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A Comprehensive Guide For Shmita 5782

by | Sep 5, 2021 | 1 comment

The Source For Shmita:

There is a verse in the Torah reading of Bahar “For six years you may plant your fields, prune your vineyards, and harvest your crops, but the seventh year is a sabbath of sabbaths for the land. It is G-ds sabbath during which you may not plant your fields, nor prune your vineyards. Do not harvest crops that grow on their own and do not gather the grapes on your unpruned vines, since it is a year of rest for the land.” Vayikra 25:3,4 

This verse tells us four things we may not do in the seventh year. 

  • Do not plant
  • Do not prune grape vines specifically (as that encourages growth of grapes)
  • Do not harvest the produce. This is specifically a prohibition to appear as the owner of the land. This does not mean you cannot eat the produce, however you cannot sell it, nor can you stop anyone else from eating them.
  • Gathering the grapes on the unpruned vine is a specific type of horticulture that relates to grapes. 

When does shemita apply?

Prior to the prohibitions during shmita the Torah states “When you will come into the land”.(VaYikra 25:2). This was true in the time of the conquest by the twelve tribes until the destruction of the First Temple. Since then, and we will address specifically in our times, is it a Torah or Rabbinic obligation? The sages of the Talmud ask: Is the return of most of the Jewish people to Israel during the exile considered a ‘coming into the land’?. Most agree with Reb Yehuda HaNosi that until the final redemption keeping shmita is Rabbinic. However the Ramban (Nachmanidies) and a few others had the view that shmita even today is a Torah obligation. 

To whom does shmita apply?

Another question is if I cannot harvest my land, can someone else  who is not Jewish harvest it- or is the land itself not allowed to be harvested? This is what the ensuing discussions focus on. Is the shmita today Rabbinic or Torah obligated? Is the land and produce holy and therefore cannot be harvested even by a non-Jew? Is it forbidden for a Jew to harvest the produce but a non-Jew may acquire the land and harvest it?  If a non-Jew is permitted to harvest the produce may a Jew eat the produce?

Rabbinic laws pertaining to shmita: sources can be found in Talmud.

Weeding to make the tree grow is a Rabbinic prohibition as it is an agricultural accomplishment, as are mowing the field or fertilizing. These are not Torah mandated but Rabbinical. As these actions are not in the spirit of shmita, they are not allowed.

  

The question may be asked:  “If there will be a great financial loss is it possible that these Rabbinic prohibitions can be waived.?”

 

What constitutes a financial loss? For example, according to the Rabbinical law, just like you may not weed or fertilize the soil you may not water it. However, if the tree will die if it is not  watered, or the weeds will choke the plant, then you are allowed to water it enough that it will not die. Likewise you may weed it enough so that the tree will not be choked

A home garden can be watered so that it won’t die. Not so that it will flourish, and one is certainly not allowed to plant or replant flowers in it.  Just enough not to die. Not more than that. Neither out of door or in the house plants may be repotted during shmita. 

Someone asked the Chazon Ish “Why was the Chazon Ish so strict about the laws of shmita, if shmita is  considered ‘only’ a Rabbinical prohibition and not a Torah obligation according to most of the Rishonim (Rabbis from the early period of the Talmud).” The Chazon Ish replied that eating meat and milk is also “only” a Rabbinic  prohibition, as is salting meat before eating it. The Chazon Ish rattled off a whole list of Rabbinic prohibitions that are the essence of Judaism. It’s our tradition! These Rabbinic laws are quite important and we follow them carefully. The Chazon Ish pointed out the Rabbis’ prohibitions regarding shmita is very serious. He even said that on shmita one doesn’t say that if there is a question wether it is a rabbinic prohibition, you can take it lightly; for the prohibitions and permitted acts regarding shmita are very serious,  a serious Rabbinical mandate just like eating meat and milk is a Rabbinical mandate. One who does not follow the Rabbinic mandates regarding shmita is like a Tzudiki, a cult which did not accept the Oral Torah. 

