. It was therefore reasoned that since today in all of Eretz Yisrael the entire observance of shemitah is Rabbinic in nature, the sale of the land to non-Jews should cancel the laws of shemitah. This process became known as heter mechira, the permission to use land based on its sale to non-Jews.
Throughout the years there were many gedolim who rejected the heter mechira for a variety of reasons. The Chief Rabbinate in Israel, however, officially accepts it and arranges for the sale. Yet, as the years go on, an increasing number of individuals have become aware of the questionable nature of the heter mechira and have chosen to avoid relying on it.
Even those gedolim who allowed the sale of the land for the purpose of canceling the laws of shemitah, did so only because of the unusually difficult economic circumstances then prevailing in Israel. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt“l was of the opinion that for those living in America it is improper to use products that rely on the heter. Moreover, his father, Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik zt“l, was of the opinion that Eretz Yisrael today is the possession of the entire Jewish people and as such, simply does not lend itself to any sale. Products under OU supervision do not rely on the heter mechira.
While many aspects of shemitah observance apply only to the farmers, relating to the various forms of agricultural work on the land, there are also several issues which affect consumers and the public at large.
One major issue facing the consumer is that of sefichim. Sefichim are grains and vegetables which grow by themselves during the shemitah year and which may not be eaten. There is a dispute among the Tannaim as to whether this prohibition is Biblical or Rabbinic in origin. The prevailing opinion is that sefichim are prohibited mi’d’rabanan. The basis for this prohibition was the concern that some farmers might violate the shemitah laws, plant new crops and claim that the crops had grown on their own. To prevent this potential abuse, even those crops that grew by themselves, sefichim, were prohibited.
Fruit is excluded from the sefichim prohibition because it is not general practice to plant fruit trees each year.
Sefichim grown in the fields of non-Jews were never included in the prohibition, because a non-Jew could not possibly have been in violation of the shemitah laws. However, much of the produce brought to market is of questionable origin, though it is claimed
to have been grown on non-Jewish farms, and it is not known whether it was grown on Jewish or non-Jewish farms. The Chazon Ish addresses this problem by applying the principle of s’feka d’rabbanan lekula: i.e., since the whole prohibition of sefichim is Rabbinic in origin, when a doubt exists as to whether a particular vegetable grew in a Jewish or non-Jewish owned field, a lenient ruling possibly may be adopted and the questionable produce may be eaten.
Another issue of concern to consumers relates to kedushas peiros sheviis, the sanctity of the seventh year’s produce. Food possessing kedushas peiros sheviis may not be wasted, even for a mitzvah. For example, one who overfills the wine cup to be used for Havdalah, deliberately spilling the wine, may not use shemitah wine for Havdalah. Food particles with kedushas sheviis must also be treated with dignity. Thus, leftover fruits, vegetables and grain products may not be thrown out, but rather must be saved until it becomes unfit for human consumption.
Additionally, food possessing kedushas sheviis may not be sold commercially. This restriction has given rise to the institution of Otsar Beth Din, the storehouse of the rabbinical court, a mechanism by which farmers may have their crops distributed to consumers.
Finally, food with kedushas sheviis must be eaten in Eretz Yisrael and may not be exported. Kosher Consumers outside Israel must therefore be alert to avoid purchasing food which may possess kedushas sheviis. (It should be noted that some Israeli companies use ingredients which they imported from outside Israel, thereby circumventing the problem.)
There is halachic disagreement concerning the status of produce which definitely grew on non-Jewish farms. Does it possess kedushas sheviis, or not? The opinion of Rav Yosef Karo (author of the Shulchan Aruch who lived. in Eretz Yisrael in the 1500s) is that produce grown in non-Jewish fields does not have kedushas peiros sheviis. This opinion was accepted for several centuries and remains the accepted opinion in Jerusalem. The opinion of the Chazon Ish (based on the opinion of the Mabit, a contemporary of Rav Yosef Karo) is that kedushas sheviis applies even to produce grown in non-Jewish fields. There is a growing minority in Israel today that follows the view of the Chazon Ish.
As this brief overview has shown, the historical and Biblical origins of shemitah have given rise to numerous contemporary issues of significance to farmers and consumers. Specific practical questions will undoubtedly arise for American consumers as well as for visitors to Israel. Rabbinic guidance concerning these questions should be sought.
For Further Study:
- Shemittah and Yobel: Laws Referring to the Sabbatical Year in Israel and its Produce, Dayan Dr. I. Grunfeld (Soncino Press, 1972)
- Dinei Shvi’is Hashalem (Hebrew with English translation) (Degel Yerushalayim Cultural Fund, 1993)
- Shemitah: What It’s All About (Torah Umesorah Publications, 1993)
Questions You Should Ask:
If you are traveling to Israel during or immediately after a shemitah year, ascertain that the hotel, restaurant or vendor from whom you buy produce is careful concerning shemitah observance:
- Ask how leftover fruits, vegetables and grain products should be discarded.
- Are the baked goods made with imported grain, or should you be concerned about their shemitah status?
- What is the appropriate usage of derivatives of produce, such as wine, grape juice and olive oil?
- Because fragrant table flowers must also be considered in terms of shemitah, does the florist provide proper certification?
If you purchase flowers or products outside of Israel, ascertain that there is appropriate shemitah certification on those products requiring it This question should also be asked concerning esrogim for Sukkot.