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Shemitah—a national mitzvah

Shemitah—a national mitzvah

Shemitah is a national mitzvah as well as a mitzvah for the individual. What is a hidur mitzvah as a consumer during the shemitah year? Introduction to the Consumer's Guide to Shemitah.

Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, President of Torah VeHa'aretz Institute

The mitzvah of shemitah is based on two principles: the general group and the specific individual.[1] Both its general rules and its specific details are from Mt. Sinai. The mitzvah is a biblical injunction only when: (1) all of the Jewish People, as a collective, reside in the Land of Israel: "all its inhabitants reside on it [=the Land]," and (2) when all specific individuals know where their ancestral fields and vineyards are located. Unfortunately, today both conditions are absent: the Jewish People as a whole does not live in the Land of Israel and no one knows where their ancestral portions are located. For this reason, the obligation of shemitah is not complete; thus according to most posekim, the mitzvah today is rabbinic in nature.

This mitzvah is nevertheless extremely important. Shabbat is to the days of the week what shemitah is to years. And Shabbat is to man what shemitah is to the land. Just like Shabbat is the watershed in man's relationship with his Creator, shemitah is the watershed for the relationship between the nation and its land. Shemitah imbues the Land of Israel with morality and sanctity: "for the land is Mine" (Vayikra 25:23).

We are only bound to observe shemitah as a biblical obligation—and it seems we can only observe it in its entirety—when the general whole and all of its specific individual parts enjoy a symbiotic relationship: the collective whole depends on specific individuals and the individuals depend on the whole. The general public cannot provide for its consumption needs without the individual farmers, who, in turn, bear the burden of nourishing the entire nation. Yet the individual also needs the general population. It cannot possibly provide for its needs or cover its expenses without the help of the general population.

One of the most basic principles in the laws of shemitah is that the land and its agricultural produce are taken from the individual and given over to the whole—the population at large. This is especially salient with regard to the prohibition against harvesting grain and grapes. "You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land" (ibid., 25:5). The intent is not that the produce will rot in the fields or on the vines. The Torah clearly states (in the next verse): "But you may eat whatever the land during its Sabbath will produce" (ibid, 25:6). Chazal understand this verse to mean that the prohibition applies to harvesting in the standard manner, where farmers take all of the produce for themselves. However, when the public harvests in order to distribute the produce to the general population, such harvest is permitted (according to the Chazon Ish).

The main idea behind this mitzvah is to remove people from their egocentric worldview and develop their sensitivity towards others, public responsibility, and patriotism. Interestingly enough, we find another distinction in the laws governing the collective group versus the individual. As the individual is concerned, it is forbidden to pressure borrowers from repaying their debt. However, a rabbinical court—that is, the representatives of the public—may collect the debt. This is the source for the loophole to transfer debts to rabbinical courts. The court has the right to determine who to collect the debt from (such as a wealthy businessman who would otherwise exploit the shemitah year to become even wealthier) and from whom to waive the debt (such as someone who is destitute and cannot pay his debt).

Mutual responsibility is an even more significant component of this mitzvah. We have already seen that the Torah removes the farmer's private possession of the crops of his fields and transfers it to the general public: "let the needy among your people partake of it" (Shemot 23:11).

The Torah's vision for the shemitah year is that the "haves" will share their wealth with the "have nots." Albeit, halachah does not take into consideration each farmer's economic situation. The command is absolute. The land belongs to G-d and not to its private owners. However, it is apparent that the spirit of the law during the shemitah year insists that responsibility is mutual: just as the farmer is responsible to take care of the poor, so too consumers should take the farmers' situation into consideration. We should all shoulder the responsibility to observe this mitzvah. Thus, it seems that the hidur mitzvah for consumers during the shemitah year is to help farmers shoulder their financial burden. Otherwise, consumers would not fully observe the mitzvah of shemitah: they do not own fields or orchards, so they cannot remit their ownership of the land and its produce. How can consumers nevertheless fulfill this great and important mitzvah? It seems that the only way is through helping farmers to observe the mitzvah.

The mitzvah of eating the fruit of the shemitah year is thus imbued with new significance. According to Ramban, there is a mitzvah to eat the sacred fruit of this year (just like terumah and bikurim). While Rambam does not list this as a mitzvah, when consumers eat fruit with shemitah sanctity, they help farmers observe the shemitah year properly—and without their help, farmers would not be able to do so. This means that even according to Rambam, eating such fruit would be a mitzvah. The Land of Israel belongs to all of us and the mitzvah applies equally to the entire nation; if farmers are forced to work the land during the shemitah year due to financial pressure, their sin belongs to us all.

Hidur mitzvah during the shemitah year must take into account the population at large. This is the very nature of this mitzvah. Yet this responsibility belongs to each and every individual as well: who knows where their ancestral portion is today? Perhaps the one who forces a farmer to work during the shemitah year (by not aiding them) is actually the true owner of the field being tilled, it being his ancestral portion?!

