Shemittah in the Diaspora

Rabbi Nachum Rabinowitz

pesach-shemittah-insideTHIS PAST ROSH HASHANA (5775) the land of Israel began celebrating its sabbatical year, the year of shemittah. Upon the original settling of the land of Israel by the Jewish people, a seven year cycle was established. Each seventh year, there is a biblical mitzvah to 1) treat produce of the land with extraordinary care because it is invested with special sanctity; 2) curtail agricultural work in the fields and 3) grant amnesty for personal loans. Today, while the majority of our nation does not live in its ancestral lands, shemittah continues to be observed, but only by rabbinical ruling.

As diaspora Jews, who have not yet merited to take-up residence in Israel, we often think ourselves disenfranchised from the agricultural laws governing Israeli produce. This is not necessarily the case.

Israel is nothing short of an agrarian miracle. Often compared to the state of New Jersey due to similar land mass, Israel contains less arable land than the US’s fifth smallest state, and has vastly fewer water resources. Nonetheless, Israel dwarfs New Jersey’s agriculture output more than fourfold.

According to the US government, US imports of Israeli agricultural products totaled $327 million in 2013. While not as significant as Israel’s farmed exports to the European Union and Russia, one does occasionally encounter Israel’s produce on US store shelves. Certainly, Israeli processed food products are featured wherever kosher foods are sold.

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Kosher consumers accustomed to purchasing processed foods with reliable kosher certification understand that Israeli products similarly require reliable kosher verification. However, standard fresh produce that we purchase and consume without the need for any kosher verification in the US, is quite another matter when they are of Israeli origin.

By contrast, Israeli kosher consumers are accustomed to purchasing fresh produce which is kosher certified to ensure that the product is non-problematic (i.e. orlah – which is forbidden) and has undergone the necessary tithes and separations: teruma, ma’aser rishon, terumat ma’aser, ma’aser sheini, ma’aser ani and neta revai. Israeli export produce without kosher certification does not normally undergo these tithes and separations.

When encountering fresh Israeli produce in the diaspora during a regular year, one can make the required separations oneself to permit their consumption. For a broader treatment of these halachot see Separating Terumah and Ma’aser by Rabbi Yaakov Luban at


Shemittah is one of the central mitzvot upon which the Jewish people’s right to the land of Israel is dependent. It is not an easy mitzvah and our sages describe shemittah observers as ‘warriors’. This is not a description of military prowess; they are instead considered warriors of faith. I’ve always imagined that tribute associated with Israel’s farmers (shemittah’s front-line combatants), but there is much for consumers to be vigilant about as well.

Each category of produce is governed by shemittah rules if its critical stage of growth occurs during the 5775 calendar year (see “Critical Growth Stages”).


So how does a country that is 95% self-sufficient for its own agricultural quotas and also a major exporter of produce continue to meet its agricultural needs during shemittah? [While the Torah guarantees that those who observe shemittah will be provided for, some early authorities explain that the Torah’s promise only applies when shemittah was biblically commanded.]

In Israel the kashruth of produce during shemittah is addressed in one of the following ways:

1  Ensuring that produce planting and harvesting is scheduled in ways that avoid the shemittah calendar dates.

2   Most authorities consider produce from fields of non-Jewish ownership to be exempt of shemittah status. Local produce is procured from fields that are owned by non-Jews. The verification of the sourcing from non-Jewish lands is often challenging due to the security difficulties associated with having kashruth inspectors visit Arab-owned lands, particularly in Palestinian-governed areas.

3   The Chief Rabbinate arranges the sale of Jewish-owned land (via power of attorney) to non-Jews for the period of shemittah thereby exempting all produce grown on that land (though not necessarily agricultural work) from the laws of shemittah. This is often referred to as ‘heter mechirah’. Some authorities have found this transaction problematic and do not wish to rely on this carte blanche exemption.

4  Some authorities consider that even gentile-owned lands are not exempt from shemittah restrictions. For this reason some rabbis arrange harvesting and distribution of produce in a non-commercial, non-profit manner to ensure that all handling of produce complies with shemittah restrictions. This is often referred to as Otzar Beit Din, and the produce must be treated, by the end consumer, with the care shemittah-sanctified produce requires.

