Let’s Start With a Definition: Shemittah/ שמיטה is translated as the “Sabbatical year” and comes from the word שמט, meaning to release. Just as we have a 7 day week with the 7 th day being a day of rest, so to the Torah prescribes a 7 year agricultural cycle with the 7 th year being a year of rest for the land in the Holy land of Israel, during which the land is not worked and the produce of the land is sanctified. Additionally, the Shemittah year waives all outstanding debts between Jewish debtors and creditors. It is important to mention from the outset that most halachic authorities hold that nowadays the laws of Shemittah are Rabbinic in nature. The laws of agricultural Shemittah begin on Rosh Hashanah of the 7 th year, with some exceptions. The cancelation of debts occurs at sunset on Erev Rosh Hashanah of the 8 th year.
The Verses of the Torah that discuss the general mitzvah of Shemittah 1.Shemos 23:10-12: Six years you may sow your land and gather in its produce. But in the seventh [year] you shall release it and abandon it; the poor of your people shall eat [it], and what they leave over, the beasts of the field shall eat. So shall you do to your vineyard [and] to your olive tree[s]. Six days you may do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, in order that your ox and your donkey shall rest, and your maidservant's son and the stranger shall be refreshed. 2.Va’Yikra 25:1-7: And Hashem spoke to Moshe on Har Sinai, saying, Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them: When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land shall rest a Sabbath for Hashem. You may sow your field for six years, and for six years you may prune your vineyard, and gather in its produce, But in the seventh year, the land shall have a complete rest a Sabbath to the Lord; you shall not sow your field, nor shall you prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest, and you shall not pick the grapes you had set aside [for yourself], [for] it shall be a year of rest for the land. And [the produce of] the Sabbath of the land shall be yours to eat for you, for your male and female slaves, and for your hired worker and resident who live with you, And all of its produce may be eaten [also] by your domestic animals and by the beasts that are in your land.
continued 3. Va’Yikra 25:20-22: And if you should say, "What will we eat in the seventh year? We will not sow, and we will not gather in our produce!"[Know then, that] I will command My blessing for you in the sixth year, and it will yield produce for three years. And you will sow in the eighth year, while [still] eating from the old crops until the ninth year; until the arrival of its crop, you will eat the old [crop]. 4. Devarim 15:1-: At the end of seven years you will make a Shemittah release. And this is the manner of the release; to release the hand of every creditor from what he lent his friend; he shall not exact from his friend or his brother, because time of the release for the Lord has arrived.
Rationale for the Mitzvos As with all mitzvos, we ultimately do them because they are the will of the creator as laid out in His Torah, nevertheless, there are many important reasons that can be pointed out for the laws of Shemittah : 1.It builds our faith in the fact that Hashem runs the world and provides our sustenance. He commanded us in the laws and he will provide for us, just as he sent us man in the dessert. 2.It gives Jews a year to collectively take a breather and focus on higher, more spiritual pursuits—as the people packed the synagogues and study halls. 3.As mentioned above the cycle of 7 mimics that of Shabbos. Just as Shabbos reminds that the universe did not come into existence on its own, but was created by Hashem in 6 days, and on the 7 th He rested, so too Shemittah reminds us that Hashem created the world and sustains it. 4.To feed the poor and the animals, and provide for the needy by canceling their debts. 5.The Rambam suggests that letting the land lie fallow is agriculturally beneficial, for it results in the Land rejuvenating itself.
The Age Old Question With all of the agricultural restrictions, how will farmers survive the year? First, the Torah answers this Question: “And if you should say, "What will we eat in the seventh year? We will not sow, and we will not gather in our produce!"[Know then, that] I will command My blessing for you in the sixth year, and it will yield produce for three years. And you will sow in the eighth year, while [still] eating from the old crops until the ninth year; until the arrival of its crop, you will eat the old [crop].” Of course, a Jew realizes that Hashem provides parnasah (sustenance) and that observing a mitzvah will never hurt anyone. An observant farmer obeys the Torah dictates, knowing that Hashem attends to all his needs. Indeed, recent shmittos have each had numerous miracles rewarding observant farmers in this world for their halachic diligence. Who can possibly imagine what reward awaits them in Olam Haba !
Continued In addition: The Otzar Beis Din (Jewish Court Storehouses), which we will describe at length later, employ the farmers to help distribute produce during the Shemittah year. In short, the fruit of the land have to be treated as ownerless during Shemittah. They must be available for all to come and pick. Many people do not live right next to the fields; therefore, Beis Din collects the fruit on the behalf of the people for distribution. When paying for such fruit, one is not paying for the fruit itself, but for the labor that went in to gathering them. The Beis Din usually hires shemittah observant farmers to do the gathering, thereby supporting them during shemmittah.
