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Pruzbul

Foreword

As I discussed in a previous article, the mitzvah of shemittas kesafim comes into effect this year immediately before Rosh Hashanah. This law cancels all debts that someone is owed, meaning that the creditor cannot force collection.

Notwithstanding the mitzvah of shemittas kesafim, the Torah commands a lo sa’aseh, that states: “Be careful, lest (hishameir lecha pen) a wicked idea enter your heart, saying, ‘The seventh year, the year that releases, comes near’ and your eye disdains your brother, the pauper, and you fail to give him” (Devarim 15:9). Technically, the words “Be careful, lest” qualify as a mitzvas lo sa’aseh (Eiruvin 96a), although this mitzvah requires a positive action — to lend, notwithstanding the approaching deadline that will release the borrower from liability. This is in addition to the mitzvas aseih, the positive mitzvah, in effect at all times, to lend money whenever we are able.

Unfortunately, Jews violated both mitzvos and stopped lending money out of concern that they would not be repaid after the shemittah year. Since this violates a Torah law, Hillel felt the responsibility to create a system that allows loan collection, notwithstanding that shemittah has passed. The vehicle he created is called a pruzbul. The origin of this word is two Aramaic words that mean “benefit for the wealthy” (Gittin 36b). The Gemara notes that a pruzbul benefits both wealthy and poor – the wealthy, because it allows them to collect loans, and the poor, because they can now borrow money when needed.

To quote the two places where the Mishnah introduces pruzbul: “Hillel established the pruzbul as a tikun olam” (Gittin 34b). “A pruzbul is not released [by the shemittah year] — this is a takkanah established by Hillel the Elder, when he realized that people were refraining from lending money, and were thereby violating what the Torah commands, ‘Be careful lest…’ (Devarim 15:9), Hillel established the pruzbul (Shevi’is 10:3).”

How could he?

By what means could Hillel change the law that the Torah established? The Gemara (see Rashi) presents two options:

(1) The tanna,Rebbe, contends that shemittas kesafim applies min haTorah only when the laws of yoveil apply. Hillel held like Rebbe that shemittas kesafim is only a rabbinic rule today — since the mitzvos of yoveil do not apply until the tribes all return to their lands. Chazal have the ability to suspend rabbinically declared laws (Gittin 36a).

(2) The Torah provides batei din with the ability to declare property ownerless. This ability, called hefker beis din hefker, allowed Hillel to require borrowers to pay their debts that would otherwise have been released by the mitzvah of shemittas kesafim.

How did he?

How does a pruzbul work?

According to most rishonim, the technical way a pruzbul operates is as follows: Min haTorah, the prohibition of shemittas kesafim exists only when an individual demands payment, but not when a beis din does. This halacha is implied by the words in parshas Re’eih (Devarim 15:2): “Every creditor must release his hand from what his fellow owes him. He may not demand payment from his fellow or from his brother, because he has declared a release for Hashem.” These words teach that the prohibition of shemittas kesafim applies only to an individual, not to beis din (Sifrei). Thus, min haTorah, there is a relatively simple way to avoid violating the prohibition of shemittas kesafim. Before this law takes effect at the end of shemittah year, the creditor transfers his loans to beis din (Mishnah, Shevi’is 10:2; however, cf. Rashi, Gittin = and=, who appears to understand the topic differently), thereby authorizing the beis din to collect the debts. Now that the debts are in the hands of beis din, shemittas kesafim does not apply, and the debts can still be collected.

Min haTorah, this process requires the creditor to hand over his loan documents to the beis din. If the creditor does not have the documents, he does not give them to beis din, or the loans were not made in writing, the creditor cannot use this heter to avoid shemittas kesafim. The pruzbul allows the transfer of the debts to the beis din without physical movement of any documents, or even if there are no documents.

As the Yerushalmi expresses it, pruzbul allows transferring documents that a creditor has in Rome. (An alternative interpretation understands this passage of Yerushalmi to mean that a creditor in Israel may transfer his loans to a beis din in Rome, even though at the time of the Yerushalmi, PayPal had no business operation yet in either Israel or Italy. We will return to these two interpretations of the Yerushalmi.)

Non-written loans

Thus, pruzbul works for loans created in the presence of witnesses, even when no written contract was drawn up (Rema, Choshen Mishpat 67:19 and Sma; see Urim).

Non-pruzbul

We should note that, even without pruzbul, there are at least four ways whereby a creditor may avoid violating shemittas kesafim. Apparently, people were not utilizing these methods, and therefore Hillel created a simpler vehicle to avoid the prohibition. I will utilize an acronym BACK — whereby debts must still be paid BACK, notwithstanding the mitzvah of shemittas kesafim:

(1) Beis din

As explained above, the creditor delivers his loan documents to a beis din; collection of the debts is through beis din (Rambam, Hilchos Shevi’is 9:15; Rashi, Gittin 36a).

