We are a quarter of the way through a shmitta year and even those of us residing outside of Eretz Yisroel are impacted by hilchos shmitta. Shmitta means “to leave”. We leave the land and its fruits, as well as loans which we have given to others.
There are many explanations as to why Hashem commanded B’nei Yisroel to observe shmitta years.
In Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 84) the author gives three reasons:
• To strengthen the belief in Hashem. “Therefore He commanded us to abandon everything that the land will produce this year, in addition to the downtime from working, so one will remember that the land which gives to him its produce every year, not on its own prowess, as there is a Master over the land and its masters, and when He wishes, He commands to abandon them.”
• To strengthen the trait of charity by giving up one’s property with no compensation. “Also, there is a benefit of acquiring the trait of charity, as there is no greater benefactor than one who gives without a hope for a reward.”
• To strengthen confidence in Hashem. “Additionally, there is a different benefit that the person will add confidence in Hashem, as anyone who finds it in his heart to give and abandon all the growth of his forefathers’ lands for a whole year, and he and his family do that throughout their life, the traits of stinginess and lack of faith will not be part of them.”
In the sefer Kli Yakar by Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz on Parshas Behar, he gives another tremendous reason for this mitzvah: To infuse the Jewish people with faith and trust in Hashem. Hashem was worried that, perhaps, once the Jewish people entered Eretz Yisroel and started working the land in a natural way that they would eventually lose their faith and think that all they obtained was due to their hard work, rather than a gift from Hashem. Therefore, Hashem ordered them to plow and sow seeds every year, though the natural way is to plant for two years in a row and leave the land fallow on the third year (so as not to weaken the land). Moreover, during the sixth year, not only will the land NOT be less fertile, the fruit of the land will be so abundant, that it will be enough for the next three years. Through these miracles the Jewish people see that the land belongs to Hashem and they will have faith only in Him.
Although this mitzvah is given to those who reside in Eretz Yisroel, everyone can learn from this mitzvah about the importance of faith in Hashem and not to rely on their own power and wealth, which is the way of the nations of the world. The Jewish people view themselves as custodians of wealth in this world, but their true mission is to prepare themselves for eternal life in the World to Come.
In the sefer Giborei Koach, Rabbi Yitzchok Napcha brings a medrash on the pasuk in Psalm 103: “The powerful who do his bidding….” This pasuk refers to those who keep the seventh year (shmitta). Rabbi Napcha explains that the reason why they were called powerful is due to the emunah they display by remaining silent when they see their fallow fields, with their gates open and the crops freely consumed by others.
Tosafos in tractate Sukkah (39:1) teach us that there are countless laws and prohibitions regarding the year of shmitta; we will look at a small portion of those laws on a more general level. The laws of shmitta can be broken down into two general groups:
1. Laws regarding the land – these laws affect land in Eretz Yisroel and the crops grown there.
2. Laws regarding money – these laws are applicable everywhere and are laws that apply to all Jews, rather than those in a specific location.
The halachos pertaining to the land in Eretz Yisroel are further split into two types – positive and negative commandments.
1. To abandon everything which grows from the land.
2. To stop working the land.
3. To consume the fruits of the seventh year.1
1. Not to work the land.
2. Not to work the trees.
3. Not to harvest what grows during the seventh year.
4. Not to harvest the fruits of the trees in the same manner as they are collected every year.
While we are living in Golus there are various opinions about the origin of the mitzvah of shmitta. Some say that it is still a mitzvah d’oraisa, others hold that it is a mitzvah d’rabbonon, and some say that it is not an obligation at all, but is still good to observe. The majority of halachic authorities rule that now it is a mitzvah d’rabbonon.
GENERAL RULES OF SHMITTA
All labor performed on the land and trees for the purpose of growth is forbidden. Some of the prohibitions are from the Torah and some are d’rabbonon. Sowing, trimming, reaping and harvesting are explicitly mentioned in the Torah. Some also says that plowing and planting are forbidden d’oraisa. Our Sages prohibited similar actions, including irrigation, fertilizing, and clearing the land from stones, as these actions enable the trees and plants to grow better. Labor that is intended to preserve the health of trees is not forbidden, but a rabbi should be consulted for the correct methods.