Eating produce properly grown during shmita:

I am mentioning the following because i think this is very important, and in fact, may be a misnomer: There is no prohibition to eat fruit that grows during shmita in fields that kept shmita correctly. Let me emphasize – that fruit can be eaten. It says so in the Torah: “And the [produce of] the Sabbath of the land shall be yours to eat: for you, for your male and female slaves, and for your hired worker and resident who live with you. And all of its produce may be eaten [also] by your domestic animals and by the beasts that are in your land.” (VaYikra 25:6,7).

You should eat, and your servants, everyone who lives with you. According to the  Ramban (Nachmanodies) it is a mitzva to eat the fruit of shmita, he commented that people would wait a lifetime for the opportunity to fulfill this mitzva. He further states that  it is  holy fruit, a mitzva to eat it, and called this produce ‘fruit of Gan Eden’.  The Rambam (Maimonides), on the other hand, states that while he does not believe  it is a special mitzva to eat the fruits of shmita, you can certainly eat it. 

How can holiness apply to food?

There are three typical kinds of holiness 

  • Hekdesh; a food (or any other item) put aside for a holy purpose
  • Kedusha; the food needs to be eaten in Jerusalem 
  • Tahara; the person eating the food must be in a state of ritual purity

There are also other aspects of holiness which apply to the item itself. While no tahara (ritual purity) is necessary to eat it, but the food itself is holy, kodesh. It may be a mitzva to eat this type of food. This applies to the produce of the shmita year. This mitzva is similar to the mitzva of beautifying the Temple. One cannot treat the food of shmita disrespectfully. 

In practice this means that while you can eat whatever you would like of shmita produce, after taking the appropriate tithes, there are then other aspects of holiness which apply to the item itself. One cannot treat the food disrespectfully. How is a shmita leftover disposed of? Treat it like shaimos. While you can just wrap it in a plastic bag to toss it (think of the pit of a nectarine or the peel of a potato) in a rubbish bin, many have a special bin for shmita rubbish. In order to differentiate between regular rubbish and the shmita rubbish, the shmita peelings, leftover salad, etc. are  put it in a special (usually small) bin, some use a compost type bin – and you try to wait (as a chumrah) until it begins to rot. At that point, you would then throw it out in its own plastic bag separate from other garbage.

Once again, It is good and, according to Ramban even a mitzva, to eat kedushas shvi’is  food that has the holiness of the seventh year. 

How does one eat kedushas shvi’is? There is an organization called Otzar Ha’aretz which arranges for permitted harvest and transport of produce from shmita observant fields, as well as  Otzar Beit Din, and others, but first and foremost do not be afraid to eat kedushas shvi’is. 

The significance of Tu bAv in shmita:

The day before the 15th of Av is the last day to plant a fruit tree. This is because it takes two weeks for the tree to root. Then in Elul it becomes a tree to that year. ( We learn this from the laws of ‘orla’ regarding the prohibition of eating fruit from a tree during the first 3 years. When do the three years begin?) A non fruit tree can be planted until 15 Elul. This gives the tree 2 weeks to establish itself.  If the tree has  got a root ball, that ball around the roots is equivalent to two weeks growth, and you’re able to plant it until Rosh Chodesh Elul for fruit trees, and until Rosh HaShana for non fruit. 

Hefker – ownerless

Produce during shmita is ownerless, hefker. Anyone can come take it. How does it become ownerless? There are several ways to make something ownerless. One is by announcing that you have given up ownership of a field, and it is now ownerless. Another way is that Gd has made the fields ownerless every seven years, wether you announce so or not. We follow the guidelines of the Rambam, who says that both must be done – true, Gd makes it ownerless, however the owner also has to stand in his field and announce that it is ownerless. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein explains that Gd has made it ownerless, and the owner needs to announce that Gd has made it ownerless. 

If someone does not do this, actually announce that it is ownerless, we do not go into his fields and take produce, even though Gd has made it ownerless. This is the halite. 

