A Trip to the Shmitta Store

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.

Under pressure, the local chief rabbi authorized another local rabbi to supervise HM produce. The letter, on plain paper, reads:

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.


  1. BTW-Just linked to some of your past posts. The produce looks beautiful btw, especially the melons.

  2. Thank you. I’ve been struggling to really understand this. I’ve tried doing research, but I’m just lost. Your post, however, I understand. Thank you.

  3. Regular Anonymous says

    Finding an acceptable plan for shmita which will provide enough food for everybody in the country is one of the major halachic challenges facing Israeli rabbinic authorities and the religious community in general.
    IMHO, it’s not enough to find piecemeal solutions for people who care. It’s a national issue. Otzar Haaretz is on the right track, but I understand that they will run out of by produce by February or so.
    I also don’t understand how the prices went up and quality went down literally overnight.
    Maybe we should just eat candy for the next year or two.

  4. mominisrael says

    Thanks SL for the compliment and links.
    Reiza–thank you! I tried.
    RA–Long before February, the only choices for fresh vegetables will be foreign produce or HM. I think that this issue really polarizes the Orthodox community, and this year it seems worse than usual.

  5. mominisrael says

    JJ–according to ancient sources shmita was kept only sporadically during temple times.
    Rafi–thank you for the link.

  6. Jerusalem Joe says

    Thanks. That was definitely enlightening.
    Do you know how the farmers in olden times overcame this? How did they not starve too?

  7. great job moi. I am very impressed by the quality and amount it looks like they carry from the picture you took. By us it is a very small selection…

  8. We joined Otzar Beit Din back when they advertised but it turns out the nearest store out of town – 30 minutes away so we’ll not be buying any at all (unless we happen to be there, which is unusual)
    We’re just glad our rabbanut is allowing HM with a hecksher without problems. For once, the politics that put the Sephardi Rav Ha’Ir in charge of Kashrut and keeps the charedit ashkenazi out of it is playing into our hands. Though ‘terrorist veggies’ (as a friend nicknamed them for the gaza, etc imports) are available if you know who to ask.
    Though up here in the north we often get arab produce anyway from local farmers…..

  9. Great post! I am still confused, but the pictures were pretty! LOL!

  10. The year I studied in Israel was a shmitta year. I remember feeling very anxious about being certain the food I purchased was okay. In Yeshuralayim, the produce with all the hechsherim did not call for being handled with kedushas sheviis, so I didn’t have to specially handle peels and so on.

  11. one clarification: otzar haaretz does not rely on heter mechira. it basically pulls together everything which is not arab produce or HM into one place.

  12. incorrect adderabbi. While Otzar Haaretz prefers not to use hetter mechira, they have clearly stated that there would be times they would need to use hetter mechira produce, as there would beshortfalls in other sources. They woud clearly mark such produce as hetter mechira, but ti is acceptable as a solution to Otzar Ha’aretz.
    Another point I should make is that the hetter mechira used by Otzar Ha’Aretz is not the general hetter mechira performed by the State of Israel. Rather they did their own private mechiras on private lands of farmers. That might be better than the general HM because there is more gmiras da’as. Even if you scoff at the general one saying it si not serious (I am not saying that, but even if someone would), a private one is more serious and might be more halachicaly viable even to someone who normally rejects HM…

  13. here is one example from the otzar haaretz website about hetter mechira, that there are certain situations in which it would be used…

  14. mominisrael says

    It’s not clear to me whether the HM produce in this store was under the supervision of Otzar Haaretz. I was told that the produce inside the store was OH, and outside was HM. I’m trying to recall whether anything inside was also marked HM.

  15. Mo'ah Kemo Efro'ah says

    what’s a sidebar link from me when you get haskamot in posts by jameel and rafi?

  16. mominisrael says

    LOL. I don’t think they’ll do the sidebar thing. I did get a detailed email list of corrections/clarifications from a different blogger.

  17. What great timing! We’re coming to Israel on Monday for two weeks and staying, for the first time, in an apartment. this information is a big help on how to survive and what’s appropriate. I assume Jerusalem also has such markets….

  18. mominisrael says

    FFF, it sounds like you are confusing Otzar Haaretz and otzar Beit Din. OBD is a halachic concept, and you describe it accurately. Otzar Haaretz is an organization to distribute produce during shmitta. They rely on OBD but not only. THere are a limited amount of vegetables through OBD. Otzar haaretz will also distribute produce grown off the ground in greenhouses (matza menutak–matza is spelled with an ayin and not to be confused with unleavened bread), and possibly heter mechira. They prefer not to use HM, but they will use that if the only other option is produce from outside Israel.

  19. mominisrael says

    PS. Rafi’s comment above also helps clarify this issue.

  20. Well I thought I had understood this whole shmitta thing but now I am more confused.
    I was also under the impression that Otzar beit din was NOT using HM. Perhaps I got it ALL WRONG but I was under the impression that the produce from OBD was supposed to be that which grew from BEFORE SHMITTA, that the planting process was done and that now the only problem would be the harvesting. And that they way it works is that we as a community would pay for the harvesting and the distribution, but not for the produce itself, and therefore it could not be sold by exact weight but only by approximation.

  21. About your Yivul Nochri –
    As far as iheard the Haslat people rented land in Jordan and send people from here to grow produce in greenhoses there.

  22. mominisrael says

    Thanks hh.