There are seven specific types of actions that are affected by hilchos shmitta.
1. Working the land, including all work that pertains to growing.
2. Abandoning the harvest. All crops must be left in the fields, except what will be consumed by the owner in a short amount of time.
3. Uncultivated crops. All crops that grow wild, without tending, are forbidden to harvest. This does not include fruits that grow on trees.
4. Disposal/Waste. One may not discard or waste shmitta crops. There are specific ways to handle spoiled or unused parts of the crop.
5. Sales. One may not sell or trade shmitta crops.
6. Storage. Crops can only be consumed during the season that it is found in the fields. Any crops left over after the season ends cannot be possessed. There are various opinions on whether this is a Halacha from the Torah or d’rabbonon and how to deal with the leftover crops.
7. Loan forgiveness. All unpaid loans are nullified unless the lender completed a pruzbul (Halachic document discussed later in this article which exempts the loan from shmitta).
TAKING CROPS OUT OF ERETZ YISROEL
Though there are those who rely on Otzar Beis Din2 to sell shmitta crops, the OK does not give kosher certification to products done under Otzar Beis Din. One of the stipulations of shmitta is that crops cannot be taken out of Eretz Yisroel and most of the products in Israel that are certified by the OK are exported, so Otzar Beis Din is not a viable option.
KEDUSHAS SHVI’IS (THE HOLINESS OF THE SEVENTH YEAR)
All crops that are grown in the halachic borders of Eretz Yisroel and are owned by a Jewish person have the holiness of the seventh year.3 Therefore, produce grown from the ground that is collected after the beginning of the seventh year is holy. Legumes and seeds have kedushas shvi’is once they have reached 1/3rd of maturity and tree fruits have kedushas shvi’is after the pollination of the flower, before the fruit grows.
It is important to note that money paid for the crops with kedushas shvi’is is holy as well. One is only allowed to use the money earned through kedushas shvi’is to buy food, which imbues the food with holiness and returns the money to a mundane status. Paying with credit (credit card or other form of credit) does not create kedushah on the earnings.
How can one use crops with kedushas shvi’is?
1. May be consumed in a conventional way.
2. May be applied externally (like lubrication). This can only be done with fruits that are usually grown for this purpose. Today it is quite uncommon, so there is a halachic discussion about whether or not it is allowed.
3. May be used for Shabbos and Yom Tov candles.
4. One may not use them to wash clothes and/or remove stains.
5. One may not use them as medicine.
6. One may not ruin the item (ex: using it to extinguish a fire – like wine for Havdalah).
7. One may not throw them away in a conventional garbage.
8. One may not eat it in an unconventional way (ex: to cook something that is usually consumed raw).
SHMITTA AND MONEY
The reason behind the mitzvah of financial shmitta is, as the Sefer HaChinuch writes (mitzvah 477), “to teach ourselves the good trait of generosity and to increase our faith in Hashem.”
The commandment is split into three parts:
1. To cancel the debts of our fellow Jews.
2. Not to ask for repayment after the seventh year.
3. Not to refrain from lending money (out of fear of not being repaid before shmitta).
The opinion of the majority of the Rishonim is that this shmitta kesef (money) in our days is only d’rabbonon in order to prevent the halachos from being forgotten. According to most opinions, loans are cancelled at the end of the shmitta year, although there are some Rishonim that maintain the loans are cancelled at the start of the shmitta year. To satisfy both opinions, a pruzbul is executed at the start and end of the seventh year.
There are some instances when the debt is not subject to forgiveness during shmitta.
1. If the debt was given to the court.
2. Debts which are backed by collateral (pawn).
3. A debt that does not have a specific time for repayment.
4. Money that is indebted for tzedakah purposes.
Though one is not obligated, it is praiseworthy to repay one’s debt after the seventh year, even if it was cancelled due to shmitta. In such a case, the lender must first decline the repayment by saying that he abandoned the debt. Then, the borrower has to insist on giving it to him as a gift.
