Shemittah 101 Title Image

A practical overview of the Shemittah laws for the upcoming year.

By Rabbi Tsvi Heber


Shemittah” literally means to disengage[1] and is the commonly used word to refer to the Sabbatical year in which the Jewish people cease from performing agricultural activities on the Land of Israel. While many of the laws of Shemittah are directed at the agricultural community in Israel, the impact of Shemittah is felt by kosher consumers both inside and outside of Israel. The laws of Shemittah are broad and intricate and cannot be covered properly in a short article. The purpose of this article however is to provide a brief overview of the Shemittah laws while focusing on those most relevant to kosher consumers outside of Israel. I hope this review will also be helpful for kosher consumers who wish to travel to Israel during the time that Shemittah is relevant.

Shemittah 5775?

Fascinatingly, there is a disagreement amongst the Rishonim as to whether the coming year, 5775, is actually the Shemittah year. The dissenting opinion[2] claims that Shemittah was last year – 5774! Historical precedent follows the mainstream opinion[3] which calculates the Shemittah year to be 5775. This practice is strongly supported by all contemporary halachic authorities.[4]

Parameters of Shemittah

Agricultural prohibitions begin up to 44 days prior to Rosh Hashana[5] of 5775 and extend to Rosh Hashana 5776.[6] Produce that starts growing after the beginning of Shemittah and is picked during Shemittah is certainly considered “Shemittah produce” (to be explained in the next paragraph). But what is the status of produce that is planted before Shemittah and picked during Shemittah? Likewise, what is the status of produce that begins growing (on its own) in Shemittah but is harvested after Shemittah?

The answer depends on the type of produce in question as there is a defining difference between vegetables, grains/legumes and most fruit.[7] Shemittah vegetables are defined as any vegetables that are picked after the onset of Shemittah even if they have grown prior to the onset of Shemittah.[8] Accordingly, vegetables can be considered produce of Shemittah immediately after the onset Rosh Hashana if they are picked after Rosh Hashana. Shemittah grains and legumes, on the other hand, are defined by the point at which they reach 1/3 of their growth and Shemittah fruits are defined by when they experience chanatah – most accurately defined as when the fruit reaches edibility.[9] It follows that grains, legumes and fruits will not be considered Shemittah produce until well into the Shemittah year since it takes time to grow. At the end of Shemittah, vegetables are first to be phased out while grains, legumes and fruits retain their Shemittah status for much of the 8th year.

Guidelines of Shemittah

The Torah mandates that during Shemittah the Land must rest and agricultural activities, including plowing, planting, pruning, watering and cultivating produce, are prohibited.[10] The Land must be left hefker – ownerless and any crop that the Land will produce will be not only free and ownerless[11] but imbued with a special holiness called Kedushas Shevi’is.[12] Kedushas Shevi’is does not imply that Shemittah produce cannot be consumed but rather that:

a) it cannot be owned;

b) that there are various restrictions in the way it may be bought and sold (Sechora);[13] and

c) that it must be treated with special care[14] and not wasted at all.[15]

The Rabbis found that people were planting vegetables in the Land and claiming that they had grown on their own. To address this concern, they prohibited the consumption of vegetables, legumes, grains and spices that grow from the ground on their own during Shemittah. This enactment is referred to as Sefichin.[16] Sefichin does not apply to fruits which can be eaten as long as Kedushas Shevi’is is maintained.

Shemittah produce, even fruits, are eventually subject to the laws of biur – a requirement for all who have more than three meals worth (per family member) of a particular species of Shemittah fruit in their possession to renounce ownership once again at a future date.[17] This date is different for all species of fruit as it establishes the time when the particular species is no longer growing in the fields. If someone does not conduct the biur properly then the Shemittah fruit could become prohibited for consumption.[18] After conducting the biur properly, anyone, including the original owner, can reacquire the Shemittah fruit and eat them once again, with Kedushas Shevi’is.[19]

Yevul Nochri

Yevul Nochri literally means produce of a gentile and refers to produce of land that is owned by a gentile. The status of such produce is the subject of earnest debate. Some say that the Land of Israel does not lose its holiness regardless of whether it is presently in the hands of a gentile. Others maintain the laws of Shemittah do not apply to the land of a gentile and therefore its produce is not subject to the laws of Shemittah.[20] The custom of the rabbis of Yerushalayim is to follow the lenient opinion while others follow the directive of the Chazon Ish and are strict in regard to yevul nochri. As it were, much of the produce that is sold in the local restaurants and establishments under kosher certification in Jerusalem is Yevul Nochri.

