News & Alerts

By Rabbi Yechezkel Elias

To the casual reader, an article on Shemittah appearing at this time would certainly raise eyebrows. Indeed, with the last Shemittah year having concluded in September of 2015, and the next Shemittah year not to dawn upon us until September of 2021, we stand today at a calendrical point about as distant from Shemittah as possible. 

In truth, however, although fresh Shemittah fruit and vegetables have long disappeared from the market, there remain items in supply which have been produced using Shemittah produce. Of particular note, wine bottles of 2015 vintage still abound, with potential to be of serious concern. 

Recurrently, bottles of wine from specific companies in Eretz Yisroel have been appearing in SAQ outlets featuring the certification of a recognized kashrus agency, with a small notation adjacent to the certification symbol stating that the wine is produced of Shemittah grapes. The words Otzar Bais Din appear on the label as well. These words can easily be overlooked by all but the most astute of consumers, yet carry extremely significant ramifications. What exactly do these words mean and what do they portend?

First off, it is important to emphasize that the intent here is not to provide a full overview of all the various laws of Shemittah, nor to decipher the many methods by which farmers, growers & producers deal with Shemittah. The focus here is on a singular range of products, and the specific method engaged by this particular company. Understandably, the various other methods available, of which this company has chosen not to engage, are not germane to this discussion. As stated, these wines are labeled that they are of Otzar Bais Din nature, and it is the ensuing legal ramifications of this statement with which the kosher consumer must be most concerned. It is imperative to note, however, that any 2015 wine of Israeli origin is of Shemittah concern, whether or not there is a marking on the label. A bottle lacking the Otzar Beis Din designation may, for reasons beyond the purview of this article, be just as problematic. A competent Rabbinic authority should be consulted

So what, exactly, are we dealing with?

To understand Otzar Bais Din is to understand the nature of the Shemittah year and the basic laws governing produce therein. 

The Torah teaches us that much as our weeks follow a seven day cycle, so too do our annual calendars follow a seven year cycle. As with the weekly Shabbos cycle, the six initial years have a more mundane and less guided status, whereas the seventh year is sanctified. A key difference, however, is that while the sanctity of Shabbos speaks of the relationship between the Jewish nation and Hashem, and thus binds each Jew no matter the geographic location, the sanctity of Shemittah is a specific reflection of the unique stature of the land of Eretz Yisroel. As such, the dictates of Shemittah apply exclusively to the land of Eretz Yisroel itself, as well as to any produce derived of the land during the course of the Shemittah year. Shemittah provides distinct guidelines governing which agricultural activities may or may not be performed. In a broad sense, all normal production activities must be curtailed. The produce of Shemittah is sanctified, imbued with a special Kedusha. This produce must be left Hefker, ownerless, free for the taking for any passerby.

As stated above, of singular importance to the average consumer in Montreal today is the Otzar Bais Din system. This system, first put into practice in the early 20th century, advanced an age-old Halachic principle into a practicable reality, with an underlying concept rather straightforward.

A field or orchard must be left in a state of Hefker throughout Shemittah. The produce must necessarily be available to any individual who so desires to take at will, at no charge. Given that most farmland lies at a distance from metropolitan areas, it is understood that an individual living in a city would be allowed to request of another individual to pick fruit on his behalf and to subsequently deliver the fruit to his home in the city. Having this concept evolve a step further; any number of individuals could feasibly join together to form a collective. The collective could then send emissaries throughout the countryside to select all and any form of ownerless fruit or vegetables on behalf of the collective members.

As these emissaries are agents of the collective, they would be in full legal entitlement to receive normal wages at the standard rate for employment. The same would hold true for all truck drivers, inventory managers & any other laborers hired by the collective. 