Accesibility:

How does one make his field accessible to others? The laws of shmita apply to vegetables from Rosh HaShana onward. They apply to fruits from the second half of the year. If you have a  fruit tree(s) or vegetable gardens you have to leave the gate unlocked to your garden. If you must lock your gate for security then put up a sign that it is hefker, but to access the produce  call this number and you will be let in, or given access. According to Halacha if a garden gate is locked, and you cannot get in then you are allowed to break the gate to get in, and are not responsible for the damages. There is a story in the Talmud about Rabi Tarfon doing this. (It was actually his own field that someone else had locked). However the Chazon Ish and Rav Kook said that nowadays one asks permission before going into someone’s property (for a variety of halachic reasons.)

If you have a vegetable garden and fruit trees then you must let people in. Vegetables all year, fruit according to when it is shmita year fruit.

Sfichim – shelf seeding produce

If something has been planted or harvested during the year of shmita it is prohibited to eat it. The Rambam noted that even if it was self seeding; all ‘sfichim’ are prohibited. These are spontaneous, they grew by themselves. For example, some wind blew some tomato seeds and a tomato bush grew up suddenly near a rose bush. These are not allowed to be eaten during the year of shmita. Why? Because of those who want to violate the laws of shmita, and they will plant all sorts of things in the middle of the night, in secret – and they will say “OH MY! Look what I found that just sprouted over here!” Because of that all these sorts of things are prohibited. Fruit does not fall into this category – things like beans, wheat and other grains, tomato and other vegetables. Things that will take root and grow quickly. They are not allowed to be eaten even in the eighth year. Fruit does not produce fruit so quickly, on a tree. Something like a strawberry would fall under sefichim.

There will be charts available during the shmita year from various organizations which clearly indicate which produce is permitted, and when. 

Why are sefichim prohibited and what constitutes a sefach?

Even though we can eat fruit and vegetables from fields that are observing shmita there is a special prohibition against sefichim – self seeding produce planted without intention. They are prohibited because of those who will surreptitiously plant and say they are just sefichim. However, if they grew even a little bit during the sixth year, it can be eaten. The law of sefach concerns itself with wether the produce  has already sprouted before Rosh HaShana. If it sprouted before Rosh HaShana of the shmita year,  then it is not a sefach from shmita and it is permitted. This includes the plants that are close to it. 

How does one know what is a little bit and what is too little? The Chazon Ish himself went to Kibbutz Chofetz Chaim to locate sefichim plants before Rosh Hashana, and wherever he saw a bit of green, he permitted the whole field. The yishuvim of Yesodot and Komemiyut took that path in deciding the Halacha of what is considered as having sprouted from the sixth year and therefore permitted, and what is considered sprouting in the seventh year and prohibited.

Rav Kook is much more stringent in this area of deciding what is sixth year and what is seventh year, as he made the halachic decision that the plant has to not only have sprouted but be well developed. It is interesting to note that aside from his much publicized halachic decision on permitting the sale of the land, Rav Kook’s approach to implementing the laws of shmita are much more strict than the way that the Chazon Ish implemented the laws of shmita. 

Inside the home:

Can one plant inside the house? In one place the Torah states the earth should rest, and in another the Torah states that says one must not sow your field.  The immediate thought regarding houseplants is that since shmita today emanates from the rabbinic prohibition, houseplant care  is allowed. However, the Chazon Ish is not sure, so he is predisposed to be stringent in this matter.

We rule that if you have a plant in a pot with a small hole in it, it is not allowed to be watered, pruned or repotted, even if the hole is minuscule. On the other hand if you have a non ceramic, non porous container, that does not have any hole on the bottom, one can use it to keep a plant in it’s normal fashion, even during shmita.  

This applies to the greenhouses as well – there is no dirt there altogether, and if there is a little bit, it is detached from the ground. 

The Chazon Ish has a path in his halachic decisions throughout the laws of the seventh /shmita year and his path is firmly set in the vision that we are not lenient about the Rabbinic laws of shmita. Even though in other areas of Jewish Law we are lenient on the Rabbinic view. The 

Chazon Ish, as explained earlier, felt that just as the laws of not eating meat and milk together as well as the laws of Kashrus, are not strictly Torah, but many of the laws are from the Rabbis and we are not lenient there, so too we are not to be lenient in the laws of shmita as ordained by the Rabbis. 