(2) After – payable after shemittah

Although this ruling is disputed in the Gemara, the accepted halacha is that shemittas kesafim applies only to a loan that could be collected, at least in theory, at the end of the shemittah year (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 67:10). Thus, a simple way for someone to lend money and avoid shemittas kesafim is to schedule the loan’s due date for after shemittah year (see Makkos 3b). Of course, by doing this, the creditor forfeits any right to collect the loan earlier. In addition, this suggestion will not help if the loan is overdue and the borrower has not been paying, whether his delay is because he is without funds or because he chooses to be a deadbeat.

(3) Condition

There is a technical way that, when the loan is originated, it can be made conditional to be payable even after shemittah ends. Because of space considerations, I am unable to explain this in the current article.

(4) Kollateralized

You are correct, it should be collateralized, but I think that you’ll remember BACK better than BACC.

At the time of the loan, the creditor can insist on receiving collateral (a mashkon) [Gittin 37a] that is worth more than the loan. Some authorities contend that shemittas kesafim does not apply even if the mashkon is worth less than the loan (Shmuel in Yerushalmi, Shevi’is; Rashi, Bava Metzia 49a; Rash, Shevi’is 10:2, in his explanation of Shavuos 44b). These authorities hold that the existence of a mashkon automatically exempts a loan from the rules of shemittas kesafim. The reason why a mashkon exempts the loan from the mitzvah of shemittas kesafim is because the loan is considered already collected.

The Shulchan Aruch cites both of the opinions I quoted, but rules, according to the first opinion, that the mashkon preempts shemittas kesafim only when it is at least as valuable as the amount loaned (Choshen Mishpat 67:12).

Paying BACK (or BACC)

Now that we know about these four options, we realize that the creditor can easily arrange matters such that shemittas kesafim is avoided. Nevertheless, Hillel realized that people were not utilizing these methods to guarantee return of their funds, but instead, they were refraining from lending money — thus violating both an aseih and a lo sa’aseh. This necessitated the new takkanah of pruzbul.

What type of beis din?

As explained above, the legal vehicle whereby a pruzbul works is that the loan is transferred to a beis din, which avoids the prohibition of shemittas kesafim. The Mishnah (Shevi’is 10:4) states: “This declaration is the essence of a pruzbul: ‘I transfer to you, dayanim xxx of community y, any loan that I am owed, such that I can collect it whenever I want to.’”

We may have noticed that beis din is involved in the din of pruzbul in two ways:

(1) The Torah exempts loans owed to a beis din from the mitzvah of shemittas kesafim.

(2) Transferring the ownership of the debt to beis din may require utilizing the principle of hefker beis din hefker, which is a legal concept that requires a beis din to implement.

This brings up a new question (Gittin 36b). The Gemara states that a pruzbul can be created only by a high-level, established beis din, such as that of the renowned amora’im, Rav, Shmuel, Rav Ami or Rav Asi. Why can only these gedolei Yisroel create a pruzbul? Because the ability to declare someone’s property ownerless, hefker beis din hefker, is not granted to just any beis din (Sma 67:36).

Technically speaking, three learned, adult, male Jews can form a beis din. For laws such as hataras nedarim, releasing someone from vows, we follow this practice. Is the same type of beis din valid for creating a pruzbul? The Gemara quoted above disagrees — not every beis din may create a pruzbul, only one in the league of Rav, Shmuel, Rav Ami and Rav Asi. This implies that even a beis din experienced in dinei Torah may not issue a pruzbul. Several rishonim, including the Rambam and Rabbeinu Tam, conclude that only an exceptionally regarded beis din may issue a pruzbul. This is also the conclusion of the Shulchan Aruch: “A pruzbul may be written only in a prominent beis din, meaning, three experts who know halachic civil law, the laws of pruzbul and shemittah and were appointed judges by the community of their city” (Choshen Mishpat 67:18).

Nevertheless, the accepted practice among Ashkenazim follows the Rosh (Gittin 4:13), who understands that the Gemara later reevaluates this decision, and that is the conclusion of the Rema (Choshen Mishpat 67:18). Common contemporary Ashkenazic practice is that the three “dayanim” who perform hataras nedarim on erev Rosh Hashanah sign someone’s pruzbul.

From a distance?

May the creditor transfer the loans to the beis din without appearing before them, by declaring in front of witnesses, “I am transferring all loans that are owed me to beis din, consisting of dayan D1, dayan D2 and dayan D3, in city C?” If you follow the Ashkenazic practice that a pruzbul may be issued by any beis din, this question is not that serious, unless you intend to spend all of Elul outside any Jewish community. However, for those who follow the Shulchan Aruch’s ruling, this is a very practical concern, since a pruzbul may be issued only by a major beis din. Must the creditor appear in front of the beis din for them to issue a pruzbul, or is it sufficient that he declare in front of witnesses that he is transferring all debts he is owed to a major beis din?

