Preparing for Shmitta

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Shmitta – the Biblical commandment to leave the land fallow every seventh year – is as relevant as ever in Israel. There were times where most people perceived shmitta as a problem, something to find a way around, a mitzvah one should try and find leniencies and exemptions for, but not any longer. In Israel today, where food and beverage companies look to expend their businesses through export, it is the accepted fact and reality that shmitta will be observed perfectly and strictly, and that no leniencies will do. “It is not that the gentile buyers from abroad care about the origin of the produce,” says Rabbi Aharon Haskel, Director of OK Israel, “but the reputable kosher agencies in the US and in Europe – and of course, the OK around the world – will not approve any ingredient that is not mehadrin. Seeking leniencies for shmitta is not our way. And so, companies who might not care much about the level of their kosher status of their products in Israel have to meet much higher standard when working with us for export purposes.”

The entire country is preparing for shmitta. In June, the Israeli government approved a 100 million-shekel ($28.8 million) budget to prepare farmers for the shmitta year. 45 million shekels are expected to be distributed to farmers who stop all their activities for the year; they will be given an allowance based on their earnings from previous years. Another 11 million shekels will go to Otzar Beis Din organizations (the produce is turned over to the control of a Beis Din, who in turn distributes the products). There is also a budget of 5 million shekels for growers who will use the ‘matzaim menutakim’ solution – they will cultivate plants on surfaces off the ground, which are exempt from shmitta restrictions.

But it is not only government ministries and farmers who have to prepare for shmitta: the OK, as a kosher organization, has much work to do, guiding its clients so they find themselves in the best possible position once the shmitta year begins.
“Look at the vineyards, for instance,” says Rabbi Haskel. “Almost all Israeli vineyards are kosher supervised. That means they can’t use grapes during the first three years of growth, when they are orlah. All the farmers are in a rush to get the plantings done before the 15th of Av, which is the deadline for planting before a shmitta year. If you can’t get the new vines planted by then, you will not be able to use them for an additional year.”

Getting the plantings done was especially problematic this year due to the war with Gaza. “The security recommendations are for people to stay close to a shelter or a safe area. But where can you go when the sirens sound and you are in the vineyard?” asks Rabbi Haskel. But the farmers don’t have the option to wait for the end of the war. Not planting in time will cause them significant damage. So they go out and plant all the same, missiles or no missiles.

Olive oil companies are also getting ready. Israel is a well-known exporter of quality olives, but the local olives will not be used during shmitta for producing mehadrin products. Accordingly, the companies have to find other sources of olives, mainly in Jordan. Since the spring of 2014, OK mashgichim have been going to Jordan to check the olive plantations there. Inspecting the foreign sources is important because there are cases of “revolving door” deceptions – Israeli produce would be sold to the Jordanians or other non-Jews who would then sell it back to Israel, at a higher price, claiming it was their own produce.

Olive oil companies are not alone in seeking substitutes for local produce. Companies who market leafy vegetables – such as parsley and celery – are on the same mission. They, too, look to Jordan or neighboring non-Jews as likely sources. However, the tense situation in the Middle East means that companies have to be ready with a Plan B as well; if things get too political, they will have to import the necessary produce from Europe.

While some kosher companies in Israel are mostly busy finding alternative sources to the ingredients or products they need, others focus on working around the clock to produce as much as possible before the shmitta deadline.

“Take the manufacturers of jams and candied citrus peels,” says Rabbi Yeshaya Aush, who supervises many of the Israeli companies certified by the OK. “Israel is a world leader in producing citrus peels, which is a very popular ingredient in the gourmet world. Citrus peels are used in a variety of quality products, from baked goods to chocolate. But, because of shmitta, the companies here will not be able to produce with local fruits for two years. So they are working super hard now, in three shifts, to make the best use of the fruits they have. Over the next two years they will only produce with imported fruits for mehadrin productions.” He says the clients take shmitta extremely seriously, and with no grumblings. “We started our preparations two years ago, and all production plans were made in good time. By now they are used for this once-in-seven-years challenge.”