To sum this up. A potted plant in a plastic or other non porous container which does not have a (drainage) hole in the bottom (no matter how minuscule the hole) may be used, watered and cared for during shmita. It is not considered as included in those plants that are growing in the land, or earth. If the vessel is porous, ceramic, for example, then even if there is no hole on the bottom, it is considered as part of the shmita prohibition and you can only do those things on it which need to be done in order to prevent it from dying. 

Ploughing a field:

This involves preparing the earth for planting a seed or sapling in the ground. The idea is to turn the soil over and prepare the earth. This can be done with a plow, a tractor, by a man or animal, or even done just by yourself in your garden with your finger, even not a trowel. Is this allowed on shmita? On Shabbos this is a prohibited act of ‘ploughing’. In the Torah we are told that on the seventh day you must rest, and you cannot plough. This is a complicated discussion in the Talmud. Is this verse referring only to Shabbos or also to shmita?As in the laws of shmita it doesn’t say in the Torah not to plough on shmita,  the Rambam says that it is a Rabbinic prohibition. What type of ploughing is prohibited by the Rabbis? If you want to turn over the soil for the garden to look nicer, not because you are planting anything, that is allowed. But if you put a seed or sapling in there, it is prohibited.  How do we apply this, as it is not specifically delineated in the verse regarding shmita? Regarding shmita the Torah refers to planting, and since ploughing is an intrinsic part of planting, it is referenced in the Torah. There are various commentaries who have interpreted and explained the verses to clarify this matter. Please listen to the original lesson or ask Rav Haber for those sources.

Non fruit bearing trees: shade, decorative, fences: 

Regarding ornamental trees and bushes, the halacha is not clear from the verse. There is no harvest in regards to these types of vegetation, but if the land has to rest, how can we plant anything? In the Talmud Yerushalayim Rabi Shimon ben Gamliel said one can plant a fruitless tree on shmita. The Rambam clearly rules that planting a fruitless tree is not allowed. The answer to this conundrum is that Rabi Shimon ben Gamliel’s statement was an exception to what the other Rabbis at the time said. However, one is allowed to ‘harvest’ the branches of the fruitless trees, for example for schach on Sukkos. In fact, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ruled that a lulav, can be harvested from a fruitless tree (a palm as opposed to a date palm) during shmita.

Forgiveness of debts during shmita:

There is shmita that applies to monies. During shmita, any loan that anyone owes you, at the onset of shmita year you must not ask for the return of those monies. This is part of shmita. The simple meaning is that there are three mitzvos involved: 

  • Forgive the loan. 
  • You cannot demand repayment. 
  • You cannot refrain from lending someone money because you will not be able to ask for it to be returned. 

You are to cease and desist from calling in loans -you must actually forgive all of them, and six months before shmita you are not allowed to stop lending money only because shmita is approaching.

This is a part of shmita that refers to money – there is a whole section of the Shulchan Aruch that deals with it. It is to be asked: is this a matter of you forgiving the loan or of Gd prohibiting you from collecting the loan? The example given is one who loans money to someone, and as shmita arrives, he forgives the loan. The one who borrowed the money approaches the lender during shmita and says I want to repay the loan. The lender says no need, I have forgiven the loan, I wrote it off. However the borrower insists that he wants to pay him even though he is not halachically obligated – in that case the one who forgave the loan is allowed to accept the money and the one who borrowed is allowed to give hm the money. And this is, indeed, the way two Jews should do business with each other. 

Money loaned before shmita:      

The law of shmita of money is such that if someone owes money that was loaned  before shmita, when they come to repay during shmita the lender is supposed to say: ‘meshamait ani’ or ‘I am keeping shmita’. Once that is said, the borrower is free of the obligation to repay the loan forever. If the lender insists that he wants to repay the loan, he is allowed to repay it, the lender may accept it that is fine 100%. However, if the borrower does not pay the loan back, he is within his legal rights the lender is required to say ‘meshamait aniI am keeping shmita. 

(In the future we discuss ways of loaning money so that it can be repaid). 