Types of Shemittah Shemittah שמיטת קרקעות Agricultural Shemittah עבודת הקרקע Working the land קדושת הפירות Sanctity of the produce שמיטת כספים Loan Amnesty
Differences between types of Shemittah -There is a big difference between agricultural laws of Shemittah and the laws of canceling debts. The agricultural laws, i.e. the laws of working the land apply only in the land of Israel, whereas the laws of debt cancelation exist outside of the land of Israel as well. -Within the agricultural laws, although the laws of working the land apply only in the land of Israel, the laws relating to the sanctity of the fruit can follow it out of the land of Israel. -Therefore, the most important laws for a person living outside of Israel to be knowledgeable in would be the laws of debt cancelation and the sanctity of the fruit.
A quick note on where the agricultural laws apply: We mentioned that they only apply in the land of Israel, but that statement is very vague. What counts as the land of Israel? This topic is one of much debate, but here is some info: There are some portions of modern-day Israel which, since they were not under Jewish control in the days of Ezra are not considered part of the Land for the purposes of Shemittah. These areas include the southern Negev (ex. Eilat) and northeast Galil (around Kiryat Shmonah and Metullah). Produce grown in these areas would be permitted and not subject to Shemittah laws.
דרבנן or דאורייתא Torah based or Rabbinic The Talmud in tractate Gittin page 36a-b brings a discussion about whether the laws of Shemittah in our modern times, after the destruction of the Beis Ha’Mikdash, are to be treated as Torah laws or Rabbinic laws. Most halachic athorities side with the opinion of Rebbi - that the laws are currently Rabbinic in nature. Rebbi held that the existence of a Torah level shemittah is tied to the existence of the Yovel Jubilee year (which occurs every 50 years), and we can no longer observe the Jubilee year. Tosefos (36a) and Rambam (Shemittah and Yovel 9:2) state the reason for this is: one cannot have a Jubilee year without all of the Jewish people dwelling in the land of Israel. The Rabanan decreed that we should continue to observe the laws of Shemittah but did not institute the laws of Yovel, as they felt it would be to difficult for the people to handle (the Yovel year is a sabbatical year that follows a sabbatical year). Although we do not follow his opinion, it is noteworthy that the Beis Ha’Levi held that the mitzvos of shemittah are on a Torah level even now, not based upon the laws themselves, but based upon a verse in Nechemiah in which the Jewish people vowed to keep them. He states that they are obligatory on a Torah level based on the laws of oaths and vows rather than the laws of shemittah themselves.
Taking a break from the farm: During the Shemittah year, the residents of the Land of Israel must completely desist from cultivating their fields. It is even prohibited to have a gentile work a Jew’s land ( Avodah Zarah 15b), just as one may not hire a gentile to do work on Shabbos that a Jew may not do. They also relinquish personal ownership of their fields; whatever produce grows on its own is considered communal property, free for anyone to take, without charge, as much as their families can use. This aspect of the Shemittah year is known as shemittas karka, “release of the land.” The bulk of the agricultural laws of Shemittah apply only within the Land of Israel. Only in the Land of Israel is it a mitzvah to allow the land to lie fallow during this year, and only the produce which grows in Israel during the Shemittah year is considered holy, subject to special rules.
Continued The following is a summary of some of the basic laws that apply in the Land of Israel. The practical applications are complex, especially with today’s modern agricultural and distribution methods, and one who lives in Israel and has a farm or a garden, or even a houseplant, should consult a rabbi there to find out the details. Even buying a bouquet of flowers demands extra knowledge this year. (While all of this may seem overwhelming, the practical applications of these laws are often easier to carry out than one might think.)
Forbidden Activities The Following Activities were originally forbidden by the Torah and are treated with stringency even according to those who hold Shemittah is only rabbinic in nature nowadays (Verses in Va’Yikra 25 ) : 1.Planting Seeds and Plants ( Zoreia and Noteia )- שָׂדְךָ לֹא תִזְרָע -you shall not sow your field. 2. Pruning ( Zomer )- וְכַרְמְךָ לֹא תִזְמֹר -nor shall you prune your vineyard. 3.Harvetsing ( Botzeir and Kotzeir )- אֵת סְפִיחַ קְצִירְךָ לֹא תִקְצוֹר -You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest, אֶת עִנְּבֵי נְזִירֶךָ לֹא תִבְצֹר -and you shall not pick the grapes you had set aside [for yourself]. 4.Plowing ( Choreish )- The Chazon Ish lists it among the Torah based mitzvos of Shemittah, as a positive commandment as opposed to a negative commandment.
