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The mutual responsibility aspect of the Shemitah commandment

The mutual responsibility aspect of the Shemitah commandment

The responsibility of consumers vis-a-vis the farmers during the Shemitah year. Which fruits and vegetables are preferable to consume: yivul nochri (grown by a non-Jew), Heter Mechira or Otzar Beit Din

Rav Yehoshua Van Dike, Rabbi of Ramat Magshimim and Itamar Yeshiva

The dilemmas posed by the Shemitah year[1]

The Shemitah year, and the various halachik solutions that have arose during the years, pose certain thorny dilemmas. On the one hand, we want to strengthen those Jewish farmers who choose to fulfill the Shemitah mitzva via the religiously preferable mode (Otzar Ha’aretz) instead of relying on the heter mechira. On the other hand, we have to understand the position of those farmers who simply can’t adopt the preferable Otzar Beit Din system, and have to rely on the heter mechira.

For the Israeli consumer, the “simplest” solution is to buy fruits and vegetables from abroad. It is often even cheaper. But is this the right thing to do? Today, only less than 2% of Israelis work in agriculture. Is it fair to ignore their great economic distress during the Shemitah year?

Sensitivity of Chazal to the difficulties of farmers during the Shemitah year

It seems that Chazal also faced these kinds of thorny issues in the past. For example, the Mishna Masechet Ta’anit [2] states:

“When it stopped raining for more than forty days, – we call for a fast day [that is a sign of drought].” This means that the religious leaders would organize their communities to pray for rain. However, according to the Talmud Yerushalmi,[3], “Just as we call for a fast day during the other six years of the Shemitah cycle, so we do so during the seventh year, on behalf of the livelihood of others.”

The obvious question is: Since we presume that the Jews do not need rain in a Shemitah year (because they are not involved in agriculture), then why should they fast and pray for “others”? Who are these “others”?

The Yerushalmi brings two answers. Some say that although the Jews don’t need the rainfall, they pray for the non-Jewish farmers because when there is a drought, everyone suffers and starves.

Zeira, However, says the reason is, “For the sustenance of the suspicious ones” – in other words: for Jews who work the land on the Shivi’it (thus violating the Shemitah), yet we still fast for them!
We cannot compare someone who violates a halacha out of spite, to one who does so because he is very poor. Because this mitzva is such a difficult one, its violators were not called “Shivi’it violators” like “Sabbath violators,” but only “suspected of the Shivi’it,” or: “one who is suspected of ignoring the laws of the Shemitah year.”

How could this be?

Zeira goes according to the opinion of Rabbi Yehoda Hanasi (Rebbi). Rebbi, in his time, wanted to “undo” Shemitah because of the difficulties of the Jewish farmers in making a living in Eretz Yisrael at the time. Rebbi believed that Shemitah was mi’derabbanan in his time.

The Yerushalmi tells us the following story on this theme: One day, someone suspected of violating the Shivi’it was taken to Rebbi to  Beit Din, to face punishment.  But Rebbi refused to punish him, evidently because the man was very poor.


Let us not forget that the real heroes of the Shemitah year in our modern times, are the farmers/growers and not the consumers. The latter can manage very well on eating on nochri produce. It is the farmers who are supposed to abandon their fields and not earn a living in the Shemitah year, and this is much harder. Therefore, we should be more accepting of those farmers who rely on the heter mechira even though it is problematic heter, and buy from them. In this way we carry out the mitzva d’oreita,  "וחי אחיך עמך", “Your brother shall live with you”, and not to prefer buying yevul nochri grown by non-Jews.

The connection between the public “avodah sh’balev” (prayer) and working the land

When we face problems with) parnasa (making a living), we are expected to make natural, human efforts to succeed (“hishtadlut”). We also pray for success, but do not rely on miracles. In other words: Just as it is forbidden to rely only on our own efforts, the same is true with relying only on prayer – we need both. The same is true with regard to agriculture in Eretz Yisrael. The Torah tells us[4]:

“If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul.  I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil.”

The reason for the heter to pray and even fast to “assist” non-Jewish farmers in Eretz Yisrael or those under suspect for violating Shemitah – is the partnership or mutual responsibility we have for one another, even for sinners, via our prayers.  Even when we have the option of importing fruits from abroad, we pray for the success of the crops growing in Israel. Agricultural prosperity in Eretz Yisrael  is not only an economic need, but a Godly expression of the connection between  the People of Israel to the Land of Israel. By virtue of the partnership of the farmers (a minority) who work the land, with the urban public (majority) that prays for its farmers – all of them are partner to hishtadlut in the great mitzva that equals all the mitzvot in the Torah (Sifri Devarim 17:11) regarding the thriving growth of the holy fruits of Eretz Yisrael.

