OU Kosher’s Primer For the Shemittah Year
“The laws governing the shemittah year were designed to strengthen the Jewish people’s trust in Hashem and to serve as a reminder that as important as our efforts are, ultimately everything comes from above. It is an opportunity, every seven years, to witness the manifestation of Hashem’s presence in the world.”
As we are little more than a month away from a shemittah year it is helpful to review some of the laws and customs as they pertain to us in Israel as well as outside of Israel.
The laws of Shemittah are outlined in Vayikra, the third book of the Torah; Chapter 25 verses 1-7. Shemittah is a sub-cycle which occurs every 7 years in 50 year cycles. During the 7th year of each sub cycle it is forbidden for the Jewish people to work the land of Israel. It is important to note that though we maintain all of the laws related to the 7th year, shemittah, the 50th year, known as yovel, has not been counted since the Second Temple (Rambam, Hilchos Shemittah 10:3). The Talmud, in tractate Avodah Zarah 15B, also forbids a gentile from working the land owned by a Jew just as there is a prohibition of having a gentile work for a Jew on the Sabbath. There is a debate as to whether a Jew would be permitted to work the land at all in the shemittah year even if the land is owned by a gentile. While in general one is permitted to work the land in the 6th year in preparation for the 7th, there are however some limitations as to what may be planted in Israel, in the last weeks before Rosh Hashanah, as this may give the appearance as though the planting took place in the 7th year. Once the 7th year arrives the land must lay fallow. Any crops that grow during the shemittah year are to be considered ownerless and are free for the taking. Anyone, including the farmer, who wishes to partake in the produce of the fields and orchards may do so and should be mindful to take only that which is necessary to feed their families. The laws governing the shemittah year were designed to strengthen the Jewish people’s trust in Hashem and to serve as a reminder that as important as our efforts are, ultimately everything comes from above. It is an opportunity, every seven years, to witness the manifestation of Hashem’s presence in the world.
The following is a list of terms and definitions one might encounter during a Shemittah year.
This term, used in the Torah and translated as the aftergrowth of one’s harvest, refers to annual produce (i.e. wheat, vegetables, beans) that grew from seeds that fell during the harvesting process of the 6th year. According to the Torah one is permitted to pick from these unintended crops during the shemittah year. The Rabbonim of Talmudic times, however, had to forbid its use due to a period in our history when individuals would plant seeds during the 7th year and claim the crop was sefichim (Rambam, Hilchos Shemittah 4:2).
This is the status given to all produce that grows in Israel on Jewish owned land (according to some even non-Jewish owned land in Israel) during the shemittah year. The presence of the word l’achlah (to eat) in verse 6 designates these crops for food. As such any produce grown during shemittah should only be consumed in their usual manner; i.e. that which is normally eaten raw may not be cooked and that which is normally cooked may not be eaten raw (Rambam,Hilchos Shemittah 5:3). In the same vein there is also an ongoing discussion amongst contemporary authorities as to which fruits are permissible to juice. When it comes to feeding animals that do not live near the fields, one can feed them from the shemittah produce only after the food has been deemed unfit for human consumption (Rambam Hilchos Shemittah 5:5). Shemittah produce may not be wasted in any way. With regard to discarding shemittah produce, or parts thereof, i.e. apple peels, one is not allowed to trash such items if they are still edible as they maintain their kedushas sheviis status (Chazon Ish, Hilchos Sheviis 14:10). Instead, one should place the item, or part of the item, they are not going to consume into a plastic bag and then into a container that has been designated as a ‘pach sheviis’, where it will remain until it is inedible. Once the produce becomes inedible it loses its kedushas sheviis status and can then be thrown away in a regular trash bin (or fed to animals). Produce that grows during the shemittah year may not be sold or given to a gentile, though it is permissible to invite them for a meal at which this produce will be served. Produce that has kedushas sheviis may not be removed from Israel, however if it was removed it does not become forbidden. On the contrary, the produce retains its status of kedushas sheviis and is therefore subject to all applicable laws of use and disposal noted above including biur sheviis (removal of sheviis produce from the home)and issur sechorah(prohibition of doing business) outlined below.
This practice is an integral part of the laws of shemittah. It is performed when any given produce can no longer be gathered from the land, yet may still be found in an individual’s possession. Just as we declare chometz ownerless at the time of biur chometz, here too a person must remove the fruits from his home, whether it be in Israel or outside of Israel, and declare this particular species of produce ownerless. Biur sheviis is performed before any three people [including friends or family who would likely have no interest in gaining from the soon to be ownerless item] by stating that the item in question is now ownerless. After biur is performed, one may reacquire the fruits. Non-compliance warrants the produce to be deemed a prohibited item (Rashi, Vayikra 25:7 & Rambam, Hilchos Shemittah 7:3). Note: Since each fruit will have a different date for biur, lists are compiled giving the dates of when biur must be performed for each fruit.
Literally translated, issur sechorah is the prohibition of doing business with the produce of sheviis. If, however, produce of sheviis is sold, the status of kedushas sheviis is extended to the money as well. This money must then be spent on foods that will then be eaten according to the laws of sheviis. For such a transaction, one may not give money to an individual who will not be careful with the laws of sheviiis. The prohibition is in the giving of actual money (cash) and so one may purchase sheviis produce with a credit card without transgressing the laws related to the money. When purchasing kedushas sheviis fruits care must be taken to note the time of biur (explained above) so that biur sheviis can be performed at its proper time with any remaining fruit. It should be noted, that kedushas sheviis applies to flowers grown in Israel as well.
Otzar Beis Din
The literal translation of this term is ‘the rabbinical court’s storehouse’. This is a service provided by the beis din (rabbinical court). A seal bearing these words identifies produce which has been gathered and stored during the shemittah year for distribution to communities outside of farming areas. The produce itself was obtained at no cost from the ‘ownerless fields’, and the beis din charges the consumer a fee to cover the expense of gathering, storing and transporting the items. This fee is less than what the going rate would be for the produce during the other six years to ensure that no profit is gained. The produce retains its status of kedushas sheviis and the rules of use and disposal outlined above apply. This seal is commonly found on esrogim boxes during the shemittah year.
This is another way by which farmers can make the ownerless produce available to people who live far from a farm and cannot pick from the crops themselves. It is outlined in the Talmud tractate Sukkah 39A in relation to obtaining an esrog of kedushas sheviis status. The procedure entails the purchasing of two items together – one that does not have a kedushas sheviis status and one that does. In this manner the esrog from our example is just an extra in the transaction and the money is exchanged only for the non-kedushas sheviis item. The cost of the non-kedushas sheviis item is determined by the seller and will be higher than it was in past years. The lulav, therefore, is sold at a higher than usual price in a package deal that includes the esrog from Israel. This is an accepted practice as a means to making Israeli products available in chutz la’aretz (outside Israel); through this practice the kedushas sheviis status remains and all associated rules still apply.
This term references the sale of Jewish owned land to a gentile for the duration of the shemittah year. Since a gentile is not required to keep the laws of Shemittah the land can be cultivated. It is unclear whether the land and produce maintains its kedushas sheviis status and its ramification. Therefore, it is disputed among contemporary halachic authorities as to whether it is permissible to rely on the practice of heter mechira.
May we soon merit the days of our return from exile when the laws of shemittah will be an integral part of all our daily lives in the land of Israel.