Other Forbidden Activities The List of Rabbinic agricultural prohibitions is long, among them are: 1.Watering 2.Fertilizing 3.Weeding 4.Spraying 5.Digging 6.Removing stones 7.Applying pesticides All of which are forbidden by rabbinic decree unless the work must be done in order to prevent permanent damage to the field or temporary damage that would involve a large expenditure.
During shemittah, the Torah prohibits sowing, planting, plowing and pruning as well as harvesting in the traditional manner. The Sages additionally prohibited fertilizing, irrigating, digging, weeding, pruning of all plants and most other activities intended to prepare for or to promote growth. However, the Sages permitted this latter set of activities when necessary to preserve the health and fitness of grain, trees and plants. Thus, one may tend one’s garden in order to perform “preventative maintenance.” One should consult with an experienced religious gardener for determining what is defined as such in each situation. While one who owns a garden or greenery on an open porch is forbidden from doing the activities listed earlier when not preventative in nature, indoor gardening is usually permitted. As long as plants are in a place that has a roof and a floor, one may generally care for his plants without restriction (see exceptions in the following slide). Some people go out of their way to have a garden leading up to shemittah in order to be able to fulfill the appropriate mitzvos of shemittah.
Flower Pots Flower pots are a very interesting topic of discussion. If a flower pot is outdoors, the laws of Shemittah apply fully. Whereas, if a flower pot is indoors and is not perforated, the laws of Shemittah do not apply, though one should still refrain from planting new seeds. There is a concept called עציץ נקוב which is very relevant to the laws of Shemittah as well as the laws of Shabbos. An עציץ נקוב is a perforated flower pot, and is viewed as if it is attached to the ground. Halacha states that such a flower pot is capable of absorbing some of its nutrients from the ground beneath it. A perforated flower pot can become classified as an עציץ נקוב even inside based on a) the story of the building the pot is on, b) the material the pot is made of, c) whether part of the plant extends beyond the walls of the pot, d) whether the pot has a liner and what material it is made of, e) If there is another object between the floor and the pot.
Greenhouses- Matza Menutak מצע מנותק Planting seeds indoors during Shemittah is forbidden. Planting seeds outside, in pots that are completely disconnected from the ground, is also forbidden. However, the Chazon Ish, a prominent Torah scholar who lived in Israel from 1933 until his passing in 1953, wrote that when both of these situations are combined—the planting is taking place indoors, in a pot disconnected from the earth—planting is permitted. This is referred to as מצע מנותק - “disconnected bed” from חממות “greenhouses.” Though this concept was not accepted by all poskim, it was accepted by Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l ( See Halichos Sadeh 5752, page 23, section 4, and page 24, point 4). Based on this idea, farmers in Israel have adopted the technology of hydroponics, a method of growing plants in a mineral-nutrient solution contained in vessels rather than in soil. Using this technology, these farmers grow certain types of vegetables inside greenhouses in pots that are completely disconnected from the ground. Most contemporary halachic authorities consider this an excellent way of growing vegetables that do not come under the prohibition of sefichim (to be defined later). By buying these vegetables rather than imported or Arab produce, one can have the privilege of supporting a Jewish farmer who is keeping Shemittah. These vegetables do not have “the holiness of the seventh year.”
The Great B’nei Brak/Yerushalayim Debate Although it is agreed upon that non-Jewish produce cannot become forbidden as sefichim, which we will discuss later at length, there is a great debate amongst poskim over whether produce grown on non-Jewish owned land in Israel becomes sanctified with Kedushas Shvi’is and must be treated appropriately. This is one of the most controversial issues in the laws of Shemittah, dating back to a disagreement between two outstanding Rabbis in Tzefas in the sixteenth century. Rabb Yosef Kairo (the Shulchan Aruch ) ruled that such produce has no sanctity, while Rav Moshe Trani (the Mabit ) ruled that it has sanctity. Today, customs vary in different cities, with Yerushalayim following the more lenient opinion of the Shulchan Aruch, and B’nei Brak following the stricter view of the Mabit, as this was the conclusion of the Chazon Ish.