This perspective has many ramifications: for instance, should one prefer imported fruits and vegetables to those from Otzar Beit Din and produce grown on detached platforms? A consumer-centered approach, from the individual's perspective, would certainly view imports as optimal. The status of imported produce is clear-cut, without any halachic strings attached. However, the larger question remains: has the consumer in this way fulfilled his obligation in the most optimal, mehudar way—since he is essentially forcing Jewish farmers to work their land? Without detached platforms or Otzar Beit Din, they will certainly need to do so—since the religious market, on behalf of whom they otherwise would be willing to risk such agricultural gambles, is not interested in their produce.

As for those who prefer crops grown by non-Jews in the Land of Israel, they are not aware that increasing the quotas for non-Jewish produce is halachically problematic. In order to provide for the needs of all of the shemitah observers, it is necessary to order ahead of time larger quantities of non-Jewish produce. This entails increasing the produce quotas of the non-Jewish population. Those ordering such produce are not observing shemitah in a mehudar fashion, since we all share the responsibility to ensure that the Land of Israel is not worked during the shemitah year, even by non-Jews. In the Netziv of Volozhin's commentary on the Torah (Vayikra 25:4), he states that it is a mitzvah to redeem land from the hands of the gentiles that do not observe shemitah, and transfer them to Jewish ownership so that the latter will be able to properly observe shemitah.

Those who order produce grown in the southern Aravah—which seems to be within the borders of olei Mitzrayim—also directly cause our land to be worked during the shemitah year. While sefichin are permitted there, sowing is forbidden. The consumer is positive that he is observing the mitzvah in the most mehudar fashion, without realizing that his mitzvah is coming at the expense of others' sins. The responsibility is on our shoulders.

The responsibility for the general public relates not only to the observance of the shemitah year but also to our very existence. An individual cannot exist outside the framework of the general public. The State of Israel is surrounded by hostile countries on all sides. Each and every one of us is in a constant state of existential danger. Jewish settlements that line our borders ensure the existence and safety of every individual living in Central Israel. Through the taxes we each pay, the government offers significant benefits to those living on the country's periphery and encourages them to settle these areas. Without these settlements, Israel would have to barricade itself behind security walls from Gedera to Hadera only. Farmers living near the northern borders are given production quota privileges. Whoever wants the residents of Israel's frontier to continue securing our land on all sides of the country must provide them with the means they need to live there. In this way, each one of us can observe the mitzvah of settling the Land of Israel, the mitzvah of "and he shall live by them" (Vayikra 18:5) as well as "let him live by your side as your kinsman" (ibid. 25:36). Since we cannot abandon the frontier settlements and expect them to fend for themselves during shemitah, the Israeli public at large should help underwrite their living expenses for the duration of the shemitah year.

To those who truly desire to observe the mitzvah of shemitah without relying on flimsy leniencies, I would suggest, for instance, to deposit money in the Farmers' Bank. At the end of the shemitah year they can observe the mitzvah of remitting loans, as it appears in the Torah, and remit the deposit. No urban consumer has the moral right to sign a pruzbul and at the same time be condescending of their brothers in the agricultural frontier settlements for relying on halachic leniencies meant for extenuating circumstances.

There is a better, more mehudar way, which will facilitate the mutual observance of the shemitah year in the best fashion by both consumers and producers: Otzar Beit Din. That is: farmers sign over their produce to a beit din, rabbinical court, which distributes it to the consumers in the urban centers. At the same time, the urban consumers will eat this produce exclusively and compensate the producers for all of their expenses, without a speculative margin, their living expenses included. In this way, we can observe the Torah's desire that we keep shemitah properly, with mutual responsibility and consideration for one another.

For vegetables, this is more complicated. It is forbidden to sow vegetables throughout the shemitah year. However, there are certain types of vegetables that are permitted to be sown prior to the onset of shemitah and gathered during the shemitah year through the Otzar Beit Din (in this way it is possible to supply potatoes and carrots until the summer of the shemitah year!). According to Rambam, however, these vegetables are considered sefichin and are prohibited. Yet Ramban and Rash permit them. Cultivating vegetables is also problematic. According to Rabbi Kook, it is forbidden to water or otherwise cultivate them. The Chazon Ish, however, permits this.

What should someone do if they truly desire to observe the mitzvot in the most mehudar manner? Follow the opinions of Rambam and Rabbi Kook and avoid consuming these vegetables, while purchasing instead non-Jewish produce or imports? Or, perhaps, rely on the lenient opinions? Here we can clearly see the difference between the individual perspective and the communal perspective. From the communal perspective, hidur mitzvah is to be "stringent" and follow the lenient opinions in order to help the shemitah-observant farmers. Had Rambam and Rabbi Kook been faced by the catch-22 that we are in today, it is possible that even they would have preferred an alternative path. At least with Rabbi Kook we can know with certainty that the Otzar Beit Din makes it possible to tend for shemitah vegetables even according to his opinion.

