Menachem's Writings

Shemita, Shemitah, Shemitta, Shemittah -- the seventh, Sabbatical Year

I received the following email from my my sister-in-law yesterday concerning living with the shmita (pick the spelling you prefer from above). I'm not sure if she thinks this is a one minute, on one leg job, but I'll give it a go. The info here is off the top of my head, so go ahead as usual and disagree with me: .

I also make no apologies if I offend anyone, especially those who think Jews can happily live outside Israel and all these laws are only theoretical, like Temple sacrifices, but the Rambam includes both in Yad ha-chazaka - Mishneh Torah as practical halacha, viz. halacha that will be performed and not like the Laws of "Collecting the Manna" which is no longer applicable.

By the way, Di is married to the famous cardiologist, electrophysiologist and painter Dennis Kuchar.


Can you help me out?
I'm giving a talk to adults on Parashat Behar, so will include Shmita laws, could you just write me a summary of how your household selects, buys fruit & veg, how you discard of the different produce & how you tend your own garden & anything else relevant.
I think the group would love to hear real, anecdotal material on how shmita is observed.

I know I was there & saw your kitchen in action but I'm not clear on it all.

a question or 2.

1) has the counting of shmita year been going since entering, settling the land or was counting ever lost & re-started?
2) Do we know which year would be Yovel?
3) do we know which are the Levite towns & what is there today?

thanks, Di

Ideas and Answers

First it's important to understand what is the status of the shemitta today. According to most poskim (Rabbis throughout the ages), shemitah is a rabbinic injunction. This is largely because we have not as yet merited for a majority of Jews to live in Israel. Yes, you people in the Galut are preventing us from fulfilling what is required of us from the Torah.

Not everyone agrees with this and as usual you have variation in both direction: those who say it is a mitzva from Torah and those say that it isn't even a mitzvah d'rabbanan, but "merely" a "good thing" to do. My Rabbi, Rav Yisrael Shurin who passed away last year, told me that Rav Kutner said that actually, with the fall of the Iron Curtain, we now do have a majority of Jews in Israel. How so? Because his understanding of Galut is enforced Galut, that is it is impossible for Jews to return to Israel their Homeland. This is what God meant by expelling the Jews from the Holy Land. However once a Jew elects to live in Galut, he negates himself from the calculation -- in other words Jews today living in the free world don't count. May the Holy One open they eyes of our fellow Jews and lead them back to Israel.

Yovel, the Jubilee year is different. Here not only do we require most Jews here, but we also require all the tribes to be represented in Israel, living on their tribal land. In other words, we haven't been able to keep the Yovel since the tribes on the East side of the Jordan River were decimated during the time of the First Temple. It is not totally clear from the Yerushalmi tractate Shvi'it (there is no Bavli on this mesechet) whether during Bayit Sheni, the Second Temple, Shmittah was d'orayta or d'rabbanan. We have always maintained the shmita count, escpecially since it has held financial implications over the generations (see below).

Accepting the majority opinion that shmita is d'rabbanan, a Rabbinic ordinance, allows us a certain flexibilty. With God's will we will not have this flexibilty in seven years time.

As an aside, there is another argument, Machloket (Torah Debate), as to whether a goy, a non-Jew, has the ability to cancel the kedusha, intrinsic holiness of Israel, the Holy Land. In other words, if a non-Jew legally owns or farms a piece of land, does his produce have the law, din of the holiness of Eretz Yisrael? An additional spin-off, is that produce during the other six years that is grown by Arabs, does not require trumot and ma'asrot to be tithed, though orla, the first three years of a tree, is still forbidden, as it also does outside of Israel.

If you accept that a goy can negate the holiness of the Land (in my opinion a terrifying thought, though most rabbis today hold it is so) and shemittah is only an ordinance from the Rabbis, then you have the theoretic ability to "sell" land to a non-Jew (much like hametz on Pesach) and the produce can be treated like any other produce during other years grown by a non-Jew. This solution was first used in the preState days and was enacted by Chief Rabbi Kook (Kuk). He enacted this because it was feared that a year of fallow would ruin the new agricultural sector in Israel. This would have been a major setback to the fledgling Jewish economy and its ability to become self-sufficient. There is a raging argument today on what Rav Kook would say today, but I believe this to be irrelevant to the argument.

Another factor to consider is what parts of Israel are considered Holy with respect to shmitta. The mishna states the borders, but of course this isn't altogther clear when translated onto our maps. It is generally agreed that produce from the southern Arava is outside the boundaries and may be consumed as if it is from Chutz la'Aretz, outside Israel.

Produce from the seventh year has a status of special holiness. This means that produce cannot be sent outside of Israel and must all be consumed, and consumed in the normal way. Anything that is not consumed cannot be thrown out while it is in an edible state. So leftovers must be left to "go off". This includes food that you do not want to eat, but others do eat (extreme example is orange peel which is used in the candy industry, though the average householder does not eat it). Produce is also "ownerless", or rather belongs to everyone. We can pick fruit from everyone's trees. If you pick a lot of stuff and you have some in your house, but there is none left in the fields, you have to declare it hefker, ownerless. Anyone (including you) can then take possession of it and it can now be used over any timeframe.

