Sabbatical potatoes

(Contemporary shmitah observance; March 2008)

Readers of Torah Flora may be aware that the current Hebrew year is a “shmitah,” or sabbatical year. The significance of the shmitah year is described in Leviticus 25:1-7. Briefly, shmitah is the last year of a seven-year cycle. During this year, agricultural operations such as planting and systematic harvesting on Jewish-owned land in Israel are suspended, and the land and its produce are considered temporarily ownerless: Custody of the land of Israel reverts, so to speak, to God. Because no one can claim ownership of any produce that grows spontaneously during this year, it is free to all for the taking. (field operations that ar necessary, for example, for the sake of soil conservation, rather than for crop production, are permitted.)

Observance of the laws of shmitah under modern conditions raises several difficult problems, for which various creative solutions have been found. As increasing numbers of Jews returned to farming the land of Israel in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the problem of feeding the growing population during and after the shmitah year became increasingly pressing. In 1889, Israeli rabbinical authorities began to arrange for the temporary sale of Jewish-owned farmland to non-Jews. Under the terms of the sale, the land, now owned by non-Jews, is exempt from the laws of shmitah, and may be worked as usual. At the end of the year, the original owner then buys the land back, in an arrangement similar to the temporary sale of leavened or potentially leavened foods (chametz) to prevent Jewish ownership of these items during Passover. Other solutions have been developed as well. The essential point of the Biblical verses that describe the commandment of shmitah seems to be to suspend cultivation of the land of Israel, rather than agriculture per se. Therefore, some rabbinic authorities have permitted the growing of vegetables in pots, greenhouses, or liquid hydroponic tanks during the shmitah year, so that the crop does not grow directly from the ground.

If current demographic trends continue, the majority of the Jewish people will be living in Israel within a few years. When that happens, several halakhic requirements will become stricter, making the temporary sale of Israeli land during shmitah increasingly problematic. In addition, some people have questioned the propriety of a system in which the Jewish people observe a Biblical commandment by selling their stake in the land of Israel. As a result of these concerns, another approach to shmitah observance has gained increasing popularity. This approach is based on the principle that any Israeli Jewish framer who wants to consume his own shmitah produce must first publicly offer it free of charge to anyone who wishes to partake of it.

Thus, the farmer must respect the fact that his land has reverted to its Divine owner for the year, and therefore, he has no more right than anyone else to its produce. On the basis of this statement, a system known as Otzar Bet Din (treasury of the rabbinical court) has been instituted. The system is described in more detail by its practitioners at the following Web site:

Briefly, the system invites consumers to commit to the purchase of a share of the participating farmers’ future produce in advance of the shmitah year. All planting is completed at least thirty days before the beginning of shmitah on Rosh HaShanah. (For the present shmitah year, Rosh HaShanah fell on September 13, 2007). The land then passes into a sort of receivership administered by the rabbinical court, and the consumer-subscribers receive their produce over the course of the shmitah year, as it is harvested. Because shmitah produce is considered holy, the consumers must agree not to discard it in a disrespectful manner.

The Torah recognizes the fear that refraining for agriculture for a year will lead to food shortages, and assures us in Leviticus 25:20-22 that faithful adherence to this commandment will not bring us to starvation:

If you will say, ‘What will we eat in the seventh year? For we will not sow or harvest our produce,’ I will direct my blessing for you on the sixth year and it will yield the produce of three years. So you will plant for the eighth year and you will eat from the old produce until the ninth year; until its produce arrives, you will eat from the old.

This assurance is particularly striking in light of a recent occurrence in the Negev desert. During the early part of this winter, some 80% of the Israeli potato crop (about 30,000 tons) was destroyed by severe frost. These potatoes were planted around the end of September, as is usual in Israel. However, farmers participating in the Otzar Bet Din plan had to plant by mid-August. As a result, their plants had developed sufficiently by the time of the frost that they were able to withstand these severe conditions, and sustained relatively little damage. The participants were, of course, delighted to see their crops escape with only minor leaf damage. In a February 13 report on these developments by Arutz Sheva (, Rabbi Yehuda Amichai, who supervises the Otzar Bet Din agricultural program, was quoted as saying, “We have merited this year to see G-d’s miracles and how His will guides us in all our ways. I am happy to be a witness to this ‘agricultural miracle’ that proves how G-d ‘pays back’ those who follow His laws. At the same time, we are sorry for the many farmers in Israel whose crops were ruined in the frost…”

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