Shemittah in the Diaspora

Rabbi Nachum Rabinowitz

This coming Rosh Hashana (5782) the land of Israel will be celebrating its sabbatical year, the year of shemittah.

When the Jewish people originally settled the land of Israel, 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 people do not (yet) live in our 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; it’s often compared to the state of New Jersey due to similar land mass (Israel contains less arable land than the U.S.’s fifth smallest state) and has vastly fewer water resources. Nonetheless, Israel dwarfs New Jersey’s agriculture output more than fourfold.

According to the U.S. government, U.S. imports of Israeli agricultural products totaled $2.3 billion in 2018. While not as significant as Israel’s farmed exports to the European Union and Russia, we do occasionally encounter Israel’s produce on American shelves. Certainly, Israeli processed food products are featured wherever kosher foods are sold.

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

By contrast, Israeli kosher consumers are accustomed to purchasing fresh produce that is kosher-certified to ensure that the product is non-problematic (e.g. 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. However, Israeli export produce, which is not kosher-certified, does not normally undergo these tithes and separations.

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

Shemittah is one of the central mitzvot on which the Jewish people’s rights 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, but a description of faith. That tribute has often been 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 shemittah calendar year (5782).


So how does a country that is 95% self-sufficient in its own agricultural quotas and also a major exporter of produce continue to meet its agricultural needs during shemittah? The Torah guarantees that those who observe shemittah will be provided for, however, 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, to help maintain the agricultural economies:

  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 Local produce is procured from fields that are owned by non-Jews. The verification of the sourcing from non-Jewish lands is often challenging, though, 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 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 This is known in Hebrew as matzah menutak.
  6. Produce from the lower Negev, which is not within the halachic boundaries of Israel, is therefore excluded from shemittah


Shemittah produce is not expected to reach the American shores until the first quarter of 2022. The OU will be publishing updates with anticipated Israeli exports and their expected arrival times.


The OU certifies many products produced in Israel. Those products do not contain heter mechirah-based produce nor would they have shemittah status (and are distributed on the basis of Otzar Beit Din). The products would instead only contain ingredients that are not shemittah for one of the following reasons:

  1. The ingredients are from non-shemittah
  2. The ingredients are imported from outside Israel.
  3. The materials are grown in the lower Negev region.
  4. The ingredients are verified to have been grown on non-Jewish owned lands.


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 A harvest and distribution
system of produce run by rabbinical court in accordance with shemittah restrictions. Proceeds of the sale of produce (at a pre-set price) goes toward expenses only, rather than for
profit. Otzar Beit Din produce may be consumed
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 that 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 we may not maintain possession of shemittah produce once it is no longer
readily available in Israel, we are required to remove items from our home and declare that we are relinquishing our ownership in the presence of others. Once biur is completed, we 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 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 into a coin and then consumed normally.

Rabbi Nachum Rabinowitz

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