Shemitta Introduction – 5782
An Introduction to Hilchos Shemitta
What is Shemitta?
There are many agricultural mitzvos in Eretz Yisroel which revolve around a seven-year cycle. The seventh year of this cycle is called Shemitta. A year of Shabbos – rest for the land.
During the Shemitta year, there is a prohibition to work the land which is left to rest and is treated with special status. Produce that grows during this year is considered hefker - ownerless. In addition, produce from the Shemitta year attains an elevated status of sanctity, kedushas shevi’is, which places additional restrictions on the way the produce is to be treated.
At the end of the Shemitta year, some debts are liable to be cancelled and it is customary to write a pruzbul (see below) to avoid the need to annul debts.
When is Shemitta?
The next Shemitta year begins on Rosh HaShana 5782 and concludes a year later on Erev Rosh HaShana 5783.
Sacred Fruits – Kedushas Shevi’is
Shemitta produce may be eaten and enjoyed but must be consumed entirely without waste. Since the food carries special status of Kedusha, as long as the food is in an edible state, it must not be destroyed.
Edible leftovers may not be thrown directly into the rubbish bin. This even applies to the edible peels of fruits, (e.g. apples). In Eretz Yisroel, many families maintain a special bin (called a pach Shemitta) to allow leftovers to decay before being discarded.
There are also limitations on the way in which the food may be consumed. Food that has Kedushas Shevi’is may only be eaten in a way that is considered normal for that kind of food. Boiling a fruit which is usually eaten raw is considered to be destroying the sacred food; examples include cooking an avocado. Eating a raw food which is usually cooked such as potato is also forbidden.
While it remains fit for human consumption Shemitta fruit may not be fed to an animal or exported from Eretz Yisroel.
Although Shemitta produce is permitted for consumption, it may not be traded - i.e. bought or sold for a profit. Shemitta produce may, however, be bought when it is not being sold for profit (it is not being used for “business”), such as if a person has leftover food, or similar situations.
If one were to go ahead and sell Shemitta produce, then in many cases the money received in payment acquires kedushas shevi’is, and may now be only used to buy food; this food in turn, will need to be eaten under kedushas shevi’is conditions.
Otzar Beis Din – permitted channels of distribution
Since Shemitta produce may not be harvested for commercial gain, it is left as hefker for the general public to gather for themselves. However, since this may lead to unwarranted damage to the farmer’s field or orchard, a system was devised by Chazal to prevent this. The farmer hands over his lands to Beis Din for the duration of Shemitta and the Beis Din supervises workers to pick, store and distribute Shemitta produce on behalf of the general public; this arrangement is called Otzar Beis Din.
The produce is sold by Beis Din at a price that solely reimburses the workers involved in harvesting and transportation for their labour and other expenses. No money is paid for the product itself, and the payments made for these foods do not become imbued with kedushas shevi’is. The farmers themselves are co-opted as agents of the Beis Din to undertake the permitted activities needed to facilitate the growth and harvest of the fruit.
Sefichin – forbidden produce
During the Shemitta year, land in Eretz Yisroel may not be worked or actively cultivated. However, many types of food grow wild on their own without being planted or cultivated. Trees planted many years ago continue to give fruit each year. Some grains and vegetables grow as well, for example from seeds that remained in the soil from the previous season.
Over time, Chazal became concerned that during the Shemitta year unscrupulous people would surreptitiously plant vegetables, grains, and other annual crops, that would be ready to eat later in the year they were planted. When questioned they would claim that these foods grew on their own, from seeds that had remained in the ground from the previous harvest.
To prevent this behaviour, Chazal forbade eating any vegetables or other food plants such as grains and legumes — called sefichin (literally, “spontaneously sprouting plants”) — that began their growth during Shemitta, whether deliberately sown or spontaneously.
For this reason, care must be taken not to buy any Israeli vegetable products that grew during the Shemitta year, whether fresh or canned. [A product with a reliable kosher certification would have been checked to confirm that it does not contain any sefichin produce.] With regard to vegetables and the like that began growing before the Shemitta year but continued their growth during Shemitta and were picked during Shemitta there are differing opinions whether they are to be considered sefichin; the prevalent practice is that they are not and may be eaten. However, they do have the status of sanctity of Shemitta produce.
Use of Shemitta Foods in a Manner of Hefker — Biur
Although for much of the Shemitta year fruits are kosher and permitted to eat in a manner fitting for their state of Kedusha; later in the season the produce becomes prohibited due to the Mitzva of Biur. Shemitta produce is hekfer (ownerless) and must therefore be made available in the fields for anyone to come and take. Everyone is welcome to take produce from the field but only for their own family’s current consumption; no one may hoard Shemitta produce.
A further implication of only using Shemitta produce in a way that is equitable, is that it may only be eaten if this particular fruit or vegetable is still in season and available in the fields for all. After that point, it must undergo a process called biur. Practically, this means that any Shemitta produce that a person has must be declared ownerless. Once ownerless and free for all, the food may then be reclaimed.
Biur is done by taking the Shemitta food out of the house and declaring it ownerless in front of three people. At that point, any person may come along and take possession of these foods. If no one takes them, the original owner may reclaim it for himself. What happens if the time for Biur arrives and the Mitzva was not fulfilled?
Produce that did not undergo biur becomes forbidden to benefit from in any way.
Each type of food has its own biur – deadline, which is when this type of food is no longer available in the fields.
It is important to note that the laws of biur also apply to Shemitta food that has been taken outside of Eretz Yisroel.
This halochoh is particularly relevant for Israeli wines made from Shemitta grapes which often make their way to our shores. The time of biur for grapes is Erev Pesach of the year following Shemitta. A person who has Shemitta wines must take them out of his house and declare them ownerless by that time. After this date — Erev Pesach of the year following Shemitta — a person may not buy or drink Israeli wines made from Shemitta grapes, unless he is certain that biur was done on time.
As well as affecting produce grown in Israel a further aspect of the Shemitta year is the cancelation of debts. This is known as shemittas kesofim. Any debt is automatically cancelled at the end of the Shemitta year and the lender is prohibited from reclaiming it. It is important to note that this applies in Chutz Lo’Oretz as well.
Historically, shemittas kesofim caused a problem for those who needed to borrow money, as many lenders were concerned that as the Shemitta year approached they would never get their money back. They were therefore reticent to agree to lend during the sixth year, thus transgressing the mitzvah of lending to those in needs.
In order to alleviate the suffering of those in need Hillel HaZokein instituted the Pruzbul. A Pruzbul is a legal document which transfers all debts to the Beis Din which may collect the debt on its own behalf. As long a person writes a Pruzbul in front of a Beis Din before the end of the Shemitta year, any debts which are owed to him are not cancelled. While there are opinions that one should also write a Pruzbul at the beginning of the Shemitta year as well as at the end, mainstream halachic practice is that one only needs to write one at the end of the year.
Find our Shemitta glossary here.
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This document has been prepared by Rabbi Dov Fisher.