While it is always important to take special care when eating out or shopping for food, it is especially important when doing so in Israel during Shemittah. When eating out one must be mindful of the hashgacha that supervises the establishment and be educated as to the standard that it follows. When grocery shopping, one must take care to ensure that the shop does not sell produce that involves Shemittah issues and that it is under reliable kosher supervision. Even purchasing flowers for Shabbos and Yom Tov can get complicated as some flowers are imbued with Kedushas Shevi’is.[21] If one is not careful, he may end up with Sefichin or transgressing the prohibition of Sechora with produce that is imbued with Kedushas Shevi’is.

Otzar Bais Din

Otzar Bais Din literally means the storehouse of Bais Din and in contemporary times refers to a mechanism that is used as a means of supplying Shemittah fruit from land belonging to those who are careful in the laws of Shemittah. The procedure is that the landowner, instead of simply declaring his land ownerless, hands it over to the Bais Din for the public need. This means that the land comes under the jurisdiction of the Bais Din. It is ownerless, but it is reserved for the needs of the town’s residents. The Bais Din appoints agents (workers) and is even allowed to pay them a salary to harvest the produce of the land. It is permissible for the Bais Din to harvest the whole field at once. Moreover, the Bais Din may appoint the landowner himself to harvest the field, which gives him an opportunity to earn a livelihood during the Shemittah year. The employees of the Bais Din bring the produce to the town, charging the purchasers a fee for harvesting and transporting it. In addition, they are allowed to charge schar tircha or compensation for their efforts. Such payment is permitted since it is not payment for the produce but rather for the efforts that were expended. It is important to realize that the use of the Otzar Bais Din mechanism does not exempt produce from the laws of Shemittah and Kedushas Shevi’is and the prohibition of Sefichin applies equally to Otzar Bais Din. One should only rely on an Otzar Bais Din that is reliable.[22]

Heter Mechira

Heter Mechira refers to the sale of Jewish owned land to a gentile for the duration of Shemittah so that the land can be cultivated. Produce from land which is sold to a gentile would have the status of Yevual Nochri as explained above. The concept of heter mechira, which involves several halachic complexities including the permissibility of selling the Land of Israel to a gentile, is disputed amongst contemporary halachic authorities and the practice of major North American kashrus organizations, including the COR and OU, is to be stringent.

Shemittah Produce in the GTA

During the last Shemittah cycle, COR was informed of a variety of Shemittah produce that surfaced at the Toronto Food Terminal, the central locale for imported produce to the Greater Toronto Area. Examples of such produce included coloured peppers, a variety of tomatoes, baby cucumbers, flower zucchini, gooseberries, kumquats, medjul dates, chives, persimmons and fresh herbs. Generally speaking, such produce comes from farms that do not keep the laws of Shemittah and use the export market to compensate for the weakened demand for their produce in Israel.

It is important for consumers to be proactive when shopping. Often, Israeli produce will be recognizable through a sticker with the country of origin on the surface of the fruit or vegetable. Canadian labeling laws require that a supermarket display the country of origin through appropriate signage. Although signage is not always accurate, it can serve to identify Israeli produce and should always be checked. Fruit and vegetable markets that are under COR supervision are Shemittah free markets.

It is also a possibility that Israeli wine “Vintage 2015” may appear on the market after the completion of the Shemittah year. After the last Shemittah cycle, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (L.C.B.O) expressed a desire to import an Israeli wine which was under the hechsher of an Otzar Bais Din in Israel. This was strongly discouraged at the time since Otzar Bais Din produce has Kedushas Shevi’is and it is forbidden to export Shemittah produce.[23] Furthermore, Shemittah wine must be treated with care and not wasted at all. For example, when using Shemittah wine for havdalah, one must be careful not to allow the cup to spill over and one should not extinguish the flame into spilled wine, as is commonly the custom.[24] While those living in Israel are accustomed to eating Shemittah produce in this manner, we, in chutz la’aretz, are not and we may mindlessly treat the Shemittah wine inappropriately.

Arba Minim

One area of Shemittah which is relevant to Jewish people all over the world is the use of Arba Minim from Israel. Since it is literally impossible for esrogim and lulavim to be harvested after Rosh Hashana and available for use in chutz la’aretz two weeks later for Sukkot 5775, the issue will only be of concern next year, for Sukkot 5776. With Hashem’s help, we plan to write an article exclusively dedicated to this subject in advance of next Rosh Hashana. It will address a variety of issues including exporting, sechora, making esrog jam and how to best discard Shemittah esrogim.

Eretz Yisrael

Eretz Yisrael is known in common parlance as the “Holy Land” which is due not only to the specialness of the many holy sites but to the very land itself. The Shemittah laws are indeed intricate but they should serve to highlight the reverence that every one of us should have for the Land of Israel. It goes without saying that it is incumbent upon each and every Jew to support Eretz Yisrael both physically and spiritually and following the Shemittah laws is a practical way of strengthening our connection with our beloved homeland.

