Head of the Halachic Division of Institution for Agriculture According to Halocho, and formerly secretary of HaRav Yosef Sholom Eliashiv, zt"l.
Note that this article was originally published in 1994/5754, 4 shemittas ago.
It is reasonable to assume that many readers will be finished with this article after no more than glancing at its headline. The widespread feeling is that everything is already known about Shmittah in general and in particular about otzros beis din—everything is simple and obvious to all.
In fact, just the opposite is true. Just now, the shelichei beis din of HaRav Nissim Karelitz, av beis din of Bnei Brak and rosh kollel Chazon Ish, have begun the harvest in the vineyards in order to produce wine and grape juice that will have kedushas shevi'is. This development would prompt us to review what we know about otzar beis din even if all of its halachos were well-known; such study is still more imperative since several details have not been sufficiently clarified.
I do not intend to delve into the halachic aspect of how an otzar beis din functions in itself, but rather to outline our twofold obligation on the sidelines:
First of all our responsibility as consumers to strengthen the observance of Shmittah in Eretz Yisroel, and second our commitment towards the heroic farmers who observe Shmittah and distribute their agricultural produce through the otzros beis din strictly according to halocho.
Let us look back into how Shmittah observance appeared at the time of the Chazon Ish. Spiritual devastation then prevailed among the common people, who numbered almost no strict observers of Shmittah. "The people are accustomed to rely on the heter mechirah," wrote the Chazon Ish. The handful of genuine self-sacrificing martyrs who dedicated themselves to uncompromising Shmittah-observance needed exceptional spiritual strength to fly in the face of accepted economic considerations. In addition, they suffered greatly from the interference of people who wanted to "prove" that there is not the slightest possibility of halachically observing Shmittah in modern times.
That year Nachshonei Shmittah, written by Achiezer Arkin, was published. The book portrayed the heroic campaign of observing the Shmittah halochos led by the founders of Mazkeret Batyah. The contemptible behavior of Baron Rothschild's officers, who tried to force the settlement's people to work on Shevi'is, are revealed there to the readers. The following quote from the newspaper Chavatzelet (published during that period) is evidence that these officers found nothing too low if it offered the hope of thwarting Shmittah-observers.
"The condition of our brother farmers in the Ekron [Note: this is another name for Mazkeret Batyah] settlement is extremely difficult . . .. They are suffering from hunger due to their obedience to the poskim of Eretz Yisroel, the eminent geonim from Yerushalayim, who forbade them to work this year, the seventh year, as prescribed in our Torah. There is almost no home in Ekron without someone sick in it. During the last two months some twenty sick men, women, and children were brought to Yerushalayim and were hospitalized for days and even weeks ... The doctor from Rishon LeTziyon will not visit them, on the orders of the [Baron's] officials, which prevent him from fulfilling his duty" (Chavatzelet, #41, 12 Av, 5649).
The battle over the heter mechirah for Shmittah soon digressed from a purely halachic discussion about Shmittah observance. It became the battle of the anti-religious elements against the fulfilling of mitzvos generally and the renewing of the Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisroel al taharas hakodesh. These fervent Torah-haters even stooped to slandering and debasing gedolei Yisroel.
HaRav Eliezer Gordon zt'l, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Lomza, depicted their acts (Oraisah LeInyonei Shevi'is, published by Rav Amihud Levine) when he wrote: "In order to publicly defame the rabbonim, geonim, and tzadikim who prohibit working on Shevi'is, they have spread a rumor that they have so ruled [to observe Shmittah] because they are inclined against the mitzvah of settling in Eretz Yisroel."
One of the "enlightened" leaders even wrote a letter attacking the renowned Rav of Yerushalayim, HaRav Shmuel Salant zt'l, whose work in building the settlement in Yerushalayim and desire to base the growing `new yishuv' on taharas hakodesh are known by all. This "enlightened" person wrote: "A terrible enemy lives here and wants to use Shmittah to bring about the yishuv's destruction. This enemy is HaRav Shmuel Salant . . . who wishes to destroy by means of [the Shmittah] the entire establishment of the yishuv . . . He is the head of those who hate Zion . . . and therefore we must fight him shrewdly" (Cheker VeIyun II, p. 211). Of course, this about as distorted a picture as could be painted of HaRav Salant's desires and deeds.
