Daf ha-kashrus

Practical Shemittah

by Rabbi Dovid Bistricer, Rabbinic Coordinator

Every seven years, we have a special opportunity in eretz Yisroel to fulfill the mitzvah of shemittah. During this sabbatical year, agricultural fields are not worked, while fruits and vegetables become public property. According to the sefer Hachinuch[1], laying the lands fallow is an affirmation that one’s sustenance is truly from the almighty.

There are many details with shemittah observance. This includes certain permissible allowances that one may follow, but still properly observe shemittah. This article will focus on some of the more common, possible exceptions to the rule.

1)      Sourcing produce from non-Jewish owned fields. There are certain kashrus agencies that permit without shemittah restrictions, produce from Arab owned fields in the West Bank. This is based on the position of the Beis Yosef[2] that produce grown nowadays in non-Jewish owned lands in eretz Yisroel does not contain kedushas shviis. However, the Mabit[3] disagreed and maintained that all produce grown in eretz Yisroel contains kedushas shviis, even from lands owned by a non-Jew. Later authorities, such as the Netziv[4], R’ Avraham Yitzchok HaKohen Kook, and R’ Tzvi Pesach Frank[5] followed the Beis Yosef’s position. However, the Beis HaLevi[6], Rogatchover[7] and Chazon Ish[8] accepted the position of the Mabit. The accepted custom in Yerushalayim and most of eretz Yisroel is to follow the opinion of the Beis Yosef. Nonetheless, the custom in Bnei Brak is to follow the opinion of the Mabit.

2)      Heter Mechira. This entails temporarily selling Jewish owned lands to non-Jews, with produce from those fields not subject to shviis restrictions. The acceptability of this practice partially depends on the issue above, but also touches on other issues. This includes:

  • Is shemittah nowadays a Torah obligation or Rabbinic?
  • Is it proper to avoid shemittah observance by transferring ownership of Jewish owned fields?
  • Is it permissible to sell lands in eretz Yisroel to a non-Jew?

Is such a sale valid if it does not conform to legal requirements of the governmental body?

Under dire economic conditions, R’ Avraham Yitzchok HaKohen Kook permitted heter mechira[9]. The basic reasoning behind this position was based on the majority opinion that shemittah nowadays is Rabbinic and under extenuating circumstances it is permissible to transfer ownership of Jewish land to non-Jews for Jewish benefit. Although some raised an objection that legally binding property sales must be formally registered with the Israeli government, R’ Tzvi Pesach Frank maintained that not doing so would not invalidate a sale intended to avoid transgressing a prohibition[10]. Many authorities, including the Beis HaLevi, Netziv[11] and Chazon Ish opposed heter mechira[12]. One of the earliest supporters of heter mechira was the posek hador, R’ Yitzchok Elchonon Spektor of Kovno[13], and discussions about the validity of these sales have already overlapped three centuries. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that R’ Kook, who formally institutionalized heter mechira, required a reevaluation of the need prior to each shemittah year.

3)      Sourcing produce from Ever HaYarden. There are agencies that permit produce from certain areas of eretz Yisroel that are considered part of the Jordan Valley, which may not have been inhabited when Ezra returned from the Babylonian exile. These areas could be viewed differently and considered outside the normative borders of eretz Yisroel where land related precepts apply fully. The Minchas Yitzchok[14] writes that since shemittah nowadays and land related mitzvos immediately outside normative eretz Yisroel boundaries are both rabbinic obligations, one can permit produce from areas that may have not been inhabited at the return of the Babylonian exile.  However, the Chazon Ish[15] maintained that the Jordan Valley has the same status of any other area in eretz Yisroel.

4)      Otzar Beis Din. This involves a beis din acting on behalf of the community by appointing agents during shemittah to harvest and distribute produce from Jewish owned fields. This practice was supported by the Chazon Ish[16] and is based on a tosefta[17] that is quoted by the Ramban[18]. Unlike heter mechira, Otzar Beis Din is not a transfer of field ownership. To the contrary, all the shemittah restrictions with the harvesting, distribution, and usage of shviis produce apply. Otzar Beis Din produce cannot be sold through regular retail channels and contain kedushas shviis.    

5) Matza Menutak. There are two separate discussions whether: 1) produce grown indoors[19] and 2) produce grown in bins are subject to shemittah restrictions[20]. There is basis to assume that shemittah restrictions only apply to fruits and vegetables grown in an open field and/or directly in the ground. Consequently, several authorities permitted a situation where both conditions exist[21]. This is practically relevant to greenhouse vegetables that are grown in bins placed in the ground. Nevertheless, some oppose this leniency on the assumption that these two exceptions are only intended for irregular growing conditions. However, this would not apply to greenhouse growing that is considered a normal agricultural practice[22].

 Fruits and vegetables containing kedushas shviis are subject to certain limitations. For example, they may be eaten, but they may not be sold or wasted. They also may not be brought outside of eretz Yisroel. This is especially relevant with esrogim, although according to some opinions there are leniencies with some restrictions[23]. It is therefore incumbent to realize that with each of the above situations, there are practical differences how certain fruits and vegetables should be handled. Typically, either the package or store’s kosher certificate should state whether the produce comes from a source where any of these situations would apply.

[1] 84

[2] Avkas Rochel 24

[3] Shut Mabit 1:21

[4] Meshiv Davar 2:56, Kuntres Hashemittah

[5] Har Tzvi Zeraim 2:39

[6] 3:1

[7] Tzafnas Paneach Hachadashos 94

[8] Shviis 20

[9] Mishpat Kohen 58, 63, 68

[10] Har Tzvi Zeraim 2:50

[11] Ibid 4

[12] Shviis 24

[13] Sefer Hashemittah p. 67

[14] 8:94-95

[15] Shviis 3:25, 32

[16] Shviis, 11, 12

[17] Shviis 8:1,2

[18] Bamidbar 25:7

[19] Yerushalmi Orlah 1:2

[20] Sefer Hashemittah p. 15, Chazon Ish Zeraim 26:4

[21] Sefer Hashemittah p. 16, Even Yisroel 8:74, Masa Ovadia p. 90-97

[22] Chazon Ish Shviis 20:6, Chut Shani Shviis p. 79

[23] Chut Shani Shviis p. 283