According to the Yerushalmi (as mentioned above) we pray for rain even during Shemitah, “because of the livelihood of others.” We can interpret “others” to refer to non-Jews who work the land in Israel today, or those Jews who feel impelled to work the land on Shemitah due to poverty. And this is all because there is a great need for Eretz Yisrael to bloom and blossom and not remain barren.

If there is a basis to pray even for people who are suspected of violating the Shemitah, then we should support Jewish farmers even when they need to use halachic lenient opinions as heter mechirah.

The opinion of Rav Avraham Kahana Shapira about heter mechira

Rav Shapira, who was Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel between the years 1983-1993,  preferred crops and produce that were grown in the Shemitah year according to the heter mechira –over yevul nochrim, crops grown by non-Jews:

“Know, my friend, that that when you think you are adopting the halachically stringent position by buying tomatoes and vegetables grown by a non-Jew… You are not machmir, and you are not helping those farmers who refrain from agricultural work on the seventh year. In fact, you have no connection to the mitzva of Shemitat Karka, although you don’t realize that…. The ones who deserve praise, are those Jews who own land and refrain from working in the Shvi’it... and those who purchase Shivi’it produce from the Otzar Beit Din... When you buy more fruits from the Arabs, that does not mean that you are carrying out the mitzva of Shemitah, and you are doing nothing to encourage people to be “shomrei Shivi’it.” You have no right to arrogantly state that one who fills himself up with fruits of Arabs, is carrying out Rav Kook’s great desire for the upsurge of “shomrei Shivi’it” in Yisrael."

What is Otzar Ha’aretz?

It is actually a marketing company that gives preference to fruits that have the sanctity of the seventh year (kedushat shvi’it), in the framework of “Otzar Beit Din,” over fruits that grew under the heter mechira (“leniency of sale”).

What is preferable: Produce from the Otzar Beit Din, or those from the heter mechira?

Rav Shapira is in favor of the Otzar Beit Din system in which the farmers continue to work the land, but only the activities permitted by Halacha in the seventh year; and the consumers buy their produce. The farmers are paid for serving as “emissaries of the Beit Din,” and the consumers are also viewed as acting righteously, assisting those farmers who observe Shemitah.

Buying Otzar Beit Din produce, serves to strengthen the Shomrei Shivi’it group and encourages additional farmers to choose this path as well.

Both Rav Kook in his generation, and Rav Shapira in his, also strengthened the heter mechira so that it could be employed by those who needed it.

On the other hand, they continued to strongly encourage as many farmers as possible to carry out the Shivi’it mitzva properly, without heterim of she’at ha’dchak (exception made for extenuating circumstances).They even created a foundation fund to economically assist those farmers who observed Shemitah k’hilchatah.

They did not view this as a contradiction, but instead different Halachik  positions with one goal: the strengthening of Jewish agriculture in Eretz Yisrael, and guiding Jewish farmers to avoid violating the Shivi’it.

The difference between the kulot (lenient halachic opinions) of the Otzar Beit Din and those of the heter mechira:

Unfortunately, we have been witness in recent years to a phenomenon in which some of the rabbinic courts have neglected the Otzar Beit Din solution, and are crowding out those farmers who do want to adopt this approach. This is for several reasons: On the one hand, many ultra-Orthodox Batei Din prefer yevul nochrim “with absolutely no Shivi’it issues.” On the other hand, there are rabbis who feel that since the Otzar Beit Din approach also calls for leniencies in working the earth and in marketing the fruit, then it has no advantage over the heter mechira. Therefore, they prefer the convenience of purchasing heter mechira fruit, and leave the transition to keeping Shemitah in its ideal way to the era of Moshiach.

Those rabbis who prefer the heter mechira view the issue from the narrow perspective of kulot and chumrot, and do not take the whole picture into consideration. We view the heter mechira as a “Shemitah bypass” tool, to be used sparingly and prevent the farmers from sinning inadvertently during the Shemitah year.

On the other hand, the Otzar Beit Din track is based on observing the Shemitah LeChatchila, even though we do have to rely on several leniencies in the process.

Since most of the poskim hold that Shemitah, during our era, is d’rabbanan – the halacha is according to the lenient position.