More on Non-Jews and Shemittah 1.It is usually forbidden to give or sell shemittah produce to a gentile, as it is sanctified produce, and they would not know the laws that pertain to it. However, if a gentile is invited to a meal or lodges with a Jewish family, one may give him/her shemittah produce. 2.As mentioned earlier, one cannot hire non-Jews to perform forbidden actions on a Jewish owned field. 3.Gentile produce does not become forbidden as sefichim (to be explained). 4.Since a gentile is not obligated in the laws of shemittah, the produce of his field is not to be treated as ownerless, and he does not need to open his fields to the poor. He may continue to work the land as usual. 5.Trading with produce from gentile land: If one holds by the stricter opinion mentioned in the previous slide, that the fruit of gentile land has sanctity, then one cannot trade normally with such produce. According to the lenient opinion, that it is free from sanctity, one may trade with it freely. 6.We will spend time later discussing a concept called biur - declaring shemittah produce in one’s possession as ownerless. The status of gentile produce regarding biur will also be based on the above mentioned argument. According to the more stringent opinion, one would need to do biur, and to the lenient opinion, one would not be obligated to.
Heter Mechirah היתר מכירה The heter mechirah, or “sale dispensation,” is a legal loophole devised by several prominent rabbis in response to the life-threatening situation in Israel in the late 1800s. Jewish farmers were struggling to stay afloat, and 1889 was a Shemittah year. Farmers were afraid that if they would allow the land to lie fallow for an entire year, not only would they become entirely destitute, but everything they had built up to that point would be lost. The rabbis therefore came up with this loophole. The way it works is that the land is sold to non-Jews (similar to the sale of chametz before Passover) for the duration of Shemittah. This “non-Jewish” land is then permitted to be worked, and its produce sold. (The loophole does not completely nullify all the Shemittah restrictions, only those of rabbinic origin. The biblically prohibited labors of sowing, pruning and reaping must be done by non-Jews.) From its inception, the heter mechirah has been controversial, with halachic authorities on both sides of the debate. The most important factor in allowing a lenient stance is the fact that nowadays the Sabbatical year is not biblically required. Since it is only rabbinically ordained, more leniency can be applied.
Continued Some of the reasons of those opposed to the heter mechirah: a) It is prohibited to sell land in the Land of Israel to a non-Jew, and any such sale is invalid. b) According to certain halachic opinions, Shemittah observance today remains a biblical obligation. c) According to yet other opinions, non-Jewish produce is holy too, so the heter mechirah doesn’t accomplish anything. d) Originally, the provision was only intended as a temporary response to a state of emergency, and was not intended to be used once the state of emergency was over. The Chazon Ish and the Brisker Rav were among the poskim who were opposed to the practice of continuing to use heter mechirah. According to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook,this dispensation is similar to the permission—and obligation—to desecrate the Shabbat in life-threatening situations, as it is written: “The Torah teaches us that we should desecrate a single Shabbat for one whose life is in danger, so that he will be able to keep many future Shabbats.”As the economy in Israel becomes more established and there is no longer a state of emergency, the original basis for the loophole is gone. The growing trend in Israel is to avoid relying on the heter mechirah. During the Shmittah year, the Orthodox Union (OU) certifies only produce grown by gentiles or packaged from sixth-year inventory. Products under OU supervision do not rely on heter mechirah.
The Biggest Issue for Us Those who dwell outside the Land of Israel are impacted by the agricultural laws of Shemittah in two ways: a)Produce which is exported from Israel may be forbidden or have kedusha. If one finds such produce in a store, it can be eaten only if it bears reliable rabbinical certification, attesting that it was grown in compliance with the rules of Shemittah. This is what we are about to focus on. b)It is the privilege and duty of Diaspora Jewry to financially support the courageous Israeli Shemittah -observant farmers, “those mighty in strength, who perform His word,” by contributing to the special funds set up for this purpose. You can send your donations to any of the many organizations that support such farmers.
A Quick Note on Loan Amnesty As we saw before, the Torah tells us (Devarim 15:1) “At the end of seven years you will make a Shemittah release. And this is the manner of the release; to release the hand of every creditor from what he lent his friend; he shall not exact from his friend or his brother, because time of the release for the Lord has arrived.” Some brief notes on the applicable halachos - Only loans between Jews are canceled. This takes affect upon sunset on erev Rosh Hashanah following the Shemittah year. One can sign a document called a pruzbul, which will enable him to collect his debts after this time by empowering a beis din to collect the loan, as loans between individuals are canceled, but loans owed to a beis din are upheld. I will be giving out a useable copy of a pruzbul in my handout.
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