The Mordechai (Gittin #380) cites this question as a dispute between himself and Rabbeinu Yechiel, in which Rabbeinu Yechiel required the declaration to be in the presence of the beis din, whereas the Mordechai ruled that it is adequate for the creditor to declare to the witnesses that he transfers his loans to the beis din. The Shulchan Aruch mentions both opinions (Choshen Mishpat 67:19 and 21), concluding (Choshen Mishpat 67:19) that he must make this declaration directly to the beis din, an approach accepted by both the Sma and the Tumim (67:21). The Rema (Choshen Mishpat 67:20) concludes that it works even if he is not in front of beis din.

Remember Rome!

Or, more accurately, remember the passage of the Yerushalmi (Shevi’is 10:2), regarding Rome! That Yerushalmi states that a pruzbul can transfer what is nesunin beRomi, “located in Rome.” If nesunin beRomi refers to the location of the dayanim, the creditor may transfer loans to a beis din hundreds of miles from where he is, as concluded by the Mordechai and the Rema. On the other hand, if the Yerushalmi is referring to loan documents in Rome, all we can prove is that pruzbul permits the transfer of loans, without the creditor handing his documents physically to the beis din.

One pruzbul covers all

A creditor need make only one pruzbul, regardless as to how many outstanding debts and debtors he has. This is because the pruzbul transfers all the loans he is owed to the beis din.

Oral pruzbul

Must a pruzbul be written down, or can it be an oral declaration, without a written form? The Shulchan Aruch implies that, in normal circumstances, it should be a written document, whereas the Rema rules that it can be performed orally (Choshen Mishpat 67:20). Accepted custom is to make a pruzbul into a simple, written form, although the exact text may vary, often dependent on some of the halachic issues we have discussed in this article.

Postdated pruzbul

A pruzbul transfers to the beis din any outstanding debts that exist at the time that it is made. It cannot transfer a debt that does not yet exist. Therefore, if a creditor made a pruzbul on the 20th of Elul, and then loaned someone money on the 23rd, shemittas kesafim will take effect on this loan. As a result, a postdated pruzbul, such as one transacted on the 20th of Elul, but dated the 29th, is invalid, since it might be used as proof that a loan made between these two dates was transferred to beis din when it wasn’t (Mishnah, Shevi’is 10:5).

On the other hand, a predated pruzbul is perfectly valid. Dating it earlier than necessary only causes a potential loss to the creditor, since it cannot prove that he transferred to beis din a loan that took place after the date written on the pruzbul. Since the creditor would be harming only himself with such a pruzbul, a predated pruzbul is valid (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 67:32 and Sma there #54).

Borrowing tenants

The Mishnah states that a pruzbul is written only when someone owns land (Shevi’is 10:6). Who must own land? The borrower must be someone who owns or has a right to some land.

However, this does not mean that a creditor cannot create a pruzbul to collect from someone who rents an apartment. A tenant has a right to his apartment, and this is adequate “land ownership” for a pruzbul to be effective. Even if the only land right a person has is that he has borrowed an area upon which his stove rests, he has enough “land ownership” to be included in a pruzbul.

Potential lenders solicited by someone homeless, who are concerned that a pruzbul will not guarantee their loan – be aware that Hillel took you into consideration, although the explanation as to how this pruzbul needs to be made is beyond the scope of this article. If you have loaned money to someone who has no rights to any landed property, ask your rav or posek how to make your pruzbul credit-worthy.

Why land?

Why does a pruzbul work only if the debtor has land?

According to Rashi (Gittin 37a s.v. ela), this is because most people who borrow money have land to serve as understood collateral. Any serious loan will require some means of guaranteeing collection, and chattel can easily “disappear.” Therefore, a loan made for a borrower who has no real estate at all is so uncommon that Hillel felt no need to make a pruzbul to cover this situation.

The Rash (Shevi’is 10:6) offers a different suggestion why land ownership is an essential component for a pruzbul: A loan turned over to beis din is exempt from shemittas kesafim since it is as if beis din has already collected the debt — there is nothing preventing them from taking the land for collection.

Lost my pruzbul

The Mishnah (Kesubos 89a) implies that a creditor who comes to beis din after shemittah year and claims that he made a pruzbul must bring evidence that he did so. However, the Gemara (Gittin 37b) notes that the amora’im,Rav and Rav Nachman, followed the opinion of a different tanna, in a beraisa, who disagreed. Most rishonim accept their ruling that someone who claims to have made a pruzbul may collect his debt after shemittah (see also Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 67:33). The reason is that we assume that a frum Jew would not violate the Torah when he can accomplish something in a permitted way (Sma 67:55). According to all authorities, the lender may not claim to have made a pruzbul if he did not, and it is theft to do so. It also violates the mitzvah of shemittas kesafim, releasing his loans at the end of shemittah year.

Conclusion

Why do people view loaning money as an optional “good deed” rather than as a commandment? The Chofetz Chayim (Ahavas Chesed 2:8) raises this question and mentions several excuses people make to avoid lending money. After listing these reasons, the Chofetz Chayim proceeds to refute each one of them. Simply put, the answer to this question is an old Yiddish expression, Ven kumt tzu gelt, es iz an andara velt, “When dealing with money, people approach matters in a completely different way,” and, if I might add my own commentary, often not in a very rational way. People find it difficult to part with their money, even temporarily. This is precisely why one receives such immense reward for lending. As Pirkei Avos teaches us, lefum tza’ara agra, “we are rewarded in direct relationship to the level of discomfort we feel when observing the mitzvah.”