How does that work? The borrower does not have to repay the lender. Is this one of the laws of shmita, that the lender takes the financial loss of the loan? Most of the halachic decisors agree with this – it is a case whereby Gd Himself took away that money from you.  Why then does the lender have to say ‘I am keeping shmita’ when it is a decree from Gd that I should lose this money? (In other words, Gd forced me into not collecting this loan.) Most maintain that even though it is a decree from Gd, it is still a mitzva to say ‘meshamait ani  I am keeping shmita.

There are, however those who maintain that while the lender has a mitzva to forgive the loan, if he does not say ‘meshamait ani’, he is not forgiving the loan and it needs to be paid back. Then it gets complicated. According to some, as discussed in the Shulchan Aruch, If it was money he was not supposed to collect, the lender who collected the loan during a shmita year is considered a thief(!)  In a case where the lender passes away after he has insisted the loan be repaid during shmita, the borrower can actually approach the inheritors and demand the money back, for it was paid back during shmita which is considered thievery. This is an important principal to bear in mind.

There is a mitzva here to forgive the loan by clearly stating ‘I am keeping shmita’ ‘meshamait ani’. Does this change to whom the money belongs? Can the mitzva change wether the money belongs to the lender or the borrower; to the one who makes the pledge or the one whom it was pledged to. It is similar to making a pledge to tzedaka. Is this mitzva something spiritual as in if I don’t pay my pledge, that’s a business decision or is the mitzva actually an obligation to pay the money – so that the money is actually no longer mine, but belongs to the charity, or in our case it belongs to the person who borrowed it and if the lender collects the loan he is stealing from the borrower. 

The Torah can actually take it out of your ownership, similar to chometz on Pesach. 

Now, one is allowed to say ‘meshamait ani’ while putting out your hand (to be repaid). The Babylonian Talmud maintains the lender can even put a lot of pressure on the borrower. The Yerushalayim Talmud says that is unconscionable. The lender can say that he/she is in difficult financial straits, so if the borrower can pay it back a bit at a time etc. but not more than that.

Pruzbol:

“At the end of seven years do shmita,” Devarim 15:1: It seems according to the simple reading of the verse that if one lends someone money before shmita he cannot collect it on shmita, but it would seem this applies to the end of the seventh year specifically. The shmita of money is only at the end. However the poskim rishonim (early halachic decisors) point out that this is not exactly correct. The prohibition of collecting the debt applies throughout the entire shmita year. And so is the rendering of halacha. 

This brings us to the innovation of making a ‘pruzbol’. A pruzbol is a legal instrument that allows a lender to collect debts even during and after shmita. It was an innovation of the Talmudic sage Hillel, in order that people would continue to loan money without fear of losing it due to shmita. Making a pruzbol before the Rosh HaShana preceding shmita is a stringency that it is advisable to accept. Without this pruzbol one cannot demand repayment of monies. 

What happens if a loan is made for ten years. The loan is made 5 years into the seven year shmita cycle. Would shmita annul the loan? There is a disagreement as to wether the shmita removes the obligation to repay the loan or if  shmita removes the ability of the lender to demand repayment. If the money is not owed during shmita then shmita does not affect the loan – it is still due when it is due, wether it is the 8th, 9th or tenth year after shmita.     

Community Loans:

As we have learned, shmita abolishes a debt which can be repaid but cannot be actively collected.  This is applicable only to a person borrowing money from another person.  This does not apply to an invoice for merchandise. However, if the invoice has a clause that accrues interest if it is not paid in a timely fashion, this can easily turn the business transaction into a loan according to Halacha. This can be true in a standing monthly account at the grocers as well. Care must be taken in these cases and a question asked to a qualified posek. Something that is not a loan is a pledge. Therefore if you made a pledge to charity, shmita does not abolish the pledge. A pledge to charity is given to the Beis Din to collect, and that makes it applicable during shmita. A communal gemach, free loan fund, does not need a pruzbol and may be collected on the same premise as a pledge. It is not a personal loan, but a community loan. 