5  Growing and harvesting vegetables in earth that is detached from the ground (similar to flower pots) which is also indoors. Produce grown in specially-designed greenhouses is halachically exempt from shemittah restrictions. This is known in Hebrew as matza menutak.

6  Produce from the lower Negev, which is not within the halachic boundaries of Israel, is excluded from shemittah status.

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Glossary of Terms

HETER MECHIRAH  A legal instrument to sell Jewish-owned land in Israel to non-Jews and thereby circumvent the shemittah status of produce grown on those lands.

OTZAR BEIT DIN The harvest and distribution of produce is controlled by a rabbinical court in a non-commercial and non-profit manner in accordance with shemittah restrictions. Proceeds of any sale (pre-established price) distributed by the court would be for services rendered rather than for-profit). The consumer must also utilize the produce in accordance with shemittah requirements.

MATZAH MENUTAK Produce grown and harvested detached from the ground (i.e. in flower pots) and with a roof covering. According to many authorities vegetables which are grown in this manner are exempt from shemittah restrictions.

SEFICHIM Rabbinical prohibition to consume annually planted produce (i.e. vegetables, grains) whose critical growth occurs during the
shemittah year.

BIUR Because one may not maintain possession of shemittah produce once it is no longer readily available in Israel one is required to remove items from one’s home and declare that one is relinquishing his ownership in the presence of others. Once biur is completed, one may reclaim the product. Produce that is always available does not require biur.

TERUMA First separation from produce (approximately 2%), given to Kohanim (priestly family) to be consumed by them in a state of ritual purity. Because the biblical separation is of an unspecified amount, due to our state of ritual impurity, a trivial amount is separated, wrapped carefully (to avoid desecration) and discarded.

MA’ASER RISHON Second separation from produce, a tithe of 10%, which is given to members of the Levite tribe. Today this is separated and then consumed in a normal fashion.

MA’ASER SHENI Another tithe of 10% to be separated and then brought to Jerusalem for consumption there. This tithe is only separated from produce of the first, second, fourth and fifth years of the shemittah cycle. Today, following separation, this tithe is redeemed onto a coin and then consumed in a normal fashion.

MA’ASER ANI Another tithe of 10% is separated and distributed to poor people. This tithe is only separated from produce of the third and sixth years of the shemittah cycle. Today following separation this tithe may be consumed in a normal fashion.

TERUMAT MA’ASER Secondary tithe of 10% separated by the Levite recipient of ma’aser rishon (above). Today this ma’aser is not given to a Levite. The original owner separates this tithe (1%) and discards, as with regular teruma.

ORLAH Biblical prohibition to partake in fruits of a tree or vine’s first three years, from the time of planting.

NETA REVAI Fruits from the fourth year from the time of planting. These fruits would be taken to Jerusalem and consumed there. Today neta revai is redeemed onto a coin and then consumed normally.


THE FOLLOWING IS A LIST OF US-DISTRIBUTED ISRAELI FRESH PRODUCE based on information prepared by Rabbi Shnair Revach of the Machon l’Mitzvot HaTeluyot b’Aretz. Dried fruits, herbs and spices have a shelf life of multiple years. One can only be sure to avoid shemittah produce by purchasing those products with reliable kosher certification. We have added one column indicating the approximate minimum shipping time from Israel to the US to help determine when shemittah produce or sefichim may arrive on US store shelves:

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Israeli etrogim for the coming Sukkot holiday will all have shemittah sanctity. They must therefore be treated with special care until they have completely dried out; 1) they may not be discarded or otherwise desecrated, 2) if they are still in one’s possession by the time of biur (January 11, 2016) they must be made hefker (some authorities require that they be returned to Israel). Ideally, they should be fully consumed following the holiday.

The methods for the purchase of Etrogim are:

  1. One pays for the set so that the funds are for the lulav and hadasim and not the etrog.
  2. One makes the purchase with a credit card, and not with cash.
  3. The etrog is sold in a sealed box for a price pre-determined by Otzar Beit Din.
Rabbi Nachum Rabinowitz

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