Shemitah Guidelines for the Diaspora 5768

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Shemitah Guidelines for the Diaspora 5768

Rabbi Michael J. Broyde


The purpose of this short note is to spell out various rules relating to shemitah and its observance by Jews living in the diaspora. It will not address issues related to actual working of the land or other issues of vital importance to one who farms the land of Israel, since those issues are of little importance in the diaspora.

Click here to read moreThe Heter Mechirah

This article is not the place to address the issue of the propriety or validity of the heter mechirah. However, a number of brief reviews have recently appeared related to the shemitah year which appear to dismiss as obviously improper the heter mechirah. Since I live in the diaspora now, I am giving no opinion myself on this issue of its validity and I do not perceive such to be my place. Suffice it to say that numerous eminent authorities have accepted the validity of the heter mechirah. Included in that group are Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, Rabbi Yizchak I. Herzog, Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank, Rabbi Yechiel M. Tukachinsky, Rabbis Kook, Rabbi Shlomo Y. Zevin and many others. To dismiss the opinion of these authorities in a perfunctory way is not proper. On the other hand, it is important to realize that a large number of eminent authorities thought it improper to rely on the heter mechirah, including the Chazon Ish, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin and many others. (For an excellent review of the issues involved and sources for the various authorities cited in this section, see Rabbi Yitzchok Gottlieb “Understanding the heter mechirah,” Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society [Fall, 1993] pp. 5-57.)

Fruits of Israel for Sale in America

If one chooses to be strict and not use produce grown in reliance on the heter mechirah, it is important to realize that this stricture does not prohibit the eating of all produce of Israel during the sabbatical year. Fruits, such as apples, oranges, bananas or grapefruits, even if grown in an orchard that is guarded or worked (שמור or נעבד) based on the heter mechirah, may be eaten. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach states:

Even those who are strict and do not wish to rely on the heter mechirah at all, nonetheless, according to our custom, based on the consensus of later poskim, it is appropriate to be lenient nowadays concerning fruit grown in orchards that are either guarded or worked. This is also found in the writings of the Chazon Ish who states that once the fruits were grown, it is, after the fact, not prohibited and it is permissible to eat this fruit. (Minchat Shlomo no. 44)

Rabbi Auerbach then goes on to state that one can buy such fruit from a merchant selling them in Israel and this is true even more so when bought in a supermarket in America. This insight is based on a discussion in Yevamot 122a and Sukkah 39b, and while Rabbenu Tam appears to disagree (ad loc.), Rashi, Rambam, Ramban and Rashba all accept that this fruit can be eaten. This ruling is accepted as correct by many modern poskim, including Rabbi Feinstein (Iggrot Moshe O.C. 1:186), Rabbi Abraham I. Karelitz (Chazon Ish, Shevi’it 10:5-6 and 7:25), Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer 6:39 and 11:69), Rabbi Yitzchak I. Leibes (Beit Avi 1:52-54), Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein (Aruch HaShulchan He’Atid, Shemitah VeYovel 21:6-8), Rabbi Binyamin Silber (Az Nidberu 4:8 and 9:60) and many others.

Once one accepts this ruling, on a practical level most fresh Israeli produce sold in America is permissible to eat, even if one does not accept the general validity of the heter mechirah. The only common Israeli produce sold in America that does not fit into this category is tomatoes, and indeed, I have been told by many that most of the tomatoes exported are grown in areas that lack kedushat eretz yisrael or by Arab farmers. This factor might to be considered in permitting these tomatoes. One should ask one’s rabbi

Kedushat Shevi’it

Of course, according to those authorities who do not rely on the heter mechirah, one who buys Israeli fruits in America would have to treat this food with the sanctity of produce grown during the sabbatical year. Essentially, this means that one may not throw this produce out until it is spoiled nor feed it to a Gentile. For example, peel from those fruits whose peel in edible (like apples) should be eaten or put aside for a day or two until inedible and only then disposed. So too, one should not feed these fruits to ones pets. For a detailed review of these issues, see Rabbi Aharon Zakai, HaBayit HaYehudi volume 8 chapter 23.

