February 3, 2015

What are YOU doing about Shemita?

Rabbi Haber

vegetablesNote: This post, which is also entitled “The Challenge of Shemita – Part Two”, primarily addresses those who live in Israel. Readers in the Diaspora are of course also invited to read it and to contemplate the questions raised.

Just before Shemita started, I wrote about the conceptual idea of this mitzva, and the inspiring values that Shemita represents.  Now, after half a year of eating holy vegetables, teaching about Shemita and taking people on tours to learn the history of Shemita and meet farmers who struggle to observe it in the best way they can, I want to talk a bit about practicalities.

For those of us who aren’t farmers, observance of Shemita is expressed primarily in the question of which fruits and vegetables we consume. Although there are numerous possibilities, in broad strokes we have three types of options (See The Kosher Consumer’s Guide to Shemita for more detailed explanations):

  1. We can buy the “standard” produce sold in most stores under supervision of the Chief Rabbinate, grown using the Heter Mechira, on land that has been temporarily sold to a non-Jew in order to remove its sanctity and exempt us from observing Shemita Although there is a broad consensus that it is necessary for many farmers to rely on this leniency, some kashrut organizations refuse to certify this produce and many individuals are reluctant to consume it, for both halachic and philosophical reasons.
  2. We can seek out produce grown and marketed by Jewish farmers in ways which are permissible during Shemita without selling the land. These farmers also rely on leniencies and loopholes, but they are actually observing the mitzvah, not bypassing it. Some of the products grown this way (those marked “Otzar Bet Din”) have kedushat shvi’it (Shemita sanctity) and must therefore be handled with special care and used according to special regulations.
  3. Or, we can avoid the issue altogether by buying produce grown by non-Jews (typically local Arabs) or imported from outside of Israel.

Although I understand the halachic reasoning and the thinking behind all three approaches, my personal preference is clear: I try very hard to support Jewish farmers! Whenever possible, I invest the effort and expense to use Otzar Bet Din products or others from category #2. If that is not possible I will use Heter Mechira. Buying from non-Jews is my last resort.

Contemplating this decision allows us to explore two fascinating philosophical questions.

One question has to do with how we relate to Kedusha (holiness).  While I seek out and relish the opportunity to consume produce with kedushat shvi’it, many people do the exact opposite: they avoid it, because of the restrictions on how this produce may be used, and because one must try to avoid destroying it. When I teach about Shemita, I explain how it isn’t difficult to observe the restrictions, but still many people find them stressful. Why worry about mistakenly doing something wrong? It’s much easier, and safer, to buy non-holy vegetables, such as those grown by non-Jews.

But as always, there’s another side to that coin. Eating Otzar Bet Din fruits and vegetables is a rare opportunity for us to bring kedusha into our homes and lives (in the present halachic epoch, it is the only such opportunity).

So the question is: Is kedusha something to be feared, or embraced?  We pray for the Mashiach to come and for the Temple to be rebuilt. When those prayers are answered, are we going to run with joy to gather there? Or will we stay home for fear of incurring God’s wrath by violating the sanctity of the place?

This discussion is about a lot more than Shemita; it has to do with our entire hashkafa (outlook on life). Some people and communities live by a philosophy that views the world as a dangerous place, full of potential pitfalls and stumbling blocks to be avoided, and do everything possible to stay safe by avoiding any possibility of sin. I understand that approach – but I reject it. Staying “safe” carries an even bigger risk – it means giving up many opportunities for spiritual accomplishment and growth.


Modern Shemita observance also raises another philosophical question: Are we meant to serve God primarily as individuals? Or as a nation?

Many people look at Shemita as an issue of kashrut. As God-fearing Jews, they try to only eat food that meets the “highest standard”.

While this may make sense for items such as meat or milk products, when it comes to Shemita the issue is significantly more complicated.  This is because even many people who don’t rely on the Heter Mechira themselves will acknowledge that often, farmers have no other choice (see The Kosher Consumer’s Guide for explanation).  I’ve heard people say things like: “If I was a farmer, I would almost certainly sell my fields to an Arab during Shemita. I don’t criticize them at all for doing so. But since I’m not a farmer and this doesn’t affect my livelihood, why should I rely on the leniency?”

There is, though, a big problem with that type of thinking. Is it fair to abandon those farmers, by buying from non-Jews this year? For the past six years, we ate the food they grew. Just because we have other jobs and the mitzva of Shemita falls primarily on their shoulders, does that mean we have no responsibility towards them?  Does Shemita mean causing other people to lose money while we go about our business as usual?? Such an idea is quite far from the unity and equality the Torah wants to create this year!

This is even truer regarding those heroic farmers who take risks and sacrifice to observe Shemita without the heter mechira, by using expensive and risky methods like Otzar Bet Din and matza menutak. Especially for those who don’t want to rely on heter mechira, isn't there an OBLIGATION to participate in the mitzva, by consuming this produce and helping cover the costs?

Shemita is not a mitzva for the individual; it is for the nation as a whole. Just because we aren’t the ones actually farming the land doesn’t exempt us from participating in the mitzva.

In my opinion, buying all of our vegetables from Arabs while letting the farmers absorb the losses is not an ideal way to observe Shemita. I certainly wouldn’t describe that as “Kosher LeMehadrin”.

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