Rabbi Tsvi Heber is COR’s Director of Community Kosher

[1] שמות [כג:יא] והשביעת תשמטנה ונטשתה וכו’

[2] רש”י ע”ז [ט:] ד”ה נטפי חדא שתא

[3] תוס’ [שם] ד”ה האי מאן בשם ר”ת והרמב”ם ה’ שמו”י [י:ו] שכן קבלו במסורת איש מפי איש ומסורת אצלם מאנשי א”י ע”ש.והמח’ תלוי באיזה שנה נחרב הבית השני לדעת רש”י בשנת תכ’ לבנינו ולדעת ר”ת בשנת תכ”א.

[4] רמ”א חו”מ [סז:א], חזו”א [ג:לג] ובמהרשד”ם יו”ד סימן קצ”ב כ’ שחכמי צפת נידו לשומרי שביעית ב’ שנים ואין לחוש לחומרא זו. ועי’ בס’ משמרת השביעית [יד:א] ביתר ביאור.

[5] לענין תוספת שביעית הרי קי”ל דאין תוספת שביעית בזמן הזה עד שיבנה ביהמ”ק בב”א עי’ ברמב”ם שמו”י [ג:א]. אמנם הרי אסרו משום שלא יהא קליטה בשביעית, וגם משום רינון שימנו שני ערלה וימצאו שבשביעית נטע, וגם משום מראית עין עי’ ברמב”ם [שם] ואכמ”ל.

[6] ויש שהוסיפו מעט ומשום תוספת שביעית כעין תוספת שבת ויו”ט עי’ במשמרת שביעית [א:ב]

[7] לענין אתרוג ששוה לאילן ולירק יעי’ בחזו”א [ז:י] ו[ט:יז] שאף שמיעקר הדין הולכין בתר חנטה הרי יש לחוש ולילך גם בתר לקיטה כירק ולחומרא. עי’ משמרת השביעית [יד:ט].

[8] דעת כמה ראשונים להחמיר כשנגמרו בששית ולחייב אותם בתו”מ אף שלא נלקטו. עי’ משמרת השביעית פרק י”ד הערה י’.

[9] בענין חנטה יש מבוכה בין הראשונים. ואני כ’ לשון הרמב”ם ה’ מעשר שני [א:ב] וע”ש במהר”י קורקוס באורך בביאור שיטתו. ובשו”ע יו”ד [שלא:קכה].

[10] ויקרא [כב:ב] ושבתה הארץ שבת לד’. גמ’ ע”ז [טו:]. רמב”ם ה שמו”י פרקים א-ג.

[11] שמות [כג:יא] והשביעת תשמטנה ונטשתה וכו’ ועי’ רמב”ם שם [ד:כד].

[12] ויקרא [כה:יב] יובל היא ועי’ ירושלמי שביעית [ד:ז].

[13] ויקרא [כה:ו] והיתה שבת הארץ לכם לאכלה ןעי’ ע”ז [סב.] לאכלה ולא לסחורה. ויש בזה פרטים רבים ואכמ”ל.

[14] עי’ ברמב”ם שמו”י [ה: א-יב]

[15] רמב”ם [שם:יז-יט]

[16] רמב”ם שם [ד:א-ג]

[17] רמב”ם שם [ז:א]

[18] עי’ במשמרת השביעית באריכות ומתי יש להקל בזה [יט:יב]

[19] עי’ חזו”א שביעית סימן כ”ו בסדר השביעית ס”ק א’ אות ד’

[20] עי’ ברמב”ם שם [ד:כט] וז”ל גוי שקנה שדה וזרעה בשביעית פירותיה מותרין שאין הגויים מצווין וכו’ ונחלקו גדולי עולם בכוונתו האם דעתו היה לומר שאין בהם קדושת שביעית כלל או שרק אין להם דין ספיחין ומותרין באכילה. הכסף משנה (הב”י) פירוש שמותרין לגמרי. אמנם דעת המבי”ט [א:כ] דאין קנין לגוי בא”י להפקיע מן המצוות בין למעשרות בין לשביעית. מנהג ירושלים וכן בצפת ובטבריא ושאר מקומות הישוב הישן נהגו להקל כדעת הב”י. אמנם דעת החזו”א [כ:ז] ד”ה ראי’ ועוד אחרונים היה להחמיר בזה כמבי”ט וכ’ שכן נוהגים בישוב החדש. וע”ע במשמרת שביעית [טו:כה].

[21] משמרת השביעית [טו:י]

[22] הקטע של אוצר בית דין צטטתי מהספר החשוב “Gateway to Shemittah” מהרב דוד מרצ’נט שליט”א

[23] רמב”ם שם [ה:יג]

[24] שמיטה כהלכתה [ג:יא]