In addition, there is the obligation of bi’ur, removal, of the fruits of shemitah. Once the fruit is generally unavailable to the public, one is prohibited to store that produce in the house and prevent others from eating it. Thus, for example, if apples are generally unavailable after January 1, one cannot keep shemitah-grown apples in ones possession after that time for ones own personal use. However, if one first is mafkir one’s fruits and then takes re-possession of them, one has fulfilled the obligation of bi’ur. At the time when such fruits become unavailable, one simply opens the door in front of three friends, holds the fruits in one’s hand and says, “Any Jew who wishes to come take from these fruits, may come and take.” The precise time for bi’ur is difficult to predict, and it varies from year to year depending on agricultural conditions in Israel. Certainly the time for bi’ur is not for many months. Consult your local orthodox rabbi as to the precise time for bi’ur. For a detailed review of these issues, see Rabbi Aharon Zakai, HaBayit HaYehudi volume 8 chapter 26.

Etrogim During Shemitah

There is a dispute between Rabbis Feinstein and Teitelbaum concerning using citrons (etrogim) produced during the sabbatical year which are worked or watched for one of the four species on Sukkot (Rabbi Teitelbaum ruled that one may not). However, the overwhelming majority of halachic authorities who have addressed this issue have concluded that citrons produced during the shemitah year are completely permissible for use as one of the four species during succot even when watched or worked when purchased through the processes of havla’ah or hakafah, or if bi’ur or hefker are done. Many of these different actions are easily done by the purchaser and the latter ones are the routine practice of many etrog growers during the sabbatical year. Besides Rabbi Feinstein (Iggrot Moshe O.C. 1:186), those authorities who accept that such an etrog is permissible, even when worked or watched (without necessarily accepting the heter mechirah) include Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Minchat Shlomo pages 230-231), Rabbi Abraham I. Karelitz (Chazon Ish, Shevi’it 10:6 and 7:25), Rabbi E
liezer Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer 6:39 and 11:69), Rabbi Yitzchak I. Leibes (Beit Avi 1:52-54), Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (cited by Rabbi Abba Bronspeigel in Beit Yitzchak 15:33-40, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein in Daf Kesher 1:376 and Rabbi Hershel Reichman in Shuirim of Rabbi Soloveitchik, Sukkah 39b) and Rabbi Yecheil Michel Epstein (Aruch HaShulchan He’Atid, Shemitah VeYovel 21:6-8). Even Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, one of the most vigorous opponents of the heter mechirah, clearly indicates that such an etrog fulfills the obligations of the holiday (Meishiv Davar 2:56). Rabbi Leibes’ responsa contains a particularly insightful and detailed analysis of the issues presented.

If one adds onto that list the numerous authorities who accepted the validity of the heter mechirah generally and thus obviously accepted these etrogim as fulfilling the mitzvah (see above) one sees that the overwhelming majority of halachic authorities of the last 50 years approved of using Israeli etrogim grown or harvested during the shemitah year.

One is, in fact, hard pressed to find another preeminent halachic authority who accepts the analysis and conclusions of Rabbi Teitelbaum which prohibit such etrogim if they are worked or watched.* Indeed, common practice in the observant community has traditionally followed the lenient rules and procedure. Rabbi Feinstein’s final remarks at the end of his responsa on this topic are worth repeating:

Thus, one should not be concerned that one Gaon prohibited these etrogim to fulfil the mitzvah with them.

Similar sentiments are found in the recent work of Rabbi Aharon Zakai, HaBayit HaYehudi 8:23(31). He states:

We have strong authority and weighty principles to rely on to permit one to fulfil the mitzvah of etrog with one produced in Israel during the sabbatical year that is watched or worked. This is true even if the etrog is not sold to a Gentile… Even those who trivialize the central principles of the heter mechirah can fulfill the obligation with these etrogim.

This is true even more so for those segments of the observant community that are not generally strict for the unique insights of Rabbi Teitelbaum, the late revered Satmar Rebbe.

In sum, the overwhelming majority of halachic authorities accept that one fulfills one’s obligation with Israeli etrogim grown during the shemitah year.


The validity of the heter mechirah is hardly a relevant issue for Jews living in America. It only comes up when we purchase Israeli produce which is imported, and the overwhelming majority of such produce are fruits or neo-fruits (like bananas) which can be eaten during a shemitah year no matter how one rules on the heter mechirah, since fruits grow during shemitah anyway. Certainly, one can use an etrog guarded during the shemitah year according to almost all opinions.

* For a more detailed discussion, see R. Eliyahu Weissfish, Arba Minim HaShalem 129-136 and 308-324.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter

The latest weekly digest is also available by clicking here.

Subscribe to our Daily Newsletter