Shemitah, Introduction#2: Safeguards of Sanctity
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Is it a proper way to always be machmir on shemitah laws?
"But you may eat whatever the land will produce for you during its Sabbath" (Vayikra 25:6). Chazal (Yerushalmi, Shevi'it 7:1) understood from the phrase "for you" that the produce of the land during the shemitah year is permitted for all human needs: eating, drinking, bathing, and ointments. However, a different source (Torat Kohanim, Behar §1:1) understood this verse as a limitation: "for you and not for others." From here, Chazal teach us that shemitah belongs to the Jewish People only; gentiles do not have a part in this direct connection between G-d and the Jewish People.
We find an example of this in our weekly sabbatical—Chazal (Sanhedrin 58b) inform us that "A gentile who observed the Shabbat is liable to receive the death penalty;" non-Jews have no portion in our weekly Shabbat. Shabbat is a covenant between G-d and the Jewish People and not with other nations; similarly, the sabbatical year and the sacred fruit that grows during this year are meant for the Jewish people exclusively. Only the holy Jewish People can eat the holy fruit of the holy Land of Israel.
Whenever there is sanctity, there are decrees and safeguards instituted to protect its unique sanctity. The sacred Jewish People erected fences to safeguard their holiness, and the soferim decreed additional forbidden marriages (sheniyot la'arayot). Likewise, Chazal instituted ordinances and safeguards to protect the Shabbat's sanctity. So too, Chazal issued ordinances and guidelines for how to properly use and enjoy the sacred fruit of the shemitah year. While these fences and safeguards impose limitations on us in a plain, external sense, at the same time they reveal the internal sanctity of the entity in question. In this way, while the rules of muktzeh and nolad on Shabbat limit the use of certain things, at the same time we know that this is due to the sanctity of Shabbat and the holidays. Thus, we are filled with joy that we are able to live lives of sanctity.
The same holds true for the shemitah year: there are specific guidelines and limitations on how to eat and use sacred shemitah fruit. One might say: "Why do I need to concern myself with all of these problems? I'd be better off buying fruits and vegetables that aren't subject to any limitations. Then I won't need to be careful about the sanctity of the food—I can do whatever I want, and even throw away or spoil it." This is not the way of the Torah, however. The Torah wants us to eat these sacred foods; the limitations and safeguards remind us that every fruit and vegetable is infused with the sanctity of the Land of Israel.
At times, people desire to be machmir and expand the safeguards and fences that Chazal instituted, yet from this we arrive at tafastah merubeh lo tafastah (if you attempt to grab too much you will be left with nothing). This then brings people to throw it all away, since they see that the stringencies lead to negative outcomes that are far from the original mitzvot and Chazal's ordinances. In order to keep everything straight and view matters in their proper light, we need to read the words of Chazal, learn them from their halachic sources, see what Chazal instituted, and weed out the excessive stringencies that our predecessors never dreamed of.
This Shemitah Consumer's Guide, presented here to the public at large, attempts to strike this delicate balance. On the one hand, it underscores the sanctity of the produce of the land's sabbatical year and the obligation to eat sacred produce. At the same time, the handbook reviews the sources for the safeguards and shows how they were put in place to sanctify man and the produce—not to needlessly make the shemitah year difficult. In general, it is hard to know when and where it is appropriate to be cautious when striving to act righteously. It is our hope and prayer that this halachic guide will help every Jew add sanctity to the sanctity of the shemitah year, with joy and gratitude to G-d that we have merited to eat from the land's sabbatical year: "But you may eat whatever the land will produce for you during its Sabbath" (Vayikra 25:6).