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.




Desktop Gardening, Or Growing Vegetables in Thin Air

vegetable gardenWell, not quite thin air, because plants, like the rest of us, require nutrients and water to grow. Although the word “aeroponics” does not show up in either of the dictionaries I use for handy reference, and is totally ignored by my spellchecker, it is actually common enough that it should be appearing in any current dictionary of the English language. I admit that I had no idea what the word meant when Yehudah asked me the following shaylah:

“To overcome the many problems that may be involved in purchasing products during shemittah, we want to purchase a large aeroponics kit and grow our own vegetables. Will this present us with any halachic problems in terms of either the laws of shemittah, or the laws of kelayim?”

And so, I began my education about this subject. This is what I discovered:

Aeroponics is a method of growing vegetables or herbs without soil by spraying the plant roots with water and nutrients (as opposed to hydroponics where the roots are submerged in a nutrient solution). Although it can be done on a commercial scale, the company Yehudah contacted sells aeroponic kits for growing herbs and vegetables in the comfort of one’s home. Each kit includes the seeds and nutrients required for specific types of plants, a complete, self-contained, open-top growing tank that includes its own light fixtures and instructions on how to make it all work. Just add water and electricity to run the pump and lights.

The company advises growing lettuce, herbs, tomatoes, peppers, or strawberries each in its own tank, since they have quite different needs. Nevertheless, the first question we will discuss is whether this is a halachic requirement to do so because of the prohibition of kelayim.

WHAT IS KELAYIM?

It is important to clarify a common misconception. The prohibition of kelayim is not the creation of a new species; it is the appearance that one is mingling two species together. This is why hauling loads with two species of animal, grafting one tree species onto another, mixing wool and linen in a garment or planting grains in a vineyard are all Torah violations of kelayim, although none of these acts affect the genetic make-up of the species.

Yehudah’s question involves two halachic topics:

  1. Kelayim

Could someone gardening on his desktop possibly violate the mitzvah of kilei zera’im, which prohibits planting two species together or near one another? Violating this prohibition requires three basic conditions, all of which Yehudah met:

  1. The prohibition applies to herbaceous, as opposed to woody plants, meaning that it does not apply to trees and shrubs, but it does apply to vegetables and many herbs. Thus, one may plant seeds of different trees together, yet one is forbidden to plant a mix of vegetable seeds (Rambam, Hilchos Kelayim 1:6).
  2. The prohibition of kilei zera’im applies only to edible crops (Rambam, Hilchos Kelayim 1:4). Thus, one may plant seeds of different ornamental flowers and grasses within close proximity.
  3. It applies only in Eretz Yisroel (Kiddushin 39a), and is min hatorah according to most halachic authorities, even today (implied by Rambam, Hilchos Kelayim 1:1). (However, note that in Rashi’s opinion [Shabbos 84b, s. v. ve’achas] the prohibition of kilei zera’im in Eretz Yisroel is only miderabbanan and Tosafos [Yevamos 81a, s.v. mai] contends that although kilei zera’im is essentially min hatorah, in our era it is only rabbinic because most of the Jewish people do not currently live in Eretz Yisroel.) Therefore, someone in Chutz La’Aretz may plant his backyard garden with a wide variety of herbs and vegetables, without any concern for how close they are, whereas in Eretz Yisroel, someone planting a garden patch must be very careful to keep the different species separate (Rambam, Hilchos Kelayim 1:3). I will discuss later how far apart one must plant different species to avoid violating this prohibition (see Chazon Ish, Hilchos Kelayim 6:1).
  4. Shemittah

One may not plant in Eretz Yisroel during shemittah. Does planting this indoor garden in Eretz Yisroel violate the laws of shemittah?

Yehuda’s question requires analyzing the following subjects:

Do these mitzvos apply when planting indoors?

Would they apply when planting outdoors in a pot or planter that is disconnected from the ground?

Do they apply when one is not planting in soil?

INDOORS

Two Talmudic passages discuss whether agricultural mitzvos apply indoors. In Eruvin (93a), the Gemara prohibits planting grain in a vineyard that is underneath a roof extending from a house. This passage implies that agricultural mitzvos apply within physical structures.

On the other hand, the Talmud Yerushalmi (Orlah 1:2) discusses whether three agricultural mitzvos, orlah (the prohibition to use fruit produced in the first three years of a tree’s life), maaser (tithing produce), and shemittah, apply to indoor plants. The Yerushalmi rules that whereas orlah applies, there is no requirement to separate maaser on produce grown indoors. The Yerushalmi questions whether shemittah applies to indoor produce, but does not conclude clearly whether it does or not.

WHY IS ORLAH DIFFERENT FROM MAASER?