Facing the overthrowers of Torah observance were the true public leaders. They called out from the depths of their hearts for Shmittah observance, strengthening the farmers who observed Shmittah and providing halachic guidance for them. The Ridbaz, who was famous for his struggles for Shmittah observance, after writing his halachic conclusion prohibiting the eating of produce on which forbidden melochos were done during Shevi'is, wrote an appeal to the Jews in chutz la'aretz to purchase the Eretz Yisroel wine (which was exported in the permitted way outlined in his sefer) provided the vines were not pruned on Shmittah:
"All Jews should know that when wheat is sown on Shevi'is and a vineyard is pruned on Shevi'is, the wheat, fruit, and wine are prohibited to a Jew like pork . . . . May Hashem protect us from the terrible punishment induced by transgressing this severe issur . . .. In this sefer I advise Jews who own vineyards to sell the Shevi'is wine to the Diaspora, provided that pruning is not done. (It is common knowledge, and also practice has proven, that refraining from pruning once, twice, or even more, does not prove fatal to the tree. This fact is contrary to what the malicious sinners told the Kovner Rav [HaRav Yitzchok Elchonon Spektor] in order to deceive him.
[Editor's note: The Ridbaz is referring to the fact that the Kovner Rav permitted (on a one-time basis and under conditions prevailing only then) the selling of Eretz Yisroel to a non-Jew in order to permit rabbinic melochos done by a non-Jew.]
As explained herein, it is permissible to export [such] wine. Therefore fellow Jews who are waiting for the Moshiach's advent—speedily, in our days!—can restore Shmittah observance to our Holy Land by buying the Shevi'is wine from Eretz Yisroel for kiddush and havdoloh, provided they drink it with kedushas Shevi'is: something we have not merited doing since the time of the Beis Hamikdash's destruction."
To the regret of the gedolei Yisroel, in those times the number of Shmittah observers diminished from one Shmittah to the next, "since during the last Shmittah year the people relied on the mechirah and did not consult the rabbonim to clarify what is permitted" (Chazon Ish in his letter to Maran HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky). After the Chazon Ish decided to dedicate himself to guiding the Shmittah observant farmers in "Gederah, Kfar Alter, and Machaneh Yisroel, and [also] many workers who were interested in this . . . we are obliged to clarify the permitted acts."
From then, began the restoration of Shmittah observance in our Holy Land (from the original kibbutzim of Gederah and Kfar Alter came the founders of Kibbutz Chofetz Chaim). The instructions of Maran the Chazon Ish teach us how to act in all parts of the Shulchan Oruch, but especially so regarding the land-related mitzvos, and in particular the mitzvah of Shevi'is.
The establishment of the otzar beis din in our days (its basis, though, stems from the Tosefta) was taught to us by the Chazon Ish. Otzar beis din is an institution which is the foundation of Shevi'is observance for both urban and rural people. It is the way to supply fruit for those who live in the cities without any question of transgressing the prohibition of sechorah (doing business with Shmittah produce).
By means of the otzar beis din, produce can be harvested in the normal way, by the agents of the beis din, and we are also saved from the transgression of eating fruit after the bi'ur date. In addition, we cannot overlook the fact that this is the way to provide livelihood and sources of occupation for Shevi'is- observant farmers, by appointing them to carry out the permitted melochos as agents of the beis din, and to distribute the fruits to consumers who are Shevi'is observant.
The practical side of setting up halachically correct otzros beis din was not done all in one Shmittah year. In the past, people did not always know how to distribute the produce according to the halocho. Sometimes they needed barely-acceptable heteirim to permit them to deliver their produce to commercial organizations that are not Shmittah observant. In addition, continual guidance about what is permitted and forbidden was many times lacking for farmers.
Now, due to Hashem's kindness, the public has become more knowledgeable about these halochos, and more and more farmers are strictly observing Shmittah in their fields under the supervision of beis din.
The strengthening of the otzros beis din also brought about a strengthening of public consciousness about Shmittah observance among farmers. An observant farmer is no longer a lone man in his Shmittah observance, struggling by himself with questions of daily existence. He is now an emissary of the public, of beis din, and of the consumer body who get the fruits from the distribution stations. He has become a partner in the reestablishment of Shevi'is observance, bringing the land's produce, which the Creator has made hefker, to the general public.
Whoever has seen the happiness of these pure and upright Jews in their partnership with this mitzvah can well understand that anyone who wishes to strengthen Shmittah observance in the Holy Land and increase Shmittah observers must fortify the Torah-true otzros beis din.