Bank Loans:

Do banks need a pruzbol? The contemporary poskim ask how shmita affects banks. If you owe money to the bank, or the bank owes you money – is a pruzbol needed. The Torah states “…that which he lent to his neighbor; he shall not approach[them, demanding] it of his neighbor and his brother.” Devarim 15:1 “you must keep shmita.” The question presents itself: is the bank your brother or friend? This question brings the discussion of corporations and loans into the realm of halacha. 

If there is a corporation, according to most halachic decisors you do not need a pruzbol. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef disagreed, and insisted that all Israeli banks must make a pruzbol.

The halachic standing of a corporation as a discussion in Jewish Law began with the Rogatchover in Dvinsk, (mid 1800’s) on to the halachic decisors in our generation, Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Elyashuv who differed from Rav Ovadia Yosef and ruled that a corporation or a bank is not ‘your brother’ and does not need a pruzbol. 

Women forgiving a debt in shmita:

Since shmita is a positive commandment contingent on time, it would seem women are not obligated to keep it as regarding their own personal debts.  The Rambam says clearly women must observer the shmita of money, just as men do. There is also a negative commandment attached to it, which creates it a situation that a woman is obligated. Rav Akiva Eiger says that a negative and positive aspect of a mitzva requires a women to observe that mitzva only applies if the Talmud specifically references that mitzva such as it does with Shabbos. Rav Eiger then points out that a positive mitzva that requires initiative (rise and do) such as tefillin or tefilla is something that a women is not obligated in. However a positive mitzva that requires no action, a passive mitzva (sit and do nothing), such as shmita, women are required to keep. Therefore women are required to observe the passive mitzva of shmita in regard to money. She can be participatory in her husbands observance of this shmita with their joint monies. However, if she has her own monies and her own accounts with lending etc. then she also has to make a pruzbol separate from that of her husband.

The mechanism of pruzbol ( Monday 8 Elul):

If i lend someone money i cannot demand the money to be repaid during shmita. The Torah then warns us not to stop lending money because of this inability to recoup the loan during shmita. Indeed, this occcured historically. The money lenders and individual people stopped lending out money. Hillel created the pruzbol document which allows one to demand the money back during shmita even though it is a personal loan. This seems to go directly against the Torah. How is this possible? Rava says when it comes to money we find many times one does not say you have to keep it to the letter, but you can make a social contract where everything belongs to the community, via the Beis Din. It is a societal change. Abaya says this is only allowed by Hillel because shmita is only a rabbinc prohibition. The Rambam agrees with Rava, the Ra’avid agrees with Abaya.  In the actual law of Hillel, he doesn’t indicate it is a temporary measure (which would lean towards Rava). 

At this point in time, as we possibly have most of the Jews in the world living in the land of Israel, there are those who are stringent not to collect a debt during shmita. (Particularly students of the Chazon Ish). 

What is a pruzbol?

 The Talmud in Gittin 37 says it is a takana, a rabbinical injunction for the benefit of both the rich and the poor. The rich will be able to be repaid while the poor will be able to borrow. 

By Rabbi Yaacov Haber

Rabbi Yaacov Haber has been a leading force in Jewish community and Jewish education for over forty years. He lived and taught in the United States, Australia and in Israel. He is presently the Rav of Kehillas Shivtei Yeshurun, a vibrant community in the center of Ramat Bet Shemesh, Israel, and serves as the Rabbinic guide to many of its wonderful organisations.

1 Comment

  1. Jordan Pollack

    Rabbi Haber, Can you please elaborate on why tomatoes are considered sefichim and as best as I can see are prohibited from Rosh Hashana at the beginning of Shemitta. If I go into any garden store and buy tomatoe seeds it will say on the package that itwill take 60-90 days before I get mature fruit. So if the reason that sefichim are prohibited is to avoid someone claiming that the plant grew on its own and was not planted by a person, how does this apply to tomatoes at the beginning of the year? Even if the person had planted them at the beginning of the year, it is not possible to get a fruit before say Chanukah. So is the tomatoe a case of a Lo Plug and we just say that all vegetables, no matter how they grow are assur from the time of lekitah or is there a basis for permitting vegetables like tomatoes and cucumbers that grow from seed and take a few months to grow, to be eaten at the beginning of shemittah?

    Reply

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