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Otzar Beis Din or Heter Otzar Beis Din?

An Otzar Beis Din is literally “a storehouse operated by Beis Din.” Why would Beis Din operate a warehouse? Before explaining more fully the true purpose of an Otzar Beis Din, which is a halachically approved method of distributing shemittah produce, we must first review the halachos of shemittah. These rules fall under two general categories:

(1)   Laws of the Land

The Torah teaches that every seventh year is shemittah, and we are prohibited from working the land of Eretz Yisrael. One may not plow, plant, prune, or harvest one’s grapevines as an owner, or perform most other agricultural work. Furthermore, one may not allow one’s land to be worked during shemittah, even by a non-Jew.[1] One may perform activities whose purpose is to prevent loss, such as watering plants and trees so that they do not die.[2]

The landowner may not treat what grows during shemittah as his own; rather, he must allow others to enter his field or orchard and help themselves. They may take only as much as their family will eat, and the landowner himself may also take this amount.[3] One may not sell shemittah produce in a business manner.[4]

(2) Laws of the Fruit

Shemittah produce is imbued with special sanctity called kedushas shevi’is. The Torah provides specific rules that govern how one treats such produce. These laws fall under the following categories:

a.       Commerce with Shemittah Produce

One must be careful not to sell shemittah produce in a way that implies that one is its true owner. For this reason, shemittah produce may not be sold by weight or measure[5] nor sold in a regular store.[6] Instead it should be distributed in a way that implies that this is a division of produce rather than a sale.

One may not export shemittah produce to chutz la’aretz.[7] The later poskim even dispute whether one may ship esrogim to chutz la’aretz for people to fulfill the mitzvah of Arba Minim.[8]b.      Sefichin

The Torah permits eating produce that grew by itself, without the farmer working the field during shemittah. However, Chazal felt it necessary to prohibit grains and most vegetables that happened to grow on their own during shemittah year or were planted in violation of the laws of shemittah. This was because even in the days of Chazal it was unfortunately common to find Jews who deceitfully ignored shemittah laws. One practice of enterprising, unscrupulous farmers was to plant grain or vegetables and market them as produce that grew on its own.

To discourage this illegal business, Chazal forbade even grains and vegetables that grew on their own, a prohibition referred to as sefichin (literally, “plants that sprouted”). Several exceptions were made, including produce grown in the field of a non-Jew, who has no obligation to observe shemittah.[9]

c.       Hefker – Ownerless

Since all shemittah produce is halachically ownerless, every consumer has the halachic right to “help oneself” to whatever his family might eat. The poskim dispute whether one has the right to do this even if the owner is not halachically compliant and does not give others permission to enter his field.

The Otzar Beis Din

With this introduction, we can now discuss an Otzar Beis Din.

The owner of a vineyard is not required to produce wine for me, only to allow me to harvest the grapes for myself. If I do not have the equipment or expertise to press and process grapes into wine or olives into oil, I will be unable to utilize my rights to these fruits. Similarly, although I have a right to travel from Yerushalayim to pick citrus, mangos and bananas grown along the coast or in the northern part of the country, it is not that convenient for me to go. How then can I possibly utilize the benefit of shemittah?

Enter the Otzar Beis Din. The Beis Din represents the consumer and hires people to gather the fruit, crush the grapes and olives into juice and oil, ferment the juice into wine, package the product, and then distribute it to the consumer. The Otzar Beis Din acts as the consumer’s agent and hires pickers, truckers, and other laborers; rents wine production equipment; purchases the bottles; produces shemittah fruits, wines and oils; and delivers them to a convenient distribution center near my house.

Obviously, the Otzar Beis Din cannot expect the pickers, truckers, and other laborers to work as unpaid volunteers, nor can they use the production equipment without paying rent. Similarly, the managers who coordinate this project are also entitled to a wage for their efforts. The Otzar Beis Din divides these costs among the consumers. However, no charge is made whatsoever for the fruit, since they are hefker; the charges are only for the labor and other costs involved. Thus, Otzar Beis Din products should cost less than regular retail prices for the same items.

Similarly, the farmer is required to allow anyone to enter his field and help himself to his crops. However, since it is inconvenient for a resident of Yerushalayim to travel to an orchard in the northern part of Israel or along its coast to pick oranges and bananas, the Otzar Beis Din picks and transports the fruit to the consumer. All the other halachos of shemittah apply to this produce.

The Development of a ‘Modern’ Otzar Beis Din

The rabbonim and Beis Din of Yerushalayim organized the first “modern” Otzar Beis Din over 110 years ago. In 5670 (1910), Rav Tzvi Hirsch Cohen, a talmid chacham from Rechovot who owned vineyards and orchards, came to the rabbonim of Yerushalayim requesting that they function as his Beis Din to distribute the wine and fruit from his orchards for the coming shemittah. The written contract, signed by Rav Chayim Berlin, Rav Yosef Chayim Sonnenfeld, Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, Rav Yisrael Yaakov Yaavetz and Rav Moshe Nachum Wallenstein, enabled Yerushalayim residents to receive wine and fruit from Rav Cohen’s orchards.

