An Introduction to Hilchos Shemitta

What is Shemitta?  

There are many agricultural mitzvos  in EretzYisroel 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, kedushasshevi’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 RoshHaShana  5782 and concludes a year later on ErevRoshHaShana  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 pachShemitta)  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.  

Prohibited Business  

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 kedushasshevi’is, and may now be only used to buy food; this food in turn, will need to be eaten under kedushasshevi’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 theBeis 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 EretzYisroel.   

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 ErevPesach 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 — ErevPesach 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.  

 

Pruzbul 

As well as affecting produce grown in Israel a further aspect of the Shemitta year is the cancelation of debts. This is known as shemittaskesofim.  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.  

 

Shemitta glossary

Find our Shemitta glossary here.

 

LEARN MORE ABOUT SHEMITTA & find live shemitta information

Find all our Shemitta resources here.

CREDITS & SOURCE:

This document has been prepared by Rabbi Dov Fisher.

 

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