Following this process a step further, the collective may choose to hire the very same workers who provide the labor throughout the six “non-Shemittah” years. Indeed, as these workers deal with these specific lands and crop over many years, they would quite likely be the most adept and best suited for the tasks at hand. The result, then, would be that from the angle of public visibility, the activities of the harvest and delivery phases would seem quite as they would under normal conditions. The critical point here is the employee/employer relationship. Rather than serve as employees of the field’s owners as per normal conditions, the workers would now be acting as employees of the collective.

The final piece of this arrangement is to take the step from a pre-organized collective to where one can proactively set up such a system without seeking prior authorization from potential members. Acting on a presumed benefit to the broader public, the organization can be set up as emissaries of potential beneficiaries, in this case the public at large. Behold, the Otzar Bais Din model.

As this arrangement is nothing more than a method of facilitating procurement and delivery of heretofore-ownerless produce, a properly functioning system will exhibit a most noteworthy feature at time of delivery: that of price differential. Although Shemittah fruit may not be bought or sold, nonetheless, as the collective has hired many employees, it is permitted to recoup these expenses by splitting costs among the collective beneficiaries, by affixing a per unit fee. Hence, the final cost to the consumer would reflect only the associated costs, with no charge for the physical item itself as well as no profit margin whatsoever.

Having thus clarified the legal structure, we arrive at a most crucial point. There are many forms of Shemittah produce which find their way to market. There are some producers who work with an arrangement designed to produce fruit that does not possess unique Shemittah status, either by method of selling the land to non-Jewish ownership prior to Shemittah or other arrangement. Each of these methods is worthy of elaboration in its own right, but on a basic level, these methods endeavor to create a bypass whereby the produce could be deemed non-Shemittah produce.

Not so Otzar Bais Din produce.

As stated, the Otzar Bais Din system is merely one of procurement. A food or beverage bearing a kosher label stating that it is of Otzar Bais Din source is a legal statement that the item in question is fully sanctified by the holiness of Shemittah and that all laws of dealing with Shemittah produce apply in full force. While such an item is completely kosher, those buying or receiving such would be strongly advised to educate themselves on negotiating the potential pitfalls involved.

To be clear, the major Israeli vineyards generally forgo the export market entirely with regard to the Shemittah crop. How they choose to deal with that particular vintage will affect the Israeli consumer alone. As such, few, if any, bottles of 2015 vintage from the larger wineries will appear on shelves in North America. Unique among the major producers, however, is the Golan Heights Winery, based in Katzrin, a town in the Golan. Using a caveat emptor operating philosophy, GHW arranges for full crop harvest under the Otzar Bais Din system, making these wines available both locally in Israel and around the world. Wines from this company are produced under a number of labels including Hermon, Gilgal, and Yarden. As well, wines are produced by the company’s subsidiary, Galil Mountain Winery, and include labels such as Yiron and Ela. Bottles from these companies of 2015 vintage are necessarily of Otzar Bais Din Shemittah harvest.

Unfortunately, such an approach is extremely problematic, as the minuscule notation on the bottle is easily overlooked or mistaken for a portion of the standard kashrus agency logo. Even were a consumer to take notice, it is highly doubtful the average layman would grasp the full import of the notation. 

What, in fact, is the proper manner of conduct when in possession of such a bottle? Foremost is an understanding that Otzar Bais Din wines are fully kosher. The restrictions involved are a result of a unique sanctity imbued within the grapes used, not due to any transgression or violation.

▪ These wines may be purchased from the SAQ. As a non-Jewish seller, the SAQ is not bound by the standard prohibition of selling Shemittah produce, thereby permitting the transaction. As method of payment, one must refrain from paying directly with cash, but rather use alternative instruments of payment, such as check, credit card or mobile payment. 

Purchasing from a Jewish owned store would be permitted only in the event the seller marketed the wine at a price limited to the recoup of his outlay and expense, without adding any layer of profit.