Rabbi Haskel names three other kinds of companies that are working frantically to create a large stock of kosher l’medhadrin products before shmitta begins. “We have spice companies, we have companies which produce natural food coloring from tomatoes (Israel is somewhat of a leader in this field), and we have fruit concentrate companies. Much of the orange, lemon and grape concentrates used in the world come from Israel.”

Whatever a company does to prepare for shmitta, it appears there is little frustration with the kosher restrictions.  Perhaps because the kosher industry is large enough by now to have considerable leverage, or perhaps because kosher agencies know how to explain shmitta issues to their clients well, but mostly, because in Israel, even those who profess to be irreligious, will admit to a feeling that the land is special, even holy. And with a special place come special requirements.

Observing shmitta properly in today Israel doesn’t pose serious problems or challenges, either to the farmers or to the kosher consumers. However, the situation was much different in the first years after the establishment of the State of Israel. Most of the population was secular, government ministries didn’t see fit to assist shmitta-observing farmers and consumers, and the nisayon was hard and real.

The Komemiyut moshav in Israel is one of the only places in Israel where shmitta has always been observed to the letter. Amazingly, despite the difficult situation, the moshav always managed to survive and even thrive. The moshav’s rabbi, Rabbi Binyamin Mendelson, recorded in his letters many miracles the moshav farmers witnessed while observing shmitta.

Perhaps the best-known incident of hashgocha protis happened in 1953. “It was just after a shmitta year and we didn’t have wheat to sow,” wrote Rabbi Mendelson. “We didn’t want to use wheat seeds from the shmitta year, and the only seeds we could find from the sixth year were broken and unfit for planting. The farmers came to ask for my advice and I told them that since they couldn’t find other wheat they should ‘maamin bechai haolamin vezorea’ (believe in the eternally-living and plant) as the Talmud Yerushalmi says.”

All the villages around Komemiyut mocked the religious farmers for planting those seeds and warned them that they would incur a huge loss. But they went ahead nonetheless. And in that ‘Eighth Year’ there were no rains in the beginning of the winter and all the seeds of all those who had plowed the land during the shmitta and planted immediately at the end of shmitta died in the dry land. But for the Komemiyut farmers, who started plowing only after Sukkos and planted in the first months of the winter, the rain came just on time. Miraculously, the damaged seeds grew into high quality wheat.

“And that,” concluded Rabbi Mendelson, “was a sign that Hashem sends his blessings to those who observe shmitta.

The Mitzvah of Shmitta
While the Holy Temple stood, observing shmitta was a mitzvah m’dioraisa. “For six years you may plant your fields, prune your vineyards, and harvest your crops, but the seventh year is a Sabbath of Sabbaths for the land. It is G-d’s Sabbath during which you may not plant your fields, nor prune your vineyards. Do not harvest crops that grow on their own and do not gather the grapes on your unpruned vines, since it is a year of rest for the land.” – Vayikra 25:3-4

In addition to the four agricultural practices prohibited in the verse above, the Torah also forbids planting trees, whether fruit-bearing or not, and the plowing of all agricultural land. However, unlike the four commands above, violating these two prohibitions does not call for a punishment of malkos (lashes).

Our Sages have also decreed that all agricultural and garden work may not be done during the shmitta year. All land owned by Jews in the Land of Israel should be left fallow. Today, however, the commonly accepted view is that all aspects of shmitta are considered mitzvos m’derabbanan.

What is the purpose of this mitzvah? The Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 84) writes that the mitzvah of shmitta serves as a reminder to the Jewish nation that G-d is the Master of the world. He commanded us not only to leave our land unfarmed, but also to let go of the product, which, for this year, belongs to everybody equally, instead of being the exclusive property of the owner. By observing this mitzvah we are reminded that the land bears fruit annually, not simply because it is its nature. G-d is the Master of the land and of the landowner, and He can order us to leave our fields uncultivated and their produce unsold.