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Shemittah revisited


Written by the rabbi


How can we pass Parshas Behar without discussing the laws of shemittah? And the fact that we read these laws annually teaches that the Torah wants us to understand the lessons of shemittah every year. Yet many chutz la’aretz residents see no need to learn these laws, assuming that they are not relevant.

Well, guess again. Although halacha prohibits exporting shemittah produce outside Israel (Mishnah Shevi’is 6:5), much produce finds its way there. And even in chutz la’aretz we must treat fruit of Eretz Yisrael with kedushas shevi’is according to all of the laws we will now discuss.

Situation #1: WHAT A ROAST!!

When I was a rav in America, a knowledgeable housewife cooked a delectable roast using wine whose label indicated that it had kedushas shevi’is. Although she had no idea what this term meant, her son pointed out that they needed to ask a shaylah what to do with the roast. To make a long story short, the entire roast had to be treated with kedushas shevi’is; I will soon explain what this means.

Situation #2: WHAT ARE SEFICHIN?

"I noticed a sign in shul that the fruits and vegetables in the local supermarket are from Israel and must be treated appropriately. Someone told me that the vegetables are sefichin. What does that mean?"

Situation #3: HETER MECHIRAH

Several shemittah cycles ago I was working as a mashgiach for a properly-run American hechsher. One factory that I supervised used to manufacture breading and muffin mixes. This company was extremely careful about checking its incoming ingredients: George, the receiving clerk who also managed the warehouse, kept a careful list of what products he was to allow into the plant and what kosher symbols were acceptable.

On one visit to the plant I noticed a problem due to no fault of the company. For years, the company had been purchasing Israeli produced freeze-dried carrots with a reliable hechsher. The carrots always arrived in bulk boxes with the Israeli hechsher prominently stamped in Hebrew and the word KOSHER prominently displayed in English. George, who supervised incoming raw materials, proudly showed me through "his warehouse" and noted how he carefully marked the arrival date of each new shipment. I saw crates of the newest shipment of Israeli carrots, from the same manufacturer, and the same prominently displayed English word KOSHER on the box. However, the Hebrew stamp on the box was from a different supervisory agency, one without the same sterling reputation. The reason for the sudden change in supervisory agency was rather obvious when I noted that the Hebrew label stated very clearly "Heter Mechirah."

First, let us discuss the basics:

LAWS OF THE LAND

In this week’s parsha, the Torah (Vayikra 25:1-7) teaches that every seventh year is shemittah; we are prohibited from working the land of Eretz Yisrael and must leave our land fallow (Avodah Zarah 15b). Just as observing the seventh day, Shabbos, demonstrates our belief in the Creator, so too, observing every seventh year as shemittah demonstrates this faith. The landowner must treat whatever grows as ownerless, allowing others to enter his field or orchard to pick and take its produce. They may take as much as their family will eat, and the landowner himself also may take this amount (see Rambam, Hilchos Shemittah 4:1).

LAWS OF THE FRUIT

Although shemittah observance today is mandated only miderabbanan (see Moed Katan 2b; Chazon Ish, Shevi’is 3:8), nevertheless, most of its laws are the same as they will be when observing shemittah will again become a mitzvah min hatorah. The Torah imbues shemittah produce with special sanctity, called kedushas shevi’is, declaring veho’yesah shabbas ha’aretz lachem le’ochlah, "the produce of the shemittah should be used only for food" (Vayikra 25:6). According to accepted opinion, one is not obligated to eat shemittah food – rather, the Torah grants us permission to eat it, and we must treat it accordingly (Chazon Ish, Hilchos Shevi’is 14:10). There is much halachic detail involved in the correct use of shemittah produce. For example:

I. One may not sell shemittah produce as one would usually do in business (Rambam, Hilchos Shemittah 6:1). Although one may pick shemittah produce for one’s personal consumption, one may not harvest it to sell commercially (Tosefta, Shevi’is 5:7).

II. One may not export shemittah produce outside Eretz Yisrael (Mishnah Shevi’is 6:5). There are some opinions that allow exporting shemittah wine and esrogim, although the rationales permitting this are beyond the scope of this article (Beis Ridbaz 5:18; Tzitz Hakodesh, Volume 1 #15:4).

III. Shemittah produce is intended for Jewish consumption; one may not give or sell kedushas shevi’is produce to a gentile, although one may have him join you in a meal at which shemittah produce is served (Rambam, Hilchos Shemittah 5:13 and Mahari Korkos ad loc.).

IV. If one trades or sells the shemittah produce, the food or money received in exchange also has kedushas shevi’is (Sukkah 40b).