The connection between the “Redemption Generation” and the Shemitah mitzva

Our generation has been privileged to live in a time of atchalta d’geula, thus we are obligated to try to encourage the revival of the Shemitah mitzvah properly. We must make efforts  toward observing the Shemitah, in order to usher in the geula. Chazal tell us that in the future, a bat kol will hover over the tallest mountains and proclaim, “Everyone who has acted for God, come now to receive your reward.”[5]

The Rambam is a pre-eminent posek in the realm of Hilchot Geula (redemption), and this is what he wrote in his sefer Hilchot Melachim:[6]

“ In future time, the King Mashiach will arise and renew the Davidic dynasty, restoring it to its initial sovereignty. He will rebuild the [Beit Ha]Mikdash and gather in the dispersed remnant of Israel. Then, in his days, all the statutes will be reinstituted as in former times. We will offer sacrifices and observe the Sabbatical and Jubilee years according to all their particulars set forth in the Torah

One should not presume that the Messianic king must work miracles and wonders, bring about new phenomena in the world, resurrect the dead, or perform other similar deeds. This is definitely not true…"

The Rambam tells us that during the days of the Mashiach, the world will continue as usual, without miracles. As an example, the Rambam devoted much space to telling the story of Rabbi Akiva’s support of Ben Koziva, in anticipation of the latter becoming the Messiah, even though Bar Koziva  never conducted miracles or wonders that do not occur in nature. The Rambam learns from here that even our future redemption will come naturally, by a human being who will fight and win. This person will return diplomatic independence to the Nation of Israel and, ultimately, instill the Torah laws in the nation.

In other words: In our generation, the generation of redemption, we need to try to observe the Shemitah year appropriately but also naturally. We must not wait for miracles.

The advantage of the Otzar Beit Din

In our current time period, when the agricultural burden falls on the shoulders of a very small percentage of the population,  it seems that the only way to restore the mitzvah of Shemitah properly, is through an Otzar Beit Din. This means that since a small group of farmers must provide fruit for everyone in the state of Israel, we must utilize kulot (lenient Halachic opinions) regarding the sale of Shivi’it fruits. For example, these Shivi’it fruits are more expensive than other fruits even though the Otzar Beit Din permits prices that only cover the actual costs. (The high prices are the result of the much higher expenses involved in growing these fruits.) Nevertheless, this system is recommended over the heter mechira , and certainly over yevul nochri.

The halachik  kulot of the heter mechira serve to uproot the mitzva itself – letting the land rest, and more problematic. Instead, the kulot of the Otzar Beit Din are connected only to a secondary issur (סחורה –selling the produce), which is a minor problem. That's way we prefer Otzar Beit Din.

The farmers as emissaries of Am Yisrael

Thus we understand that responsibility for carrying out the mitzva of Shemitah falls on the entire tzibur in Israel, not only the farmers. The Ramban addresses this issue in the context of Mitzvot Yishuv ha’aretz: “ We were commanded to inherit the land that G-d gave to our forefathers, Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov; and not leave it in the hands of other nations, nor to wasteland.”[7]

The first part of the mitzva,; “and not leave it in the hands of other nations” is not a goal that individual members of Yisrael can carry out; only an army, made up of individual fighters,  can achieve this. But the second part of this mitzva, “nor to wasteland,” means that it is not enough to conquer the land; afterwards, we must make the wasteland bloom. This part of the Mitzva our farmers carry: the farmers make the fields bloom and color the land in green on behalf of the general public, and as a emissary of the public.

Parting words

People who live in urban settings can group together prior to the Shemitah year and commit themselves (by paying a down payment) to consume fruits from an Otzar Beit Din; the fruits only come from Shomrei Shemitah farmers.

The Otzar Ha’aretz organization, formed under Rav Yaakov Ariel, is a successful realization of the Otzar Beit Din conception.

As the Shemitah year approaches, I call on all the consumers to commit themselves to eat the fruits of  Otzar Ha’aretz, and to encourage the sellers to continue to market  Shivi’it fruits.

[1] Due to the length of the article and its extensive use of complicated Halachik concepts, we are forced to shorten and summarize the words of Rav Van Dike; thus we did not always use the exact translation. I assume responsibility for mistakes in the translation (Rav Moshe Bloom).
See here for the full article in Hebrew.

[2] Ta’anit 3:1.

[3] Yerushalmi Ta’anit 3:1.

[4] Devarim 11:13-14.

[5] VaYikrah Raba 27:2.

[6] Hilchot Melachim 11:1-3.

[7] Ramban, addition to the Rambam's Sefer HaMitzvot, addition aseh 4