The Yerushalmi notes that when the Torah instructs us to separate maaser, it states: You shall tithe all the produce of your planting, that which your field produces each year (Devarim 14:22). Since the Torah requires maaser only on produce of a field, there is no requirement to separate maaser from what grows indoors, since, by definition, a field is outdoors. Therefore, one need not separate maaser min hatorah when planting indoors, even if one is planting directly in the soil floor of the structure. (The Rishonim dispute whether there is a rabbinic requirement to separate terumos and maasros when planting in the ground within a building; see Rambam and Raavad, Hilchos Maasros 1:10.)

However, when the Torah describes the mitzvah of orlah, it introduces the subject by stating When you will enter the Land (Vayikra 19:23). A tree planted indoors is definitely in the Land of Israel, and thus is included within the parameters of this mitzvah, even if it is not in a field.

SHEMITTAH INDOORS

Do the laws of shemittah apply to produce grown indoors? Does shemittah apply only to a field, or to anything planted in the Land of Israel?

The Yerushalmi notes that when the Torah discusses the mitzvah of shemittah, it uses both terms, land (Vayikra 25:2) and field (Vayikra 25:4). It is unclear how the Yerushalmi concludes and the poskim dispute whether the mitzvah of shemittah applies indoors in Eretz Yisroel. Ridbaz (Hilchos Shevi’is, end of Chapter 1), Chazon Ish (Shevi’is 22), and Pnei Moshe all rule that it does; Pe’as Hashulchan (20:52) rules that it does not. Most later authorities conclude that one should not plant indoors during shemittah, at least not in the soil. I will discuss, shortly, whether one may plant during shemittah indoors hydroponically or in an indoor area where the dirt floor is covered.

INDOOR KELAYIM

May one plant different species next to one another indoors? Does the prohibition of kelayim apply to produce planted under a roof?

Based on the Talmud Yerushalmi we quoted above, we should be able to establish the following rule:

When the Torah commands that a specific mitzvah applies to the land, it is immaterial whether the planting is indoors or outdoors. However, when the Torah commands that a mitzvah applies to a field, it does not apply indoors. As noted above, an indoor area can never be called a field.

How does the Torah describe the mitzvah of kilei zera’im? The Torah states “you shall not plant kelayim in your field” (Vayikra 19:19), implying that the mitzvah does not apply indoors. Thus, we should conclude that there should be no prohibition min hatorah against planting herbs or vegetables proximately if they are indoors. (Nevertheless, both the Yeshuos Malko [Hilchos Kelayim 1:1] and the Chazon Ish rule that kilei zera’im does apply indoors and apparently disagree with the above analysis. I will take this into consideration later.) However, it is probably prohibited miderabbanan, according to the opinion that the Sages required tithing produce grown indoors.

BUT…

At this point, the discerning reader will note a seeming discrepancy with the passage from Eruvin 93a that I cited earlier. The Gemara rules that one may not plant grain in a roofed vineyard, implying that kelayim does apply indoors. This seemingly conflicts with my conclusion based on the Yerushalmi that one may plant different herbs or vegetables proximately indoors, without violating the prohibition of kelayim.

THE SOLUTION: GRAPES VERSUS VEGETABLES

The answer is that there is a major halachic difference between the two cases: Planting grain in a roofed vineyard violates kilei hakerem, planting other crops in a vineyard. Although both kilei hakerem and kilei zera’im are called kelayim, kilei hakerem is a separate mitzvah and is derived from a different pasuk than the one prohibiting kilei zera’im, planting herbaceous species together. The Torah commands us about kilei hakerem by stating: “You shall not plant your vineyard with kelayim (Devorim 22:9), using the word vineyard, not field. Whereas a field cannot be indoors, a vineyard could.

At this point, we have resolved the first of our questions asked above:

“Do these mitzvos apply when planting in a covered area?”

The answer is that planting kelayim species should seemingly not apply, although some prominent authorities disagree. Shemittah does apply, according to most poskim.

FLOWERPOTS

We now progress to our next question:

Do agricultural mitzvos apply to plants growing in Eretz Yisroel in closed pots and planters that are separated from the ground and yet exposed to the elements?

The Mishnah (Shabbos 95a) teaches that someone who plants in a flowerpot that has a hole in its bottom, called an atzitz nakuv, violates Shabbos as if he planted in the earth itself. However, planting in a flowerpot that is fully closed underneath, called an atzitz she’aino nakuv, is forbidden only because of rabbinic injunction and does not involve a Torah-prohibited violation of Shabbos. The same categories usually apply to agricultural mitzvos: plants in a pot with a hole in the bottom are equivalent to being in the ground itself; those whose bottom is completely sealed are included in agricultural mitzvos by rabbinic injunction.

Therefore, one must separate terumah and maaser from produce grown in pots or planters, whether or not the containers are completely closed underneath, and one would violate kelayim if one planted two species near one another in a flowerpot or other container.