On this matter, the Sages state: "an ignoramus is not righteous." To be righteous, we need to be familiar with the various halachic approaches and carefully consider the ramifications of our actions: "Calculate the cost of a mitzvah against its reward and the reward of a sin against its cost" (Avot 2:1). Truly scrupulous individuals will observe the mitzvot in the most mehudar way when including in their calculations the effects of their actions on others.[2]

There are fresh vegetables that can be grown while disconnected from the soil in hothouses. The posekim of our generation permit this method under certain conditions. These crops do not possess shemitah sanctity and one need not be concerned with wasting them. Here, too, mehadrin Israeli-grown produce is preferable to non-Jewish produce, both to limit the area of non-Jewish farming and to prevent Jewish farmers from directly planting in their fields. Farmers are willing to risk cultivating produce with this unique technique only if there is a chance that their expenses will be covered and they will make some profit.

It is possible that the cost of Israeli produce is higher than other produce. Here, however, lies the litmus test of one who wants to perform mitzvot in their most mehudar form. If one is willing to pay more for meat with a higher standard of kashrut, would he also be willing to pay more for agricultural produce that is more kosher?

Only through long-term planning, which would include a sabbatical year fund for farmers, will it be possible to reach the optimal shemitah. This too, though, would have to be funded by the public just as advanced-studies funds for teachers are supported primarily by the public. Then too, the land would need to be in use during the shemitah year by sowing before shemitah or gently plowing it during the shemitah year itself.[3] These are not kulot, rather chumrot and hidurim on the public level. However, as long as the public does not set up such a fund, no one has the moral right to demand that farmers give up their source of livelihood and even sever their commercial ties with consumers abroad that they painstakingly built over many years.  

The issue of exports is even more problematic. There are growers who export the vast majority of their produce abroad. Halting exports for a year can cause them to lose their markets completely. There is no choice other than relying on certain halachic opinions that allow exporting produce of Otzar Beit Din under special conditions. We should call for the Jews living in the Diaspora to prefer shemitah produce exported abroad to ensure that less non-Jews partake of it. For the same reason, Jews living in the Land of Israel, especially those who know how to handle sacred shemitah produce properly, should serve as an example to their brethren living abroad: they too should prefer Israeli produce with shemitah sanctity to limit its export abroad.

The topic of shemitah is complex. It necessitates a high level of fear of Heaven while considering the big picture, as well as all of the details. This combination, in which we constantly strive to observe shemitah in its entirety and in the most mehudar fashion, while taking into consideration the constraints that do not yet make it possible—brings us forward on a path of safe and steady progress as both the Land and its sabbatical year will be best safeguarded and observed.

The key question for anyone involved in the laws of the shemitah is as follows: is Israeli agriculture in the Land of Israel a value or only a necessity? The mitzvah of shemitah answers this question. It sanctifies the land, its crops, and its growers, elevating them from a necessity to a value. Just as Shabbat is not merely a necessary day of rest, but its essence is sanctity, so too is the Sabbatical year for the land: its purpose is its dimension of sanctity and the inherent value of the Land of Israel. This outlook has far-reaching ramifications on all areas of our lives, both private and public, and is not limited to shemitah alone. May Hashem grant us the merit to observe this great mitzvah in its entirety, with all of its general rules and specific details, both its mitzvot and the ideas behind them: "And the land shall observe a Sabbath of the L-rd."



[1] This foreword appears in Hebrew in Katif Shevi'it
Translator's note: Rabbi Ariel employs the Hebrew terms kelal and perat, which connote general rules vs. details (respectively), general vs. specific, or the whole (i.e. group/general population/collective) vs. the individual. I use the terms in English as appropriate to their specific context.

[2] Path of the Just, chap. 20:

"What a person needs to understand is that one should not judge the matters of chasidut according to their superficial appearance. Rather, one must examine and contemplate the full extent of where the future consequences of the deed leads. For sometimes, the deed itself may appear to be good but since the consequences are evil one must abstain from it. For doing it would not have made him a chasid but rather a sinner…"

"Thus we learn, that one who aspires to true piety must weigh all of his deeds according to their consequences and circumstances, namely, their times, company, subject, and place. If abstaining leads to more sanctification of the Name of Heaven and gratification to G-d than doing it, he should abstain and not do it."

[3] The Chazon Ish permits Jews to plow land superficially in extenuating circumstances, in areas where Arabs would seize the land if Jews are not cultivating it. It is possible that this is what Rabbi Ariel is referring to – Moshe Bloom.