The pruzbul was instituted after Hillel noticed that people stopped lending money as shmitta approached. Pruzbul is a combination of three words פרוז בולי בוטי , which mean a regulation for the rich and poor. A pruzbul turns the loan over to the court so that it will not be nullified by shmitta.
A pruzbul is only a technical solution to a debt that already exists. It cannot be applied to debts incurred after the initial pruzbul is executed. There is a halachic disagreement about whether a proper Beis Din is needed to execute the pruzbul or whether any three Jewish men will suffice.
I will conclude with a story which shows the greatness of this mitzvah.
This story took place during the last shmitta year. There were many heroes who withstood temptation and displayed extraordinary emunah by observing shmitta fully and not relying on heterim.
In order to praise Hashem and give chizuk to these heroes, there were big signs at every farm bearing the words: “Here shmitta is observed.”
One day I did a kashrus inspection in a city with a mixed population of Jews and Gentiles. A nice car parked near me and a Gentile got out of the car and asked to speak with me privately. Since I did not know him, I suggested instead that we should speak here, in a public place. At first, he was reluctant but then he started speaking. He didn’t introduce himself, but I was able to gather that he was a member of one of the known mafias. When he recognized me as a rabbi, he turned to me and said in an imposing tone: “Look, we usually protect the farmers from thieves (with the farmer’s paying protection money) and lately a group of rabbis started a large security company and took over the entire market. They are everywhere; their signs are everywhere. This isn’t nice; they should let others do business as well.”
I never heard of such a company, so I asked him the name of the company. He replied, “The company is called ‘Shmitta’.”
I kept my smile to myself and answered him that I’d never heard of it. He left and I understood that many Jewish people were saved due to the merit of keeping shmitta.
May we merit the coming of Moshiach very soon and when the land will be filled with the knowledge of Hashem.
ע”פ המגילת אסתר ועוד בדעת הרמב”ן ויש חולקים דאין זו דעת . 1
- The Beis Din takes ownership of the crops and facilities the sale at a price that covers basic expenses of harvesting and labor. See Kosher Spirit Tishrei 5782 for further explanation.
- There are differing opinions on whether crops owned by a Gentile has kedushas shvi’is.
SOURCES FOR LAWS REGARDING LAND IN THE TORAH:
• Parshas Mishpatim: “But in the seventh [year] you shall release it and abandon it; the poor of your people shall eat [it], and what they leave over, the beasts of the field shall eat. So shall you do to your vineyard [and] to your olive tree[s].”1
• Parshas Ki Sisa: “Six days you may work, and on the seventh day you shall rest; in plowing and in harvest you shall rest.”2
• Parshas Behar: “And Hashem spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying, Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them: When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land shall rest a Sabbath to Hashem. You may sow your field for six years, and for six years you may prune your vineyard, and gather in its produce, But in the seventh year, the land shall have a complete rest a Sabbath to Hashem; you shall not sow your field, nor shall you prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the after growth of your harvest, and you shall not pick the grapes you had set aside [for yourself], [for] it shall be a year of rest for the land. And [the produce of] the Sabbath of the land shall be yours to eat for you, for your male and female slaves, and for your hired worker and resident who live with you.”3
SOURCES FOR LAWS REGARDING MONEY IN THE TORAH:
Parshas Re’eh: “At the end of seven years you will make a release. And this is the manner of the release; to release the hand of every creditor from what he lent his friend; he shall not exact from his friend or his brother, because time of the release for Hashem has arrived.”4
“Beware, lest there be in your heart an unfaithful thought, saying, ‘The seventh year, the year of release has approached,’ and you will begrudge your needy brother and not give him, and he will cry out to Hashem against you, and it will be a sin to you.5”
1 Shemos 23:11.
ע”פ הרמב”ם שמו”י א 2
3 Vayikra 25:1-6.
4 Devarim 15:1-2.
5 Devarim 15:9.