Shenat Hasheva Is Changing Shemittah in Israel. We Saw It First Hand.
“Shabbat Shalom!” The sound system blasted the rabbi’s voice through our confused ears on the sunny Monday morning. It was an exotic scene. Green fields and rickety boxes of oranges surrounded a stage set up for presentations as various distinguished rabbis gathered to meet us. Escaping the city streets of Washington Heights to the rural setting of the Israeli moshav, we were thrown into the unfamiliar world of Shemittah in the holy land.
It was surreal being there. As we followed our revered rebbeim and roshei yeshiva down the rocky path to where Shimon, a farmer applauded as a Jewish hero, was proudly showing us his dried out and fallow grapevines, many of us had to pinch ourselves to conclude that it was not a dream. Just days before, Israel had declared the United States a red country for COVID-19, barring us from entry and prompting some of the trip organizers to send us emails suggesting that our winter break plans were going to be pushed off. However, Rabbi Dr. Ari Bergmann, a Jewish Studies professor at Yeshiva College founder of the Shenat Hasheva organization and coordinator of the trip, had no doubts. “This is Shemittah!” he exclaimed in his typical charismatic style when we arrived from the airport. “It is about bitachon – Hashem wanted us to do this! I knew it would happen.”
We were traveling to Israel to experience the commonly misunderstood mitzvah of Shemittah and to bring our experience back to the United States where its observance often passes by unnoticed. We were a small group, nine undergraduate students and three RIETS semikha and Kollel Elyon members who were accompanying the prominent group of YU rebbeim — including Rabbi Hershel Schachter, Rabbi Elchanan Adler, Rabbi Daniel Feldman, Rabbi Tanchum Cohen, Rabbi Yosef Kalinsky and RIETS Dean Rabbi Menchem Penner — as they advocated for a revolutionary approach to the observance of Shemittah in modern day Israel.
Pointing to the dried out grapevines in front of us, Shimon proudly pronounced, “This is hashbata.” Many of us were expecting this. We had heard of the Torah’s commandment to lay the land fallow every seventh year. However, squinting further into the distance we noticed glistening grapes growing in stark contrast to the barren brown stems in front of us. Noticing our confused expression the farmer explained, “Those grapes are for the Otzer Beit Din.” This was the beginning of our week-long adventure into the complex and diverse approaches to the observance of shemittah in the modern age.
As our bus pulled up to Beit Chilkiyah, where the headquarters of Shenat Hasheva is located, we were introduced to the revolutionary system of Shenat Hasheva’s Otzar Beit Din. Although the concept of an Otzar Beit Din is ideal and has precedent from the times of the Mishna, it was not able to be successfully implemented until now. We took a tractor ride around the fields and the distribution center and smiled for pictures with the mayor in front of forklifts filled with fruit as the Otzar Beit Din’s approach was presented to us. In conjunction with the rabbinic court, farmers can participate as paid harvesters and distributors on behalf of the people. Instead of consumers in the cities paying for the produce itself, farmers can charge a set price for their work distributing the free Shemittah fruit. In this communal farmers market, prices decrease dramatically because farmers are paid directly without having to employ distributors and supermarkets as middlemen.
On the long bus rides, our rebbeim explained the history and complexities of contemporary Shemittah as the serene farmland of Israel presented itself through our windows. The message the Torah wished to imbue through the mitzvah of Shemittah was that God is in control of the world; it is His will and not our actions which produce it. By not working the land in a way that increases the production of fruit and by allowing the produce to be consumed and shared by everyone, we relinquish our sense control to God and demonstrate that God's world is a gift to us all.
With the help of Shenat Hasheva, the spirit of the mitzvah of Shemittah remains intact while allowing the farmers to make a halachically honest living. The trees are maintained but not treated to further produce and people appreciate the dramatic decrease in price, experiencing the message of sharing, communal ownership and God’s hand in production. Produce does not go to waste and Israeli agriculture is self-sustained.
Back on the streets of Jerusalem we witnessed the end of the process, fully appreciating how Shenat Hasheva had revolutionized the Otzar Beis Din. Teaming up with Mishnat Yosef, a religious distributing company that cuts the cost of middleman on all products for poor families during the year, they discovered a system to cut the costs of Otzar Beit Din for everyone during Shemitta. We watched as happy families picked up their everyday needs — from shampoo to COVID tests — directly from shipping boxes in the street. Without having to employ a third party of middlemen and warehouses, consumers can pay the farmers directly without having to pay the extra charges of the supermarkets. Cheaper prices incentivize consumers and create a self-sustaining economy.
This approach was recently approved and advocated for by religious leaders of all stripes and colors, uniting the nation in a solution for a once highly divisive issue. In Shenat Hasheva’s most ambitious upcoming “Pri Yomi” project, yeshivot in Israel will band together in the eating of exclusively Otzar Beit Din fruit every day. Following in the unifying spirit behind the program, we visited many rabbis and yeshivot from across the religious spectrum as they spoke to us about the importance of this revolution. We connected with students in Yeshivat Chevron, learning in their beit midrash and joining in a kumzitz with them in the home of Roni Sharon, a potato proprietor who had earlier showed us around his potato farm, describing his sacrifices for the mitzvah of Shemittah. In a fireside session near Kibbutz Lavi we participated in a joint experience with the “Shomer Hachadash” youth movement which uses the message of Shemittah to connect even secular Israelis to the nature of the land.
Coming back to the YU Israel Campus for Shabbat Shira, friends and rebbeim together digested the weeklong overload of inspiration and information. Together with Yeshivat Torat Shraga we were privileged with the unique opportunity of open access and shiurim with the group of YU Rabbis who had joined us for the trip. Our trip concluded appropriately with a Tu B'shevat seder, celebrating the fruits of the land in a way we never had before. At the end of the ceremony, we were informed that our mission had just begun. It was now our job to share our experiences and spread the message of Shemittah in the United States. RIETS has partnered with Shenat Hasheva to unite the Jewish people through the spirit of the mitzvah of Shemitta. As part of our mission, our group will participate in events and promotions in an attempt to bring our experience to everyone. Rather than ending there, our journey is just beginning.
Photo Caption: YU Shemittah Trip
Photo Credit: Yeshiva University