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Shemitah 5782: An Introduction

Since the coming year is a Shemitah year, we will devote the following few articles to discussing Shemitah-related issues. In this issue we will outline some of the basic halachot that pertain to Shemitah. In the next issue we will discuss whether Shemitah observance in our time is a biblical or rabbinical requirement. The final two issues will address the debate regarding the heter mechirah (the practice of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate to transfer the title of the farmland in Israel to an Arab for the duration of the Shemitah year).

The Prohibitions

The Torah (Vayikra 25:4-6) outlines four forbidden activities during the Shemitah year: sowing, pruning, harvesting and picking grapes. Plowing a field also might be biblically forbidden (see Shemot 34:21). All other agricultural activities are only rabbinically forbidden (Rambam Hilchot Shemitah VeYovel 1:3 and 1:10).

It is forbidden to “improve trees” during Shemitah, but one may engage in activities that merely “maintain trees” (Avoda Zara 50b). The Rambam (Hilchot Shemitah VeYovel 1:10) explains that had the rabbis forbidden “maintaining trees,” then all of the trees in Israel would die. It is, however, difficult to decide which activities constitute “maintaining trees” as opposed to “improving trees.”

The Otzar Beit Din

One may ask how people in Israel eat fruit and vegetables during the Shemitah year if the Torah prohibits harvesting during Shemitah. First, the prohibition to harvest refers to large-scale harvesting (Yerushalmi Sheviit 8:6). Second, the Ramban (25:7) cites a Tosefta (Sheviit 8:1-4) that limits the prohibition of harvesting to individuals. The community may, however, engage in large-scale harvesting and nationwide distribution of the harvest. This system is referred to as the Otzar Beit Din. Although the Rambam does not cite this Tosefta, the Otzar Beit Din system has become widely accepted among halachic authorities (including Yalkut Yosef, Yoreh Deah 331:15:8) and is commonly practiced today.

Kedushat Peirot Shemitah

Fruits that blossom during Shemitah, vegetables harvested during Shemitah and grains that grow their first third of growth during Shemitah are endowed with holiness (kedushat perot Shemitah). Therefore, we must treat them in a particular manner. Significant controversy exists between the Beit Yosef on the one hand and the Maharit and Mabit concerning whether produce that grows on land owned by non-Jews is endowed with kedushat perot Shemitah. We shall return to this controversy when we examine the issue of the Heter Mechirah.

Although Tosafot (Sukkah 39a s.v. SheEin) write that there is an infinite number of rules concerning the proper way to treat fruit endowed with kedushat Shemitah, the issues may be reduced to five primary categories of halachot.

First, the Torah (Shemot 23:11) commands that the produce of Shemitah be hefker (ownerless—the Otzar Beit Din ensures that fields are not abused during the Shemitah year because of this rule). Thus, one does not remove terumot and maaserot from the produce of the seventh year. Second, the Beit Yosef and the Maharit/Mabit vigorously dispute whether the Torah automatically renders all produce of the seventh year to be hefker or requires the landowner to pronounce the produce to be hefker. A practical ramification of this dispute is whether one must remove terumot and maaserot from produce taken from fields whose owners did not pronounce its produce to be hefker.

The second rule is that one may not use the produce of the seventh year for commercial purposes. The Torah (Vayikra 25:6) states that the produce of the seventh year is intended for eating. Chazal (Pesachim 52b) infer from this that the produce is “for eating and not for selling.” The Rambam delineates the parameters of this prohibition in the sixth chapter of Hilchot Shemitah VeYovel.

The third principle is that we may not waste Shemitah’s produce. This halacha entails that the Shemitah produce is used to its maximum potential. The Rambam presents these laws in the fourth chapter of Hilchot Shemitah VeYovl. Contemporary works on the laws of Shemitah devote much attention to the precise implementation of this rule.

The fourth principle is that one may not export produce of the seventh year outside of the Land of Israel. In addition, the product may not be given to a nochri to eat. This halacha presents a particular challenge in modern times. It is not economically feasible to engage in large-scale agricultural endeavors in Israel unless most produce is exported. Discussions of this issue and potential solutions to this problem can be found in Techumin (7:34-48).

The fifth rule is that of biur. The Torah (Vayikra 25:7) teaches that we may eat the seventh year’s produce so long as the item that one wishes to eat remains readily available in the fields. When the item is no longer available in the fields, one must engage in biur (destruction). The Rishonim debate precisely how to fulfill this mitzvah. The Rambam (Hilchot Shemitah VeYovel 7:3) believes that the produce must be burned. Most Rishonim, though, agree with the Ramban (Vayikra 25:7) that biur involves declaring the Shemitah produce to be hefker (see the Raavad to Hilchot Shemitah VeYovel 7:3 for a compromise opinion). The opinion of the Ramban is followed in practice (Pe’at HaShulchan chapter 27, Aruch HaShulchan HeAtid 27:8, Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook Teshuvot Mishpat Kohen 83, Chazon Ish Sheviit 11:7, and Yalkut Yosef Yoreh Deah 331:21:1).

Gezeirat Sefichim

Chazal prohibited eating anything that grew during the Shemitah year even if it grew on its own (gezeirat sefichim), lest one quietly sow his field in the middle of the night and claim that the food grew on its own (Rambam Hilchot Shemitah VeYovel 4:2). This decree does not apply to fruit grown on trees that are not planted every year. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (see the letters printed at the end of Maadanei Aretz) suggests that this decree does not apply today since a person cannot sow a field today without drawing attention to what he is doing. Our use of tractors for sowing and commercial fields occupying large tracts of land may render this decree inapplicable. Although Rav Shlomo Zalman concludes that the gezeirat sefichim still applies, his reasoning may be part of the reason why we accept the ruling of the Chazon Ish (Sheviit 22:2) and Yalkut Yosef (Yoreh Deah 331:2:6) that the gezeirat sefichim does not apply to produce that was planted before the beginning of the Shemitah year.

Farmers who do not rely on the heter mechira typically plant their crops a short time before the Shemitah year. These crops will subsequently be harvested under the auspices of the Otzar Beit Din and are endowed with kedushat peirot sheviit, but the gezeirat sefichim will not apply to them.

Conclusion

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Teshuvot Minchat Shlomo 1:44) bemoans the widespread ignorance of the Shemitah laws. Therefore, it is appropriate for us to familiarize ourselves with these halachot in preparation for the upcoming Shemitah year.


Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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