There are some exceptions to this rule. In some instances, planting in a closed container is the same as planting in the ground. According to the Rambam [Hilchos Maaser Sheni 10:8] and the Shulchan Aruch [Yoreh Deah 294:26], orlah applies min hatorah to a tree planted in a closed flowerpot. The reason for this phenomenon is that a tree root will, with time, perforate the bottom of its pot, and therefore, it is already considered to have a hole and be part of the ground below.

SHEMITTAH IN A HOTHOUSE

On the other hand, there are also poskim who contend that shemittah does not apply at all, even miderabbanan, to items planted in a planter or flowerpot whose bottom is completely closed. What is the halacha if one plants in a covered area in a pot that is completely closed underneath? May one be lenient, since the pot is both indoors and is also an atzitz she’aino nakuv, which is not considered connected to the earth min hatorah? This question leads us directly to the following question that Israeli farmers asked, about sixty years ago: May one plant in a hothouse during shemittah, in a closed-bottom vessel? As I mentioned above, although some authorities permit planting in the soil indoors during shemittah, the consensus is to be more stringent. However, many poskim permit planting in pots in a hothouse, if its floor is covered with a thick material, such as heavy plastic or metal (see Chazon Ish, Shevi’is 26:4; Mishpatei Aretz pg. 239; however, cf. Shu’t Shevet HaLevi who prohibits this).

AEROPONICS AND SHEMITTAH

At this point, we can discuss our original question: Aeroponics, like a hothouse, means growing indoors, and is also similar to planting atop a floor that is covered with metal or heavy plastic. Based on the above discussion, we may conclude that most authorities would permit planting aeroponically during shemittah, provided that the bottoms of the tanks are metal or plastic.

WHAT ABOUT KIL’EI ZERAIM?

We still need to explore whether desktop planting violates the laws of kilei zera’im.

I concluded above that there is probably only a rabbinic prohibition of kilei zera’im on indoor planting, but that some prominent authorities prohibit it min hatorah. Can we offer a solution for Yehudah’s plans? To answer this we need to address another issue.

KEEP YOUR DISTANCE

As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, kelayim occurs when different species are mingled together. If there is enough distance between the plants, no mingling is transpiring.

How far apart must I plant herbs or vegetables to avoid violating kelayim? This is a complicated topic, and its answer is contingent on such factors as how and what one is planting. I will, however, go directly to the conclusion that affects our case.

Since the desktop garden involves only herbs and vegetables and only a single plant or a few plants of each species, the halacha requires only a relatively small distance between species. Min hatorah one is required to plant only one tefach apart; the additional space requirement is rabbinic (see Rambam, Hilchos Kelayim 3:10). The poskim dispute how distant one is required to avoid a rabbinic prohibition. Some require that the plants are at least three tefachim apart [about ten inches] (Rashi, Shabbos 85a), whereas others determine that it is sufficient for the plants to be only 1½ tefachim apart [about five inches] (Rambam, Hil. Kelayim 4:9; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 297:5). In the case of the aeroponically-grown produce, since the tanks are completely closed underneath, they have, at worst, the halachic status of atzitz she’eino nakuv, a closed pot or planter, considered part of the ground only because of rabbinic injunction, but not min hatorah. We can, therefore, conclude that as long as the seeds are placed more than a tefach apart, we avoid any Torah prohibition. As far as the possible rabbinic prohibition if the plants are only a bit more than one tefach apart, we could additionally rely on the likelihood that kilei zera’im does not apply indoors in an eino nakuv planter.

Having completed the halachic research, we corresponded with the company that produces the desktop planting kits, asking them how far apart are the holes in which one “plants” the seeds, and how many different herbs and vegetables can be planted in a single tank.

The company replied that the kit usually has seven holes, each four inches apart from the other, center to center. When planting peppers and tomatoes, which grow larger than the greens or herbs, the company recommends plugging four of the holes and using only three, which are far enough apart to avoid any kelayim issue, according to our conclusion. However, when planting herbs and greens, the distance between the holes is just about the distance that might present a halachic problem. I therefore advised Yehudah to plant in alternative holes, even when planting herbs of different varieties.




What Is an Otzar Beis Din?

veggies in binWhat do the words “Otzar Beis Din” mean? And, as an old friend of mine would ask, “Is an Otzar Beis Din good for the Jews or bad for the Jews?”

Literally, the words mean “a storehouse operated by Beis Din.” Why would Beis Din operate a warehouse? Is this some type of gmach or warehouse for impounded goods? Or a place where Beis Din stores people who are recalcitrant to follow its rulings? Although these might be good ideas, they have nothing to do with an Otzar Beis Din, which is a halachically approved method of distributing shmittah produce.

Before explaining what is an Otzar Beis Din, we must first review briefly the halachos of shmittah. These rules fall under two general categories:

(1) Laws of the Land

(2) Laws of the Fruit.