V. One may not intentionally ruin shemittah produce (Pesachim 52b).

What types of "ruining" did the Torah prohibit? One may not cook foods that are usually eaten raw, nor may one eat raw produce that is usually cooked (Yerushalmi, Shevi’is 8:2; Rambam, Hilchos Shevi’is 5:3). Therefore, one may not eat raw shemittah potatoes, nor may one cook shemittah cucumbers or oranges. Contemporary authorities dispute whether one may add shemittah orange or apricot to a recipe for roast or cake. Even though the roast or cake is delicious because of the added fruit, many poskim prohibit this cooking or baking since these fruit are usually eaten raw (Shu’t Mishpat Cohen #85). Others permit this if it is a usual way of eating these fruits (Mishpetei Aretz page 172, footnote 10).

SPOILED TURTLE
One may feed shemittah produce to animals only if it is considered unfit for human consumption. This includes varieties grown for fodder, as well as peels and seeds that people do not usually eat (Rambam, Hilchos Shemittah 5:5). During the last shemittah, a neighbor of mine, whose pet turtle usually eats lettuce, had a problem what to feed it. Before shemittah he was trying to get it to eat grass, but the turtle preferred lettuce.

Similarly, juicing vegetables and most kinds of fruit is considered "ruining" the shemittah produce and prohibited, although one may press grapes, olives and lemons since the juice and oil of these fruits are considered improvements. Many contemporary authorities permit pressing oranges and grapefruits provided one treats the remaining pulp with kedushas shevi’is. Even these authorities prohibit juicing most other fruit, such as apples and pears (Minchas Shelomoh, Shevi’is pg. 185).

RUINING VERSUS EATING

How do we determine whether processing a food "ruins" it or not? Many poskim contend that if the processing changes the food’s preferred bracha, one may not process shevi’is produce this way (Shu’t Mishpat Cohen #85, based on Brachos 38a and Rambam, Hilchos Shevi’is 5:3). Since turning apples to juice reduces their bracha from ha’eitz to shehakol, this would be considered "ruining" the apples. Similarly, the fact that one recites the bracha of shehakol prior to eating a raw potato or cooked cucumbers or oranges demonstrates that treating them this way ruins the produce. According to this approach, one may not press oranges or grapefruits either, since one recites shehakol and not ha’eitz on the juice (Shu’t Mishpat Cohen #85).

Those who permit squeezing oranges and grapefruits apply a different criterion, contending that since this is the most common use of these fruit it is permitted (Minchas Shelomoh, Shevi’is, page 185).

One must certainly be careful not to actively destroy shemittah produce. Therefore, one who has excess shevi’is produce may not trash it. Peels that are commonly eaten, such as cucumber or apple, still have shemittah kedusha and may not simply be disposed. Instead, these peels are placed in a plastic bag which is then placed into a small bin or box called a pach shevi’is, where it remains until the food is inedible. When it decomposes to this extent, one may dispose of the shemittah produce in the regular trash.

When eating shemittah food, one need not be concerned about the remaining bits stuck to a pot or an adult’s plate that one usually just washes off; one may wash these pots and plates without concern that one is destroying shemittah produce. However, the larger amounts left behind by children or leftovers that people might save should not be disposed in the trash but should be scraped into the shemittah bin.

WHY DECOMPOSE?

This leads us to a question: If indeed one may not throw shemittah produce in the trash because it has sanctity, why may one do so after the produce decomposes? Does decomposition remove kedusha?

Indeed it does. Kedushas shevi’is means that as long as the food is still edible, one may not make it inedible or use it atypically. This is because shemittah food is meant to be eaten, even though there is no requirement to do so. However, once the shemittah food is inedible, it loses its special status, and may be disposed of as trash.

SANCTITY UNTIL SPOILAGE

This sounds very strange. Where do we find that something holy loses its special status when it becomes inedible?

Although the concept that decay eliminates sanctity seems unusual, this is only because we are unfamiliar with the mitzvos where this principle applies. Other mitzvos where this concept exists are terumah, challah, bikkurim, revai’i and maaser sheini, all cases where we do not consume the produce today because we are tamei (Rambam, Hilchos Terumos Chapter 11; Hilchos Maaser Sheini 3:11). Of these types of produce that are holy, but meant to be eaten, only shevi’is may be eaten by someone tamei. Even though someone tamei may not consume tahor terumah, challah, or maaser sheini, one also may not dispose of them or even burn them. Instead, one must place them in a secure place until they decay and only then dispose of them (Tur, Yoreh Deah 331). (We burn the special challah portion after separating it only because it has become tamei. If it did not become tamei, we could not destroy the challah portion, but would have to place it somewhere until it decays on its own, just as we do with unused shevi’is produce.)

A SHEMITTAH ROAST IN AMERICA

We can now explore the first question I mentioned:

1a: May one use shemittah wine to season a roast?

Although one improves the roast by adding the wine, the wine itself is ruined. Thus, some poskim prohibit using the wine in this way, whereas others permit it since this is a normal use for wine (see commentaries to Yerushalmi, Terumos 11:1).

1b: What does our American housewife do with her shemittah wine-flavored roast?

