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Shemitah, Chapter 12: Guidelines for Grocers

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Shemitah, Chapter 12: Guidelines for Grocers

Guidelines for grocers selling otzar beit din produce and heter mechirah. Is it permissible to sell produce grown by Jewish farmers who don't observe shemitah?

Rabbi Moshe Bloom

A. Guidelines for grocers selling produce as agents of otzar beit din

  1. Grocers should sell only produce supervised by the local rabbinate or by one of the shemitah committees approved by the Chief Rabbinate.
  2. Grocers should be appointed agents of the rabbinical court so that they can sell produce on its behalf.
  3. The payment for the produce is determined by the rabbinical court and grocers may not raise the price on their own volition. This payment is meant to cover the court's costs and to reimburse grocers for their work.[1] The produce itself is given to customers for free. Customers cover these costs when they pay for and receive the produce.
  4. The produce may not be weighed. Rather, grocers should give a general estimate.[2]
  5. It is permissible to receive payment in cash. Shemitah sanctity is not transferred to this money.[3]
  6. If a non-Jew enters the grocery store and wants to purchase sacred shemitah fruit, it is permissible to sell them to him.[4]
  7. Fruits and vegetables that have a short shelf life (such as tomatoes and peaches) may be supplied to customers who are not careful about handling shemitah sanctity, with no limit in quantity.[5] Products with a long shelf life (such as potatoes and wine) may be supplied only in small quantities—enough for a week for all the members of the household.[6]
  8. Customers should be notified which produce has shemitah sanctity by appropriate signs and markings. It is recommended to provide customers with basic guidelines for handling sacred produce.
  9. It is permissible to transport this produce to any place in Israel, including Eilat and its environs.[7]

B. Guidelines for grocers selling heter mechirah produce

  1. It is forbidden to sell produce from farmers who do not observe shemitah laws and did not sell their land to a non-Jew. Only produce with certified supervision, ensuring it was grown on land sold through heter mechirah, should be brought into the store.[8]
  2. Grocers or storeowners who wish to be stringent in the prohibition of transacting with shemitah produce even after land is sold should sell an additional, non-shemitah item along with the produce. They can then tell the customers that the payment is for this item.[9] In this case, it is possible to include even a more expensive product under the price of an inexpensive one.[10]
  3. Grocers who sell both heter mechirah and otzar beit din produce should clearly separate both types of produce and label them accordingly.


[1] The grocer's wages are considered sechar batalah—reimbursement for time he could otherwise be working elsewhere. Rabbi Chaim of Berlin (Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, who instituted this practice during the shemitah year of 1909), qtd. by Mishnat Rabbi Akivah §4; Torat Hashemitah 14 §37.

It is possible to accept payment to reimburse harvest, transportation, and distribution expenses. On the question of whether it is possible to charge for other agricultural activities (spraying pesticides, irrigation, fertilization, guarding, etc.), see Betzet Hashanah p. 42, n. 8; Shemitah Kehilchatah 3:16.

[2] Since the prohibition against weighing exists even when the produce is distributed in a permissible fashion. See Chapter 9, §B.1. Some are lenient in this regard: Az Nidberu X §45; Mishnat Yosef I §23. See also Shabbat Ha'aretz 6:3 §2, n. 10–11.

[3] Since the payment is made against the expenses for cultivation and operations, not for the produce itself.

[4] Even though we do not give non-Jews shemitah fruit (Shabbat Ha'aretz 5:13 §3), if a non-Jew comes on his own, there is no obligation to prevent him from taking shemitah fruit.

[5] Tosefta 6:11; Mishneh Lamelech 8:14; Rabbi Kook, Shabbat Ha'aretz 8:16 §2. According to Torat Ha'aretz (I 8:53), it is unequivocally prohibited to give such fruit to those who will not be careful in observing shemitah sanctity, based on Mishnah, Ma'aserot 5:3 and Tosefta 4:3. Rabbi Eliahu rules accordingly.

[6] Tosefta 6:11: the practical application today of "food for three meals" is a week. Rabbi Kook rules accordingly, Shabbat Ha'aretz 8:16 §2. According to Rabbi Chaim Berlin (qtd. in Sefer Hashemitah, p. 41 n. 11), it is permissible to sell this type of produce without limiting the quantity.

[7] Chazon Ish 13:3 writes that the Tana'im disagree about whether it is permissible to transport shemitah produce from olei Bavel to Suria (roughly modern-day Syria), and the laws pertaining to Suria are more stringent than are those relating to olei Mitzrayim. Therefore, it seems that it is permissible to transport shemitah produce from olei Bavel to olei Mitzrayim territory. Others forbid this: Melechet Shlomo 6:5; Torat Ha'aretz 8 §61. See Shabbat Ha'aretz 5:13 §2. We permit transporting shemitah produce even to Eilat, even though some maintain that Eilat is outside of olei Mitzrayim territory. See Chapter 11, §B.4. On exporting sacred shemitah produce abroad, see Katif Shevi'it, ch. 23. In principle, it is forbidden to export shemitah produce abroad: Rambam 5:13.
For this reason, most farmers who export produce during the shemitah year export heter mechirah and non-sacred produce. We are generally lenient with exporting shemitah fruit (=otzar beit din fruit) to Jews only for mitzvah purposes. This includes etrogim exported for Sukkot as well as wine and grape juice for kiddush. Some maintain that it is permissible to export produce belonging to non-Jews, even if it grew on Jewishly-owned land during the shemitah year.

[8] Rambam 8:14. See Chapter 8 about the concern of shamur (produce guarded by owners and not rendered ownerless) and ne'evad (forbidden agricultural activities were performed on behalf of the produce). The main problem with buying such produce is that one is thereby assisting those who transgress shemitah prohibitions. Other issues include: the money spent on this produce becomes imbued with shemitah sanctity; buying the produce constitutes forbidden transaction with shemitah produce; and vegetables (not fruit) are forbidden due to the sefichin prohibition.

See Mishpat Kohen §76, stating that one should not rely on the assumption that most land is sold; rather one should make inquiries if possible. Yaskil Avdi (VII YD §36) rules accordingly. However, Yalkut Yosef (1:10) is lenient for guests invited to a religious family that also buys produce from stores that do not observe shemitah. This is because most vegetables come from permissible sources; only a small minority of Jewish farmers do not sell their fields (thus their vegetables would be considered sefichin and prohibited to eat). There is even more room to be lenient when it comes to fruit, where sefichin is not an issue. See also Shabbat Ha'aretz 8:10 §1–2.

[9] Since there is no prohibition to trade when there is havla'ah. See Chapter 9, §A.5.

[10] While there is a dispute regarding the optimal method of performing havla'ah, in the present case it is possible to be lenient, since this is only a hiddur. See Shabbat Ha'aretz 8:11 §2, 6:1 §3.5.