LAWS OF THE LAND

The Torah (VaYikra 25:1-7) teaches that every seventh year is shmittah, and we are prohibited from working the land of Eretz Yisroel. One may not plow, plant, prune, or harvest one’s grapevines or perform most other agricultural work. Furthermore, one may not allow one’s land to be worked during shmittah, even by a gentile (Gemara Avodah Zarah 15b). Since we follow the opinion that shmittah today is only miderabbanan, we have one leniency — one may perform activities whose purpose is to prevent loss (see Gemara Moed Katan 3b). For example, one may water plants and trees so that they do not die (Gemara Moed Katan 3b; Rambam, Hil. Shmittah 1:10; cf. Chazon Ish, Shvi’is 16:4, 21:14, who is more lenient).

The landowner may not treat what grows during shmittah as his own; rather he must allow others to enter his field or orchard and help themselves. If his field is fenced, the owner must leave the gate unlocked and should remove any impediments that discourage people from helping themselves to the produce (Rambam, Hil. Shmittah 4:24). They may take only as much as their family will eat, and the landowner himself may also take this amount (see Rambam, Hil. Shmittah 4:1). According to many poskim, the owner has a special mitzvah to declare that his produce is hefker, ownerless (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Yorah Deah 3:90 s.v. vihataam).

One must not pick shmittah produce the way one usually would, but with a shinuy, some variation from the usual (Sifra). One may not sell shmittah produce in a business manner (Rambam, Hil. Shmittah 6:1).

LAWS OF THE FRUIT

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

THE WAY IT IS EATEN

The Torah teaches that shmittah produce may be eaten, but it may not be ruined. What types of “ruining” did the Torah prohibit? Foods that are usually only eaten cooked should not be eaten raw, and those that are not cooked should not be cooked. For example, one may not eat shmittah potatoes raw, nor cook shmittah cucumbers or oranges, even as part of a recipe. Similarly, one may not squeeze a fruit into juice, since this is considered “ruining” the fruit, although one may squeeze grapes, olives or lemons that have kedushas shvi’is since in these cases the fruit is not ruined, but improved, when squeezed. However, one may not squeeze apples or carrots, even if one usually does so, since one is ruining the fruit in the process of extracting its juice. Similarly, one may not add slices of shmittah orange to a recipe for a roast since the orange is ruined in the process even though the roast is improved (Shu’t Mishpat Kohen, #85).

If someone errantly squeezed a shmittah fruit, or cooked produce that should have been eaten raw, the finished product is permitted. It goes without saying that one must be careful not to actively destroy shmittah produce.

If one uses a shmittah product as an ingredient, one must treat everything that absorbs the taste of the shmittah product with the laws of kedushas shvi’is. Therefore, if someone used shmittah potatoes in a cholent, or shmittah onions or bay leaves in a soup, one must treat the entire cholent or soup with the laws of kedushas shvi’is.

One may not feed animals shmittah produce that is usually eaten by people. However, one may feed animals shmittah product that is typically used as feed, such as peels and seeds that people do not consume, or if they are no longer considered fit for human consumption.

COMMERCE WITH SHMITTAH PRODUCE

One must be careful not to sell shmittah produce in a way that implies that one is its true owner. For this reason, shmittah produce may not be sold by weight or measure (Mishnah Shvi’is 8:3), nor sold in a regular store (Yerushalmi Shvi’is 7:1). 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 shmittah produce to chutz la’aretz (Mishnah Shvi’is 6:5). There is a halachic controversy whether one may ship esrogim to chutz la’aretz for people to fulfill the mitzvah (Beis Ridbaz 5:18; Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 1:186).

SANCTIFIES ITS EXCHANGE

Shmittah produce has an unusual halacha in that it is tofes damav, transfers its special laws onto the money or other item that is exchanged for it (Sukkah 40b). For this reason, if one sells or trades shmittah produce, the money or other item received in exchange also has kedushas shmittah and must be treated with all the laws mentioned above. Even so, the original produce maintains its kedushas shvi’is.

TERUMOS AND MAASROS

An interesting leniency applies to shmittah produce. Since it is halachically ownerless, there is no requirement to separate terumos and maasros from shmittah produce. The poskim dispute whether one must separate terumos and maasros from produce taken from the field of an owner who did not observe shmittah and did not allow people to help themselves (Shu’t Avkas Rocheil #24; Shu’t Mabit #11).

SEFICHIM

The Torah permits eating produce that grew by itself without working the field during shmittah. However, Chazal felt it necessary to prohibit grains and most vegetables that happened to grow on their own during shmittah year or were planted in violation of the laws of shmittah. The reason for this was that, even in the days of Chazal, it was unfortunately common to find Jews who deceitfully ignored shmittah 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 did grow on their own, a prohibition called sefichim, literally, “plants that sprouted.” Several exceptions were made, including that the produce of a non-Jew’s field is not prohibited as sefichim. Since a gentile is not obligated to observe shmittah, Chazal saw no reason to ban produce grown during shmittah in his field (Rambam, Hil. Shmittah 4:29).