Please permit me to interject an important note here. During this Shmittah year it seems that there are some who criticize the otzar beis din arrangement. There are among them those whose intent is acceptable, but there is also a small minority whose aim seems similar to that of the "enlightened" Jews of past years who tried to prove the impossibility of observing Shmittah in our Holy Land. Both groups, however, must consider the aid to Shmittah observance promoted by the otzar beis din.
Unfortunately, the public is unaware what the Shmittah observant farmers have sacrificed by joining Torah-true otzros beis din, especially in this current Shmittah year. This year was distinguished in the agricultural sector by a particularly small yield of summer fruit. The crop was much smaller than that of most years, and this brought in its wake a price rise in the general market (not Shmittah observant). Moreover, the situation of the Shmittah farmers is worse than usual. This is because the instructions of the beis din prohibited thinning out fruit once it appears on the trees, the recommendation being that when thinning must be done, it should be done only at blossom time. Due to this winter's unfavorable weather, the buds fell, so that many orchard owners remained without any fruit on their trees.
It would seem clear that beis din would be allowed to demand a higher price for the fruit that did survive all this, but the ruling of HaRav Yosef Eliashiv shlita did not allow this. He ruled that beis din should not distribute fruit at the market prices, even when these reflect only the true expenses without even the slightest profit. Rather the otzar beis din must charge a price that is significantly below the market price, in all circumstances.
It was according to this ruling that the Shmittah observant farmers belonging to the otzar beis din of the Poalei Agudah settlements acted. It is therefore no wonder that their distribution of the summer fruits ended with a big loss. Some of the beis din's emissaries—the farmers—received only a small percentage of their actual, out-of-pocket expenses without even considering the pay they should have received for their work.
Undoubtedly the crown of all the otzros beis din managed according to halocho is the beis din headed by the gaon HaRav Nissim Karelitz shlita, first set up last Shmittah year, 5747. HaRav Karelitz's instructions about pruning only in the sixth year without looking for an alternative heter to trim and prune in a derech shinui was the acid test to measure the perseverance of the farmers. His halachic guidance, supervision, method of distribution, determination of each man's pay, and all stages of the beis din's arrangements for that year, served as a model of how an otzar beis din should be run according to the halocho.
Everyone saw clearly that the fields were hefker and that the owners only received their expenses. Even if the crop in a certain vineyard was of exceptional quality, still the owner received the standard expenses, since the fruit was not his anymore—it was hefker according to the Creator's will.
It seems to me that here is the opportunity to warn the public about some of those who decorate their merchandise with signs declaring "otzar beis din" when this is not really the case, according to the guidelines we have described here. There may be an otzar of riches here, but there is certainly no beis din. A mere sign does not mean that there is any supervision on the melochos in the field and vineyard, and that the price of the produce is truly set according to the halocho.
One day I happened to be present when an esrog grower presented a report of expenses to a beis din, in which he requested that the beis din approve a payment of tens of thousands of dollars for his labor! That particular beis din acted according to the halocho, and practically threw the report of expenses in that grower's face. (I heard from one of the beis din's members that later that farmer did act according to the halocho).
It is obvious that the Chazon Ish, when initiating the otzar beis din, did not mean a beis din that would agree to such exaggerated demands. Nevertheless, many times we hear the argument that in actuality not all otzros beis din are acting according to the halocho and that their prices are similar to those in the free market. Such behavior leads people to refrain from taking fruit even from otzros beis din that do act according to the halocho.
The Rambam writes that there is a positive mitzvah "to know the signs that differentiate between cattle, animals, and birds . . . that are permitted to be eaten and those who are not permitted to be eaten . . .. As the Torah writes, `To differentiate between the tomei and the tahor, between the animal that can be eaten and the animal that cannot be eaten.'"
Similarly in our case, we must clarify which otzros beis din are not managed according to the halocho and then refrain from taking fruit from them. On the other hand, we must follow the ruling of the eminent contemporary poskim HaRav Y. S. Eliashiv, HaRav S. Z. Auerbach, and HaRav S. Wosner shlita, and take "with happy hearts an abundance of grape juice and wine produced under the supervision of the beis din, so that the beis din will be able to honor its obligations to its emissaries and in this way to strengthen the walls of Shmittah observance in the Holy land."