For over nineteen hundred years, the Jewish people have longed to return to Eretz Yisroel, the land of Israel. It is only there that we can realize our full potential as a nation, and the Torah’s blueprint for life can be completely fulfilled. Throughout the millennia, the most important dimension of this yearning was to once again be able to fulfill the mitzvos hatluyos ba’aretz (agricultural laws), the commandments that can be observed only in the land of Israel. With Hashem’s help, many of us in this past generation have realized part of this two thousand year-old dream. Yet, this realization has presented us with new challenges.
Without a doubt, one of the greatest mitzvah challenges of all times is the fulfillment of shmitta, the year of Sabbatical rest for the land of Israel. The Midrash perceives this multifaceted mitzvah as being so challenging and difficult, that it calls one who meets the challenge of shmitta in all its details an “angel”. This article will outline some practical shmitta insights so that we can gain a greater understanding and appreciation of this beautiful mitzvah.
The laws of shmitta can be divided into three major categories: laws regarding working the land, laws pertaining to the produce of the land, and consumer halachos of pairos sheviis, fruit grown during the shmitta year.
I. Working The Land - What Is Prohibited?
Some other prohibited activities include watering, fertilizing, weeding and other essential fieldwork. If the purpose of the work is to protect what has already grown from becoming ruined, or if trees are in danger of dying, certain activities are generally permitted. Since these laws are very complicated, a posek, Torah authority familiar with these laws, should be consulted.
Flower pots at home in the land of Israel present their own problems. A posek should be consulted for instruction on proper shmitta plant care.
II. The Produce of the 7th Year - Pairos Sheviis
Which produce? There are essentially three categories of produce concerning shmitta: 1. Vegetables, e.g. tomatoes, lettuce, carrots; 2. Legumes (kitniyos), pulses and grains, e.g. corn, peanuts, wheat; and 3. Fruits of a tree, e.g. dates, figs, pomegranates.
When was the produce grown? There are different time frames in effect for the different types of produce.
Fruit of a tree - New fruit trees cannot be planted 44 days or less before Rosh Hashanah of a shmitta year (there are many details as to when this prohibition applies. A reputable posek should be asked if one wants to plant after that date). Fruit that starts growing during shmitta is considered shmitta produce that is vested with kedushas sheviis and may be consumed. (Fruit is considered to start growing after the flower falls off.) The different halachos regarding the consumption of shmitta produce will be dealt with in Section III.
Vegetables - Vegetables cannot be planted after Rosh Hashanah during the entire shmitta year. Vegetables planted before Rosh Hashanah, which start growing before shmitta and are picked during shmitta, do not get a shmitta prohibition. This means they may be eaten, but the laws of kedushas shiviis discussed below still apply to them. Therefore, practically speaking, if someone has tomatoes growing in his backyard, they can be eaten on the condition that the plant started growing in the sixth year. (He must observe all the laws pertaining to working the ground during shiviis.) Similarly, vegetables one buys immediately after Rosh Hashanah may be eaten.
Vegetables that start growing by themselves during sheviis are known as s’fichin. Vegetables grown during sheviis may not be eaten at any time, since there is a Rabbinical prohibition against eating s’fichin. This was instituted to deter dishonest people from planting vegetables and then claiming that they are wild.
Legumes (kitniyos), pulses and grains - These generally have the same rules as vegetables, except that legumes and grains planted before Rosh Hashanah will be permitted during shmitta only if they reached 1/3 of their growth before Rosh Hashanah. Otherwise, they are prohibited as s’fichin during shmitta.
Who owns the land? There is a difference of opinion among the poskim as to whether produce grown on land owned by a non-Jew in the land of Israel is considered produce of sheviis. The custom in Jerusalem is not to consider it produce of sheviis; the custom in Bnei Brak is to consider it produce of sheviis
Selling the land (heter mechira) - The system of selling the land was formulated and instituted by many very
Even if the laws of shmitta are observed, shmitta fruit may be eaten only with certain restrictions. Certainly, a tourist who is not knowledgeable concerning the dinim of shmitta should buy produce only from shmitta-free stores.
Where is the location of the land where the produce was grown? The laws of shmitta apply only to produce grown within the boundaries of Eretz Yisroel. The boundaries of Eretz Yisroel are defined as those areas which were occupied by the people of Israel in the period of the Second Temple. These boundaries are not the boundaries of the State of Israel. Where these boundaries extend is a matter of great controversy. Some authorities say anything grown south of Ashkelon is outside of the boundaries of Eretz Yisroel. Others extend the boundaries well into the Negev desert until Eilat. In the north, the Golan Heights is questionable. Each supervising organization will follow the psak of its own Rabbis and advise companies and facilities where produce can be purchased. Produce grown outside the boundaries of Eretz Yisroel are not bound to the laws of sheviis.
III. The Practical Laws of Produce of Sheviis:
As stated above, the prohibition applies only to vegetables, legumes, pulses and grains which started growing during the year of sheviis. The prohibition does not apply to any fruit from trees. Produce grown in a non-Jewish field, even according to those who consider it produce of sheviis, is not s’fichin.
At the end of the season, one is required to remove from his possession all produce of sheviis for each type of fruit or vegetable. This requirement is called biur. The custom is to take all produce at the end of the season into the street, in front of three people, and declare it ownerless. The same person may take it back into his own possession. The exact time of biur for most produce varies from one shmitta to the next, and for different types of vegetables. Charts have been published in Israel to give the consumers exact dates of biur for each fruit and vegetable.
Shmitta is a mitzvah that lasts for a full year and requires great mesiras nefesh. But if we look at the accomplishment of the mitzvah as the fulfillment of our merit to keep Eretz Yisroel, this will be a source of blessing and spiritual enhancement to us all for eternity.