You are not allowed to carry out normal trade with seventh year fruit. It can't be weighed out for example when selling it -- in fact it can't really be sold, because it really belongs to the whole people. The landowner has no more claim on the fruit this year than I do ;-)

Vegatables planted before the onset of the Shemittah year (Rosh haShana) all have the halachic status of k'dushat shvi'it, like the fruit above. If it was planted after Rosh haShana it falls into the category of sfichim, things that grow on their own in the fields. This is a Rabbinic prohibition to prevent people planting and then saying it grew on it's own. And of course the problem doesn't disappear on Rosh haShana next year. We have to wait for produce that was planted in the new, eighth, year.

Most farmers do not want the entire people of Israel trampling through their orchards. There are also fruits that, if picked incorrectly, will not grow next year, as the pre-bud already exists on the tree -- apples are one example. To prevent this situation, the Rabbis introduced a system called Otzar Bet Din, the Court's Storehouse. The farmer passes over his orchard to the Beth Din who pays his expenses, and then they distribute the produce. Again the restictions on the sale apply: not selling at price determined by market forces (but by real expenses), weighing, wastage, end of season. You can only use the product for what it is normally used by most people. It is only in the last few years that you can prepare apple juice or stewed apples, compote, because apples were normally consumed raw. Now, as juice is commonplace, it is acceptable to juice or cook your apples -- halacha does change according to human behavior.

To sum it up there are 3 basic ways to eat this year (other than ignoring the whole thing).

  • Heter mechira, produce from a non Jew on (sold) Jewish Land.

  • Produce from a goy, in Israel (Arab) or from overseas. Or produce from Jewish farmers in the southern Arava (and some other areas). In essense these options are similar, but there is a great difference. I refuse to buy Arab produce because the Torah tells us that you must not provide a non-Jew with settlement in Israel.

    In the kitchen, those who have left over kedushat shvi'it, need to keep this in a form that does not degrade it. So when I eat "holy" carrots, if I peel them (I usually don't -- the peel is good for you), I put the peels in a receptacle for about a day and only throw them out when they begin to shrivel. Same with potato peels, orange skins, apple cores, left over veggies on my plate and lots more. Note that according the Hazon Ish, one may not depend on the sale of the Land. However he also held that the intrinsic holiness of the Land exists even if owned or farmed by a non-Jew. As such, in Bnei Brak, people do the above with Arab produce. In Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) they just throw Arab scraps out. None of this is necessary if the the vegetables come from Jewish farmers in the Arava or from Holland (whose onions I got this week and they were terrible -- so are the Chinese garlics I've been using -- yuck!!!.

    And don't forget this all applies to processed food (canned veggies, fruit flavor flavoured yoghurts with real pieces, juice, ketchup, tomato paste, wine, brandy, pickled olives, the onion in your herring, dog food -- just kidding, dogs are carnivores, but the situation I mentioned above about food left in the fields does apply to animals, in other words, if animals are still eating it, it is still considered food and you are still exempt from biur, giving it up.

  • Local (within the shmitta boundaries) produce by Otzar Bet Din or your own produce.


The general rule (as applies to orchardists too) is that you can do what needs to be done to preserve the tree, but not to encourage growth. So we can water but not prune nor spray pesticides (which we should not do the other 6 years either). If the tree is growing into your doorway, you can cut that branch off even though this may help growth; similarly if the tree is diseased and can be saved. We can water the grass (a bit less than normal years) and even mow it if it looks messy or will die, but no fertilizer etc. We don't plant anything. I continue to put scraps on the compost heap, but I won't be turning it over this year.


This is one law that applies everywhere and at all times, even outside. Any loans outstanding on the last day of the shmitah year are automatically annulled by Torah law. Again it is not certain this a Torah ordinance today, so since the days of Hillel we have what is called a pruzbul. This allows you to pass your loans over to the Beth Din for collection. Every Jew must do this or all debts may be cancelled.

P.S. I'm not sure what the Levite cities have to with the Shmita, but there are 3 cities of Refuge on the west side of the Jordan: Kedesh, Shechem and Hevron. We know where all of these are. The other 3 are on the other side of river outside out current jurisdiction. In addition there are another 42 cities (on both sides of the Jordan). I assume we know where most of them are (didn't check). One of the surest ways to know if a location is what we think it might be, is by "name retention". Place names are often preserved in an Arabic name which is a derivative of the original Hebrew. To round this off by going back to shmitta, the Mishna tells us that the southern (coastal) boundary was Ashkelon. There is no doubt that Ashqelon hasn't moved, but (our black-hatted bretheren who seem happy to buy Arab vegetables with money that is used to buy guns to shoot us -- and I imagine them too unless they think their money is an insurance policy) until the Gush Katif Expulsion, many people didn't want to consider Gush Katif, directly south of Ashqelon, as outside the boundary and thus covered by shmitta laws. Incredibly, they grew vegetables there in pots and one farmer I spoke to, Anita Tucker, said that her yield was so much higher than before, that she continued to grow her celery in off ground pots -- right up to the day she was thrown out of her house and green houses. The average yield there was way higher than the rest of the country.

There were 6 cities of refuge and 42 cities of the Levi'im. From Makkot we see that essentially these all served the same function. Interestingly there are 48 words in the parsha of Sh'ma, the first 6 being of prime significance re kavana. So here you also have 6 + 42 = 48.

Also of interest is that in Parshat V'etchanan, where Moshe allocates the three eastern cities of refuge, there is an implication of another three, further to the East.

Menachem Kuchar, 25th June, 2008    

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