▪ Normal consumption is entirely permitted. The method of consumption must necessarily be of the standard way of enjoying this particular item. Abnormal usage for that particular item would be viewed as a level of degeneration to the fruit, and thus be included in the prohibition of destroying Shemittah produce. Hence, fruits normally consumed raw may not be cooked, while those generally eaten only cooked or baked may not be eaten raw. One may not juice a fruit or vegetable if this is not a usual manner of consumption. Adding wine to a recipe would likely be proscribed for the same reason. Although the end result might be quite tasty, the wine itself is being dealt a degree of ruin.

▪ Shemittah produce may not be destroyed or discarded, unless it has reached a point where due to natural spoilage, it is no longer fit for consumption. The inherent Kedusha is retained in even minimally significant volumes. In the case of wine, this means the wine must be completely consumed, including the minor amount of liquid at the bottom of the bottle. If one used the wine for Kiddush, one would have to ensure the entirety of the cupful, as well as those of any other people at the table who partake of the Kiddush, is completely consumed. This includes wine that may have fallen on the Kiddush cup tray. One using Shemittah wine for Havdalah is forbidden to pour off wine to extinguish the flame, nor would one be allowed to place drops of the remnants on one’s eyes.

If one had Shemittah sanctified remnants he did not wish to consume, he may not discard of them in the normal manner, but must leave them in a place where they will remain untampered with until natural decay. This means the remnants may be left bagged individually in some storage spot. They may not be bagged together with remnants of other food types, even if those foods possess sanctity as well. As the various items will spoil at disparate rates, placing them in proximity is effectively an act causing a hastened rate of decomposition to one of the items. Similarly, a bag containing remnants may not be placed out in the sun, as this too is effectively an act of hastening destruction.

If Shemittah produce is added to a mixture or recipe, the flavor imparted renders the entire mixture of full Shemittah status. Ergo, if a pot full of soup was made using Shemittah onions, the entire soup will have Shemittah sanctity, and may not be disposed of in the normal manner.

▪ Due to the elevated sanctity of this unique wine, one who has taken possession is legally bound to ensure that it remain in a state where it will be properly dealt with. This Halacha mandates that a bottle of sanctified wine not be sold or gifted to a non-Jew.

▪ Shemittah produce is intended to be consumed in Eretz Yisroel. It is strictly forbidden to export such produce from Eretz Yisroel abroad. Ideally, this includes even a small volume, such as a snack one may wish to take on board for a flight leaving Eretz Yisroel. If exported, however, the food will not become prohibited. In our particular scenario, the import to Canada is already a fait accompli, and will generally not affect the consumer. However, according to many authorities, this prohibition includes not only export from Eretz Yisroel, but transfer to any new region not in Eretz Yisroel. Thus, one in possession of such a bottle should consume it locally, but not bring it to New York, Toronto, or beyond.

▪ It is worth noting that one important element of Shemittah is the Mitzvah of Bi’ur. Briefly, this obligation prevents the stockpiling of Shemittah produce by individuals. At a determined date where it has been deemed that the specific item is no longer available in fields, a person would have to release any volume he has taken possession of to a Hefker, ownerless, state. Failure to do so would render the food forbidden to eat. One would, however, be allowed to maintain a minimal amount in line with expected immediate consumption. 

While the details of Bi’ur are rather complex, they do not affect this particular scenario. The specific date for Bi’ur for wine follows the date for grapes, which coincides with the 15th of Nissan, six months after the conclusion of Shemittah. As pertains to the most recent cycle, this would be the date of April 23rd, 2016.

One who had indeed procured some quantity of wine prior to this date would be obligated to forfeit ownership. The working assumption here, however, is that these wines were still somewhere in the production phase at the aforementioned date. [In fact, many bottles state specifically that they were exported after the Bi’ur date]. This would mean that they were still in possession of GHW / Otzar Bais Din, and in fact properly ownerless, at time of Bi’ur. One who assumes ownership of ownerless produce only after the date of Bi’ur is under no further Bi’ur obligation.

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