We have come a long way since the 1950s. Today, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate lets local rabbis decide for themselves which level of Shmitta observance they are comfortable with, while the rabbinate’s formal policy is to minimize—and, eventually, eradicate—the use of Heter Mechira. More farmers than ever observe Shmitta to the letter, not relaying on the Heter, and Orthodox residents can enjoy a variety of agricultural product with no compunctions. Happily, Shmitta is no longer an esoteric law fully appreciated by few.
While the Holy Temple stood, keeping 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 Malkot (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 Mitzvot M’derabanan.
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.
The OK and Shmitta
OK Kosher Certification does not rely on any leniencies when it comes to Shmitta observance. The Israeli office of the OK was always staunch about keeping the halachos of Shmitta, without looking for loopholes. Rabbi Don Yoel Levy, Kashrus Administrator of the OK, has always made a point of making the kosher policy of the Israeli office of the OK one that is satisfactory to all branches and sectors of Israeli Orthodoxy. We do not rely on Heter Mechira, nor do we work with Otzar Beis Din (a system whereby farmers give authority to a rabbinical court outside of Israel to tend to their fields), since it is not permissible to export Shmitta produce abroad. This produce is holy and and its holiness may not be diminshed by removing it from the boundaries of the Holy Land. Instead, we focus our efforts on finding other solutions for our clients.
Shmitta influences almost every branch of the food industry. Fresh fruit and vegetables are only the most obviously affected. Jams, fruit-filled candy and chocolate, fruit-flavored dairy products, canned foods, breads which contain dried vegetables, and all products that include natural ingredients extracted from fruit or vegtables. All of these may contain Shmitta produce.
Essential oils are a good example of the far-reaching ramifications of Shmitta. Many kosher agencies see those oils as a bona-fide Group One ingredient (the term used by kosher agencies to describe ingredients which do not require kosher certification), but the matter is not so simple. Israel exports citrus essential oils all over the world, and the companies that purchase those oils usually repack and relabel the oils, because they want to conceal who their suppliers are, in addition to political motivations. The result, however, is that there is no way to make sure a certain essential oil is not extracted from Shmitta produce, unless it is certified by a recognized kosher agency. You cannot assume that the oil is kosher l’mehadrin just because it appears to have come from a place other than Israel. I learned this lesson in person during a visit to a Spanish facility, when I asked to see the kosher certificate for orange oil. My hosts reacted in surprise. They claimed that such oils do not need any certification and that rabbis who had visited the facility in the past had not requested to see any kosher letter. I insisted, though, on looking through the documents, and in the end it was made clear that the oil had been made in Israel. How many such oils can be found in the global market, with no markings to give away their source?
A popular Israeli fruit juice manufacturer, one of our main clients, produces citrus concentrates, juices and essential oils. A year and a half before the Shmitta year, we started preparations to make sure the company would have halachically permissible supplies to use through the Shmitta year. The company signed contracts with suppliers in South America and in Europe to ensure that the produce they recieve was grown abroad and can be used in their productions. A different solution was found for the production of strawberry juice and tomato juice. In both cases, they will use the harvest of the previous year. The produce is kept in two special cold storage facilities, where advanced technology preserves it in a perfectly usable state.
One of the most popular drinks produced by the fruit juice manufacturer is grape juice drink. A lot of careful planning went into organizing alternative sources for ingredients to this well-loved soft drink. Rabbi Weinstein, of OK Israel, flew to Argentina in January 2007—harvest season there—to inspect a meticulously kosher production of grape juice. Assisted by a staff of local rabbis, he supervised the production of grape juice for the company. I personally went to Cyprus last July to arrange another such production. As an island located a short distance from Israel—a flight of less than an hour—this is an ideal location for out-of-the-country productions. The logistics are never very simple – a full crew of Mashgichim, who even operate the machines themselves, oversee the whole process, from the harvesting to the barreling.
It is a common practice in the juice industry to add orange pulp cells to the drinks, in order to give them a more natural texture. For the Shmitta year, we helped our fruit juice manufacturer arrange a shipment of pulp cells from Florida. Quality often depends on small details, and finding alternative sources to provide this quality is a part of our expertise as a responsible kosher agency.
The concentrates and juices which are certified by the OK are under our full control. Every barrel is marked with a special code, so it will be easily identifiable as kosher with no Chashash Shvi’is—no doubt as to whether Shmitta produce has been used in its making. Once they are put in cold storage, every barrel receives a special ID so that we have full control over its contents. At any time in the future, we will be able to know the exact sources of its ingredients and their kosher status.
The wine industry is a whole different matter. There are eighteen Israeli wineries which are certified by the OK. In all of them, we apply our stringent kosher standards, with strict supervision starting at the planting stage and continuing until the bottling is completed. The harvest is done under the close supervision of an OK Mashgiach as well as of a shomer Torah u’Mitzvos agronomist.
During the Shmitta year we still supervise the vineyards to make sure that the Orlah prohibition is not violated. We also keep an eye on the wines that are going through the aging process. However, we have nothing to do with the harvesting of the Shmitta grapes. It should be noted, though, that this year’s harvest is still completely kosher; only the 2008 harvest will theoretically include Shmitta grapes, and the wines produced from those grapes will start appearing in the market no earlier than 2009. That is why Shmitta can by no means be termed as a one-year issue; its ramifications are many and diverse, both in the short and in the long term.