Someone had to arrange to harvest the fruit, process the grapes into wine, and transport the products to Yerushalayim. Since Rav Cohen was the most qualified person to take care of these arrangements, the Beis Din appointed him to be their representative on behalf of the general public. As an agent, he was entitled to a wage for his work, as were the other employees who harvested, crushed, packaged, and transported the crop, but no one was entitled to any profits on the produce.

The Beis Din established several rules to maintain that the laws of shemittah were scrupulously kept in this arrangement, and to guarantee that Rav Cohen was paid as a manager and not as an owner of the product. For one thing, they predetermined the price that the consumer would pay for the wine, guaranteeing that it was significantly lower than its usual market price.[10]

Because of the laws governing the harvest and use of shemittah products, the Beis Din also insisted on the following rules:

  • The wine and fruits could be distributed only to people who would observe the shemittah sanctity of the products.[11]
  • The vineyards and orchards had to be available for any shemittah-observant person to enter and harvest for his own needs.[12]
  • The products were not distributed through stores, but were divided as a communal division of bulk product.
  • The products were not weighed or measured. Each individual who participated in dividing the shemittah produce paid Rav Cohen as Beis Din’s agent, for which the consumer was entitled to ‘shares’ of wine and produce, which were delivered in bulk containers without an exact weight.
  • The actual harvest of the product was performed by non-Jews and in an atypical way.[13]

In his analysis of the procedure of an Otzar Beis Din, the Chazon Ish follows a more lenient approach than that of the above-mentioned Beis Din of Yerushalayim.[14] He ruled that representatives of an Otzar Beis Din may harvest in the normal way and use Jewish labor. Thus, the Otzar Beis Din of a modern farm that follows the Chazon Ish’s ruling allows Jewish staff to use tractors and other equipment to harvest and process the shemittah produce.[15]

In addition, the Chazon Ish permitted weighing and measuring produce sold through Otzar Beis Din. In his opinion, the prohibition against weighing and measuring shemittah produce is only because this indicates that I am the owner of the produce. However, weighing and measuring Otzar Beis Din produce is to determine a fair division of costs involved in supplying the produce, and not to demonstrate ownership.

In today’s Otzar Beis Din, the grower plants everything before shemittah and is given extremely detailed instructions regarding what he may and may not do during shemittah. The grower must allow any shemittah-observant person to enter the field or orchard and help himself to the produce.[16]

The Heter Otzar Beis Din Controversy

The modern term, heter Otzar Beis Din, is used pejoratively. The purpose of an Otzar Beis Din is to service the consumer, not the producer, as explained above.

Unfortunately, unscrupulous individuals sometimes manipulate the rubric of Otzar Beis Din to allow a “business as usual” attitude and violate both the spirit and halacha of shemittah. I know of farms that call themselves Otzar Beis Din but, in reality, bar free entry of their fields during shemittah, or the field owner treats the produce as completely his own and charges accordingly.

Since this contradicts the meaning of Otzar Beis Din, these cases are called heter Otzar Beis Din, meaning permitting something based on an abuse of the concept of Otzar Beis Din. Because of these concerns, some hechsheirim discourage the use of Otzar Beis Din. Thus, in practice, Otzar Beis Din becomes a michshol when it degenerates into a heter Otzar Beis Din. Indeed, as with every “treasure,” one must make every effort to ensure its principle stays intact. How much more so with the principles of the Otzar Beis Din!

Conclusion

Just as observing the seventh day, Shabbos, demonstrates our beliefs in the Creator, so too, observing every seventh year as shemittah demonstrates this faith. For someone living in Eretz Yisrael, observing shemittah properly involves assuming much halachic responsibility and education. For the modern farmer, observing shemittah can indeed be true mesiras nefesh, since among the many other concerns that he has, he also risks losing customers who have been purchasing his products for years. For example, a farmer may be selling his crop somewhere in Europe. If he informs his buyer that he cannot produce during shemittah, he risks losing the customer in the future.

Of course, a Jew realizes that Hashem provides parnasah and that observing a mitzvah will never hurt anyone. An observant farmer obeys the Torah dictates knowing that Hashem attends to all his needs. Indeed, recent shemittos have each had numerous miracles rewarding observant farmers in this world for their halachic diligence. Who can possibly imagine what reward awaits them in Olam Haba!


[1] Avodah Zarah 15b.

[2] Moed Katan 3b; Rambam, Hilchos Shemittah 1:10; Cf. Chazon Ish, Shevi’is 16:4, 21:14, who is more lenient.

[3] Rambam, Hilchos Shemittah 4:1.

[4] Ibid., 6:1.

[5] Mishnah Shevi’is 8:3.

[6] Yerushalmi Shevi’is 7:1.

[7] Mishnah Shevi’is 6:5.

[8] Beis Ridbaz 5:18; Shu’t Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 1:186.

[9] Rambam, Hilchos Shemittah 4:29.

[10] Sefer Minchas Yerushalayim, page 161.

[11] Ibid., 163; see also Tosefta Shevi’is 6:11.

[12] Sefer Minchas Yerushalayim, page 181.

[13] Katif Shevi’is, page 125.

[14] Shevi’is 11:7 s.v. bemashekasavti

[15] Sefer Hashemittah, 21.

[16] Mishpetei Aretz, page 103.