OWNERLESS

Since all shmittah produce is halachically ownerless, every consumer has the halachic right to “help himself” to whatever his family might eat. (The poskim dispute whether one has the right to do this if the owner refuses entry. Even if it may be permitted, I do not recommend helping yourself to shmittah produce if the owner is not observing the laws of shmittah.) If my neighbor owns fruit trees, I have the right to enter his field and help myself. Similarly, if he has a vineyard, I may enter his vineyard and take as many grapes as my family can eat as table grapes or drink as wine. The field and tree are not ownerless, but the produce is.

WHAT IS AN OTZAR BEIS DIN?

With this introduction, we can now discuss what an Otzar Beis Din is. The owner of a vineyard is not required to produce wine for me, to allow me to harvest the grapes only 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 do so. How then can I possibly utilize the benefit of shmittah?

Enter the Otzar Beis Din to help out! 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 shmittah 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 it is hefker, 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 them to the consumer. All the other halachos of shmittah apply to this produce.

A “MODERN” OTZAR BEIS DIN

The Rabbonim and Beis Din of Yerushalayim organized the first modern Otzar Beis Din 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 shmittah. The written contract, extant to this day, was signed by Rav Chayim Berlin, Rav of Yerushalayim at the time; Rav Yosef Chayim Zonnenfeld and Rav Pesach Frank, both of whom were later rabbonim of the city of Yerushalayim; and by two other prominent dayanim, Rav Yisroel Yaakov Yaavetz and Rav Moshe Nachum Wallenstein. To enable 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 to harvest and process the produce and transport it to Yerushalayim. 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 shmittah 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 be significantly lower than its usual market price (Sefer Minchas Yerushalayim pg. 161).

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

1) The wine and fruits could be distributed only to people who would observe the shmittah sanctity of the products (see Tosefta Shvi’is 6:11).

2) The vineyards and orchards had to be available for any shmittah observant person to enter and harvest for his own needs (Sefer Minchas Yerushalayim pg. 181).

3) 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 shmittah produce paid Rav Cohen as Beis Din’s agent, for which the consumer was entitled to “shares” of wine and produce that were delivered in bulk containers without an exact weight.

4) The actual harvest of the product was performed by gentiles and in an atypical way (Katif Shvi’is pg. 125).

In his analysis of the procedure of an Otzar Beis Din, the Chazon Ish (Shvi’is 11:7 s.v. bemashekasavti) follows a more lenient approach than that of the Beis Din of Yerushalayim. 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 following the Chazon Ish’s ruling allows Jewish staff to use combines to harvest and process the shmittah produce (Sefer HaShmittah pg. 21).

In addition, the Chazon Ish permitted weighing and measuring produce sold through Otzar Beis Din. In his opinion, the prohibition against weighing and measuring shmittah 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.

The 1910 Otzar Beis Din of Yerushalayim was stricter than this approach and did not allow any weighing or measuring of produce. Each participating household received “units” of wine and/or fruit which were deliberately approximate and not measured or weighed.

In a modern Otzar Beis Din, the grower plants everything before shmittah and is given extremely detailed instructions regarding what he may and may not do during shmittah (Katif Shvi’is pg. 126). The grower must allow any shmittah observant person to enter the field or orchard and help himself to the produce (Mishpetei Aretz pg. 103).

Usually, the grower has agreed in advance to a price for his produce which he will receive regardless of the quality of the produce. The grower must understand that this price is not a purchase of the produce, but compensation for his out-of-pocket expenses, including compensation for his own time.

“HETER OTZAR BEIS DIN”

Now is the time to approach our second question: “Is an Otzar Beis Din good or bad for the Jews?” 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 I 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 the halacha of shmittah. If the farmer is operating with a true Otzar Beis Din, he will allow a shmittah observant person to enter his field and help himself to the produce. (If he is concerned that the individual may damage the field or the trees, then he can make other arrangements.) However, if the field owner treats the produce as completely his own and charges accordingly, this contradicts the meaning of Otzar Beis Din. Cases like these are called heter Otzar Beis Din; meaning a permissibility based on an abuse of the concept of Otzar Beis Din. Because of these concerns, some hechsherim discourage the use of Otzar Beis Din. (See extensive discussion of this question in Minchas Yerushalayim Chapter 9.)

Thus in answer to our question whether Otzar Beis Din is good for the Jews or bad for the Jews, the answer is that although it is good for the Jews in theory, in practice Otzar Beis Din becomes bad for the Jews when it degenerates into a heter Otzar Beis Din. I certainly encourage use of a properly run Otzar Beis Din, which also includes that the produce must be treated with all the rules of kedushas shevi’is.

For the modern farmer, observing shmittah is true mesiras nefesh, since among many other concerns he also risks losing customers who have been purchasing his products for years. Of course, since a Jew realizes that Hashem provides parnasah and that observing a mitzvah will never hurt anyone, a sincerely observant farmer obeys the Torah dictates knowing that Hashem attends to all his needs. Indeed, all recent shmittos have had numerous miracles rewarding observant farmers in this world for their halachic diligence. Who can possibly imagine what reward awaits them in Olam Haba!