If one uses shemittah food as an ingredient, one must treat everything that absorbs its taste according to the laws of kedushas shevi’is (see Mishnah Shevi’is 7:7). Therefore, one who used shemittah potatoes in cholent or shemittah onions or bay leaves in soup must treat the entire cholent or soup according to shevi’is rules. One may not actively waste this food, nor may one feed any of it to animals until the food is spoiled to the point that people would not eat it.

Therefore, our housewife who added shemittah wine to her roast must now consider the entire roast, even the gravy and vegetables cooked with it, to have kedushas shevi’is. One serves the roast in the regular way. As mentioned above, the small scrapings left on an adult’s plate may be washed off; but the larger amounts left behind by children should not be disposed in the trash, nor should the leftovers in the pot or on the platter.

Just as one may not dispose of the leftover kedushas shevi’is roast in the trash, it is unclear whether one may remove these leftovers from the refrigerator in order to hasten their decay, even to place them in a shemittah bin (see Chazon Ish, Shevi’is 14:10). However, if one removed leftover roast to serve, one is not required to return the leftovers to the refrigerator. One may not trash the leftovers, but instead one may place the leftovers somewhere until they have spoiled. To avoid the malodor that this may cause, one may place them in a plastic bag until they decay and then dispose of them.

SEFICHIN

The Torah permits the use of produce that grew by itself without anyone working the field during shemittah. Unfortunately, even in the days of Chazal one could find Jews who deceitfully ignored shemittah laws. One practice of unscrupulous farmers was to plant grain or vegetables, marketing them as produce that grew on its own. To make certain that these farmers did not benefit from their misdeeds, Chazal forbade all grains and vegetables, even those that grew by themselves, a prohibition called sefichin, or plants that sprouted. Sefichin are treated as non-kosher food and forbidden to eat, even requiring one to kasher the equipment that was used to cook them!

Chazal made several exceptions to this rule, including that produce of a non-Jew’s field is not prohibited as sefichin.

At this point, we should address the second question I mentioned:

"I noticed a sign in shul that the some fruits and vegetables in the local supermarket are from Israel and must be treated appropriately. Someone told me that the vegetables are prohibited because they are sefichin. What does that mean?"

In all likelihood, the growers of this produce relied on heter mechirah, a topic I dealt with extensively in a different article, but which I will touch on here. (Contact me by e-mail if you would like to read that article.) The authorities who rely on heter mechirah permit most of the fieldwork to be performed only by gentiles. However, in contemporary practice, most Jewish landowners who rely on heter mechirah sell their land to a gentile, but then work it as their own. As a practical matter, few contemporary chareidi poskim permit heter mechirah, and, even among non-chareidi authorities, support for its use is waning, although there are still some who permit it. Thus, if the heter mechirah is considered a charade and not a valid sale, the grain and vegetables growing in a heter mechirah field are prohibited as sefichin. Most, but not all, chareidi poskim today consider vegetables grown through heter mechirah to be prohibited sefichin that are forbidden to eat, although one will find different opinions whether one must kasher equipment used to cook such vegetables.

WHY NOT FRUIT?

When Chazal prohibited sefichin, they only included in the prohibition crops that are planted annually. They did not extend the prohibition of sefichin to tree fruits and other perennial crops, such as bananas and strawberries, because there was less incentive for a cheating farmer. Although trees definitely thrive when pruned and cared for, they will produce even if left unattended for a year. Thus, the farmer had less incentive to tend his trees.

"GUARDED PRODUCE"

I mentioned above that a farmer must allow others free access to help themselves to any produce that grows on his trees and fields during shemittah. What is the halacha if a farmer treats this produce as his own and refuses access to it during shemittah?

The Rishonim dispute whether this will make the fruit forbidden. Some contemporary poskim prohibit the use of heter mechirah fruit on the basis that, since heter mechirah is invalid, this fruit is now considered "guarded," and therefore forbidden. Other poskim permit the fruit because they rule that the forbidden working of an orchard or treating it as private property does not prohibit its fruit (see Shu’t Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 1:186). Thus, even if one does not consider the heter mechirah to be valid, the fruit might be permitted but must be treated with kedushas shevi’is.

What about our carrot muffins? If we remember our original story, the company had unwittingly purchased heter mechirah carrots. The hechsher required the company to return all unopened boxes of carrots to the supplier and to find an alternative source. However, by the time I discovered the problem, muffin mix using these carrots had been produced bearing the hechsher’s kashrus symbol and were already distributed. The hechsher referred the shaylah to its posek, asking whether they were required to recall the product from the stores as non-kosher, or whether it was sufficient to advertise that an error occurred and allow the customer to ask his individual rav for halachic guidance.

For someone living in Eretz Yisrael, observing shemittah properly involves assuming much halachic responsibility and education, and often great commitment, since shemittah-permitted produce may be more expensive than its alternative. Those living in chutz la’aretz should be aware of the halachos of shevi’is and identify with this very public demonstration and "declaration" that the Ribbono Shel Olam created the world in seven days.


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