Another industry closely concerned with Shmitta is the pickle industry. Among our clients are two large pickle companies. They have special production lines, which use only Yevul Nochri (produce grown and owned by non-Jews) or imported produce and we certify only pickles produced in the special lines. There is full separation between the regular and the special kosher productions: the kosher line has its own steam system and operates only on Sundays, after kosherizing of the entire line. The labels, of course, are also different.
The salad industry also has its own Shmitta issues. An OK certified salad company routinely uses imported produce for humus and some other salads. However, Turkish and eggplant salads are usually produced from locally grown vegetables. For this year, the company set up a special production line for those salads. Two mashgichim are assigned to supervise the entire production process, and they have to identify with perfect certainty the source of each vegetable used in the production. The identification process includes checking out the grower, the delivery, and each of the crates of produce. Such procedures are made easier by the fact that the companies we work with are among the leaders in their field, and their logistics are usually very efficient. They have fully computerized control over the produce they purchase and use, and that helps us greatly.
A different solution was found for another OK certified produce company. They have built special greenhouses in the southern prairie of Israel (Arava Hadromit), which is halachically considered to be out of the borders of the Promised Land, where they grow the produce they use. The greenhouses are needed to ensure insect-free vegetables, while their location means they can be certified as kosher even during the Shmitta year. However, these greenhouses provide only a partial solution, as they still need to import garlic for their products. To help arrange the garlic import, the company asked us to send a special letter on their behalf to the Ministry of Agriculture. The Israeli government wishes to help the Israeli farmers, and therefore imposes strict limits on any import of agricultural produce from abroad. We have, therefore, written to the government, explaining that the special requirements of Shmitta call for relaxation of these rules. This is yet another way we help our customers cope with Shmitta requirements.
Israeli companies are not the only ones to request our help. A U.S. food giant has also contacted OK Israel, seeking to arrange a kosher production of tomato fibers and tomato juice here in Israel. They want this production to be free of Shmitta problems, and therefore wish us to supervise it.
As an inherently Israeli issue, Shmitta observance cannot be disconnected from Middle Eastern geopolitics. The Gaza withdrawal and the Hamas takeover have ruled out any possible transactions with Gazan farmers. Not only is it extremely dangerous to get into Gaza in order to do business there, but also the Israeli government’s decision to declare Gaza an “enemy entity” means it is simply illegal to do any business with the residents of Gaza. Even Judea and Samaria, not yet declared enemy territories, are problematic to deal with. Too many frauds have been discovered, where local Israeli suppliers sent their produce to the West Bank to make it appear as if it originated there in the first place. Such worrying incidents resulted in a declaration, by Rabbi Yosef Efrati’s Badatz for Shmitta Affairs, that no produce claimed to be grown in the West Bank would be recognized as Yevul Nochri.
An interesting side note, a novel idea had been brought up prior to this decision, was the suggestion of sending robots to the West Bank area. The robots would photograph the relevant fields and record the harvest and the transportation of the produce into Israel. The prevalent view among rabbis, however, was that such technological devices are not impossible to fool.
Keeping the halachos of Shmitta might not be as hard for us as it was for Israeli Orthodox Jews back in 1951, but it still calls for a spirit of Mesiras Nefesh. The farmers, of course, are the true heroes of every Shmitta year, but we all need to demonstrate more perseverance and readiness to make special efforts for the sake of this Mitzvah. For instance, OK Israel approves Yevul Nochri only if the produce is harvested in the presence of our Mashgichim, who are required to be in the fields at all hours and in all weather conditions. Frequently the harvest starts immediately after Shabbos when our supervisors make Havdalah and leave their homes to spend a long night in the fields. This is the only way to ascertain that what we certify as Yevul Nochri is, indeed, exactly that.
According to our Sages, Shmitta is connected to Golus and Geulah, exile and redemption. Our Sages, in Avos, tell us that one of the reasons for the exile was a failure to observe the Shmitta year properly. On the other hand, the Gemara in Megilla tells us that we are destined to be redeemed at the end of a Shmitta year: “B’motzai Shvi’is Ben David Ba—The Son of David will come at the end of the Seventh Year.” May this Shmitta year bring the final redemption.
From the last Shmi Year
One of the points often emphasized by kosher agencies is that Shmitta issues are not over at the end of the Shmitta year. One story from the last Shmita year illustrates this fact well.
An Israeli company exported dried vegetables to the U.S., which were grown during Shmitta according to the Heter Mechira. The company and its certifying agency made sure to conceal from its customers the fact that they were buying Heter Mechira produce.
The truth emerged only after the products were in use in dozens of facilities.
Thanks to thOK’s use of K-Cert’s advanced digital tracking system, we were able to track down the problematic vegetables and pinpoint the companies and facilities which had received them. With Siyata D’Shmaya, every OK certified company that was using the problematic product was using old stock not affected by Shmitta!
When the story was made known, many other kosher agencies contacted the OK, asking for information on behalf of their customers. It took a few years before the OK stopped hearing about this affair.