Daily Israel Report

The "Public Treasury" Solution for Shemittah

Seven months until Shemittah: Trying to realize the twin objectives of a national Sabbatical and "the fruits shall be for you to eat."
By Hillel Fendel
First Publish: 2/26/2007, 11:10 AM

The upcoming Shemittah year - in which Biblical law mandates that the Land of Israel lie fallow and its Jewish-grown fruits, of special Shemittah sanctity, be free for all to eat - presents major challenges for Israel's economy.

---Second in a series. See also Upcoming Shemittah Year Generates Search for New Approaches

Slamming down the brakes on Israel's agricultural enterprise for an entire year is all but impossible, for several reasons. Chief among them is the fact that many Israeli farmers are not religiously observant and have little interest in adhering to the Shemittah laws. In addition, dropping out of the export markets for a year causes not only short-term difficulties, but losses in future years as well; for once a market is lost, it is very hard to regain.

This issue has occupied leading rabbis and agriculturalists ever since the modern national revival of the Jewish People in the Land of Israel began a century and a half ago. Two approaches have traditionally been implemented. One is the Heter Mechirah, which is a temporary sale of the land to non-Jews, thus exempting it from the Shemittah laws. This approach was generally accepted only by the religious-Zionist public, while the non-religious farmers went along with it as well. It was meant only as a temporary measure, but has become institutionalized, to the dismany of many.

The second approach, accepted largely by the hareidi-religious public, was to purchase produce only from Arabs or from importers, or to consume produce grown in outlying areas of the Land of Israel not bound by Shemittah laws. This method, however, strengthens the Arab share of the agricultural market not only during the Shemittah year, but in the following years as well.

In fact, in the last Shemittah, seven years ago, 50,000 dunams (some 12,500 acres) of new agricultural farms were developed in Jordan to meet the consumption needs of those who wished to buy non-Jewish produce. Rabbi Neriah Gutel of Orot College, who has written widely on the topic, writes that these farms continue even now to compete with Jewish farms in Israel!

The Public Treasury

A third approach to Shemittah that has been increasingly making inroads is the Otzar Beit Din, or Public Treasury. It is based, inter alia, on the idea that Shemittah fruits are forbidden to be sold, but not to be eaten, and in fact have a sanctity that renders their consumption extra meritorious. The poor must be able to share in the fruits equally. To this end, the harvesting and distribution, as well as the upkeep of the fields, are carried out not for commercial profit, but by a public body acting as the public's representative.

Most fundamental for proponents of the Otzar Beit Din solution is the need to "observe" the Shemittah - not circumvent it. Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, head of the Yeshivat Hesder in Petach Tikvah and a leading member of the Tzohar Rabbis Organization, writes, "Keeping the Shemittah year is an essential part of our settlement of the Land and of our existence here; without it, we are lacking a significant dimension of our lives."

Our attitude towards the Shemittah must be predicated on the following principles, Rabbi Cherlow writes:

      * Shemittah is not a problem that we must overcome, but is rather a sublime fundamental in the Torah of Israel that we are happy to fulfill.

      * The commandments of Shemittah apply to the entire nation of Israel, and we must act to find a public solution for the public nature of Shemittah - not just for our particular sector.

      * We must not deal with the challenges of Shemittah by neglecting other commandments, such as that of supporting our fellow farmers ("your brother shall subsist with you" - Lev. 25, 36), which is abandoned when we buy agricultural produce from foreign sources.

      * We must try to reduce our reliance on the Heter Mechirah, and not use it whenever other solutions are available.  

      * We must encourage and strengthen farmers who fulfill the Shemittah properly.

      * Eating the fruits of the Shemittah year is a positive Torah commandment, some feel, while others feel that it is merely very meritorious. The laws of maintaining their sanctity [such as not disposing of them in the trash or using them for other than their intended use] are not a reason to refrain from eating them, but rather the opposite. (In this connection, Rabbi Cherlow notes the error in kashrut labels that say, 'No fear of Orlah, Tevel or Sheviit (Shemittah)', in that Orlah and Tevel are forbidden to eat, while Shemittah fruits are not.)

The Otzar Beit Din solution is the best approach, Rabbi Cherlow explains, "enabling us to eat Shemittah fruits in their sanctity, and to carry out some agricultural works in a permitted manner, and also strengthens and encourages those kibbutzim and farms that keep the Shemittah to act in a manner that is permitted and rabbinically-supervised..."

(As Maimonides explains, the Torah's ban on harvesting during Shemittah is not an absolute one, for the fruits are clearly permitted to be eaten (Lev. 25,6). Rather, they are to be done in a non-commercial manner and differently than in other years.)

In short, Rabbi Cherlow concludes, by finding proper solutions such as the above, "we are walking the path of Torah, and the three [fundamental] principles converge: the fulfillment of Torah commandments in the Land of Israel, in accordance with the rulings of the Torah of Israel, and with concern for the totality of the Nation of Israel."

Specifically, according to the Otzar Beit Din solution, the farmer gives over his fruits to the communal treasury, which then distributes it - at a cost that will cover expenses, including renting the owner's equipment and more - to the town's consumers. The consumers will make sure to eat of these fruits as their first priority, thus making sure to return all expenses to the farmer and enabling him to live in dignity - just as his urban brother. "Thus is fulfilled the Torah's intention of fulfilling Shemittah properly, out of mutual responsibility and consideration," writes Ramat Gan Chief Rabbi Yaakov Ariel.

In Bnei Brak

Local Otzar Beit Din solutions have been implemented in the past in the largely hareidi-religious city of Bnei Brak, including one under the auspices of Rabbi Nissim Karelitz and a Sephardic one. "Just yesterday," a representative of Rabbi Karelitz told Arutz-7 today, "a group of farmers from the north came to us and said they would like to work with us this coming year in an Otzar Beit Din arrangement... Rabbi Karelitz is extra stringent in ensuring that the produce not be sold in the normal way - not in stores, and not by weight, etc. It's not easy for the farmers - to have the prices set for them, instead of determining them on their own, and the like." He agreed that one of the objectives of the rabbis of the Otzar Beit Din is to teach and encourage farmers to observe the Shemittah properly.

Chief Rabbinate

The Chief Rabbinate has appointed Rabbi Ze'ev Vitman to coordinate its Shemittah activities. The rabbi of Israel's semi-official dairy cooperative Tnuvah, Rabbi Vitman has written a book on the topic entitled "Public Shemittah," in which he describes how Shemittah can be observed in modern-day Israel. His assistant, Rabbi Alon Tennenbaum, explained to Arutz-7 that though Tnuvah will not be involved - it no longer markets fruits and vegetables on a large scale - the Rabbinate will help establish local Otzarei Beit Din around the country. "Of course, wherever possible we will use produce that were planted before Shemittah and the like," he emphasized, similar to others who are planning to implement an Otzar Beit Din solution.

Tennenbaum said that former Gush Katif farmers are already employed by the Chief Rabbinate to visit potential Otzar Beit Din farmers and help explain and oversee the process.

The Rabbinate has traditionally "sold" lands throughout the country in accordance with the Heter Mechirah. It has announced that this year, it will try to implement the Heter only where necessary and not automatically.

Thus, with the onset of the Shemittah only seven months from now, preparations are well underway for the best manner to fully realize the twin Shemittah objectives of "resting the Land for the L-rd" and "the fruits shall be for you to eat."