Mo’ah kemo Efro’ah has been nudging me to do a post on shopping during shmitta. So on my last trip to the “shmitta store” catering to the religious public, I brought my camera. I can’t possibly explain all of the political, religious, economic, and practical implications of this mitzvah; check out ADDerabbi or Rafi for more posts on the subject. Oh, and say Mazal tov to Rafi and his wife on the birth of baby #7.
Don’t feel bad if you don’t understand. You are not alone.
I’ll take a stab at it anyway.
During the seventh year, the Torah requires the land and people of Israel to rest. Any produce that grows without cultivation (most fruit, or vegetables planted during the sixth year and harvested during the seventh) is (theoretically) shared among everyone and has a special status (kedushat sheviit, literally sabbatical holiness). This produce can be collected and distributed through a mechanism known as otzar bet din. The products of cultivation during the seventh year may not be eaten.
The rabbis have devised several ways to prevent hardship during shmitta. The only solution sanctioned by the haredi rabbinic leadership is to import produce from outside the country or from non-Jewish farms within Israel. Religious Zionist rabbis allow a fictional sale of the land, (similar to the selling of chametz, leavened bread, before Passover). But if the Israeli rabbinate were to prohibit farming altogether, not only would farms lose income for the current year, but those dependent on overseas markets would risk losing their customer base permanently. Also, buying vegetables from Gaza, for example, might end up funding terror activities.
Many religious Zionists do not want to rely on this sale, known as heter mechirah (HM), for philosophical reasons, because it involves “selling” holy land. Our rabbi emphasized that the sale is valid in any case; if heter mechirah is indeed prohibited, the farmer, not the customer, is in violation.
Two sabbatical cycles ago (5761, or 2001), the government gave a kashrut certificate to any store or hall that relied on the HM. If a business wished, it could get more stringent supervision. But in 5768 (2008), the rabbinate in some cities, with the support of the Israeli rabbinate, decided they wouldn’t give supervision to any business relying on HM. The result is that many stores won’t bother to get kashruth supervision at all and the general public won’t observe this important mitzvah.
Last shmittah the religious Zionists banded together and promoted an organization called Otzar Haaretz (treasure of the land). Otzar Haaretz supervises and distributes HM and other permissible seventh year produce. If you join, you contribute NIS 50 per month, entitling you to a voucher for that amount to redeem at a store selling Otzar Haaretz produce. We also get a voucher for an extra “benefit.” This month it was one and a half kilograms of eggplant. I hope to have a monthly cooking feature on the topic, but I am already a month behind! I wonder what we will get this month. . . In my city of Petach Tikva, the rabbinate worked out some kind of bizarre compromise to allow sales of heter mechirah produce. The kashruth certificate above is from the organization that supervises HM produce and “otzar beth din” (see above). The certificate reads:
PERMIT The fruits and vegetables in this store are under the supervision of Rabbi Yaakov Ariel and Rabbi Dov Lior [from the religious Zionist community: MiI], the instruction and supervision are through the rabbis of “Machon Torah Vehaaretz.” The fruits and vegetables with “kedushat sheviit” (sabbatical holiness) must be treated according to instructions available at the store. This permit is in effect from Tishrei 5768 until Tevet 5768 (fall through winter months). The permit may not be copied and is the property of Machon Hatorah Vehaaretz.
I hereby inform you that even though you (the store owners) purchase fruits and vegetables in the town’s wholesale market where all the vegetables are HM and tithed according to strict Jewish law, and with no question of “Orla” (prohibited fruit from a tree less than four years old), [this is in addition to the vegetables of “Otzar Haaretz” (see certificate above) that are from the Otzar Beit Din, and as such must be treated with kedushat shviit (see above)] I am sorry that because of the local rabbinate’s policy not to give a certificate to businesses which sell HM vegetables, the management [lit. anshei haminhalah] may not issue a kashrut certificate for 5768, the sabbatical year. Signed, Rabbi of the western part of the city. CC: The local chief rabbi
In other words: It’s kosher, but we can’t say so officially.
I enjoyed shopping in the large store, where signs marked the status and price of each item. Outside, the produce was reasonably cheap. Monster sweet potatoes cost NIS 2.49/kg. The sign notes “shishit,” (sixth) meaning they were harvested before Rosh Hashana, in the sixth year of the sabbatical cycle (5767). Other signs said “sheviit” (seventh) or “heter mechirah.”
The HM produce was significantly cheaper than the otzar bet din/Otzar Haaretz/sheviit salad vegetables inside the store. Peppers were a whopping NIS 8 per kg., compared to 2.49. Odd because we were not supposed to be paying for the actual produce, only the overhead.
Fruit picked during the first part of the sabbatical year is sixth-year produce, because what counts is when the trees blossomed. Vegetables gain status according to when they are picked. So far we have been buying fruit and some vegetables such as potatoes, which aren’t harvested this time of year anyway, at the shuk (open-air market). I bought some fruit at the shmitta store, because my husband the shuk-shopper was out of the country. I found a bargain table where I picked up some delicious peaches and misshapen cucumbers.
My biggest disappointment was taking home the measly, bug-free celery that cost about a shekel a stalk and discovering a label reading yevul nochrim (non-Jewish produce; a code word for imported). I thought the whole point of Otzar Haaretz was to avoid importing. And who needs bug-free celery that is so old that they had to cut off the leaves? Yuck.
The grocer wanted me to show a picture of his delicious melons, which came from Kibbutz Ein Yahav in the Arava. They are grown by Israelis, but because the Arava is not part of biblical Israel, shmitta laws don’t apply. If you have been following closely you might be asking why melons are a problem since we said that fruit picked during the seventh year is not a problem. But melons are annuals that must be replanted each year; according to Jewish law, fruits are perennials which grow on trees. That’s why the blessing on melons is the same as for vegetables.
I seem to have gotten to the end of this incredibly long post, appropriate for shmittah because a) this Jewish leap year contains an extra month and b) fruit will be more of an issue in 5759. It will be a long time before we can go back to worrying about simple things like tithes, orlah, bugs, and what to cook for dinner.