Torat Tzion: YU Students Get Up Close and Personal with Shemittah Observance

shemittah yeshiva university israel
Rav Hershel Schachter joined students in picking oranges at a grove in the Golan during YU’s recent Shemittah B’Aretz trip.

The Jewish agricultural cycle of shemittah comes around every seven years, and a recent trip to Israel by a group of Yeshiva University students provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience this Torah concept firsthand.

From Jan. 8-13, 2022, 12 students from YU’s undergraduate colleges and the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) joined some of the University’s top rabbinic leaders for a first-of-its-kind on-the-ground education about Shemittah B’Aretz [shemittah in the Holy Land], where they gained unique insight into the current year-long farming sabbatical, which began September 2021.

The trip was a powerful expression of Yeshiva University’s connection to Israel and its people and its commitment to the core value of Torat Tzion [redemption]. It also highlighted YU’s unique ability to relate to all sectors of the Jewish People in Israel.

The practice of shemittah takes place during the seventh year of a seven-year agricultural cycle, an observance that began in Biblical times soon after the Jewish people entered the land of Israel. During shemittah, the land is left to lie fallow, with Jewish law requiring most agricultural activity to take a break, like a Sabbath of the land. This practice impacts Israeli farmers and consumers in Israel, and allows for the taking a collective breather to focus on more spiritual pursuits with the faith that God will provide sustenance.

Yeshiva University partnered with Shnat HaSheva [The Seventh Year], an Israeli organization started by Rabbi Dr. Ari Bergmann, who teaches Talmud at Yeshiva University, dedicated to spreading awareness of shemittah and specifically of the use of a practice called Otzar Beit Din, a distribution system run by a rabbinic court that allows for the harvesting and consumption of shemittah fruit.

Fruit that grows during the seventh year is “ownerless,” and farmers may not charge others to consume the fruit in the fields. They may, however, be appointed by a beit din [Jewish court] to harvest the fruits on behalf of the public and be paid the costs expended through harvesting the fruit and bringing it to consumers. This method of distributing shemittah fruit has the endorsement of the vast majority of Israeli rabbis across the religious spectrum.

Led by Rav Hershel Schachter (Rosh Yeshiva, RIETS), Rabbi Dr. Ari Bergmann, Rav Elchanan Adler (Rosh Yeshiva and Eva, Morris, and Jack K. Rubin Memorial Chair in Rabbinics, RIETS) and Rabbi Menachem Penner (Max and Marion Grill Dean, RIETS), the trip included visits with farmers from different backgrounds, experts in produce warehousing and distribution, and esteemed rabbis and decisors of Jewish law, including Rabbi Shmuel Karelitz of Bnei Brak, whose rabbinical court handles the arrangements for the Shnat HaSheva fields and fruits. The RIETS students also visited a winery, picked oranges at a grove in the Golan section of the country and traveled to a number of yeshivot in Jerusalem as well as to Yeshivat Sederot to interact with other students and gain further insights from local roshei yeshiva [heads of yeshiva] about this holy practice.

“Shemittah is a beautiful mitzvah that can bring together the Jewish people and connect them to farmers and the land itself,” said Rabbi Penner, describing the trip as an unforgettable experience where participants will never look at Israel and its farmers the same way again. “The students are now ready and eager to bring their eye-opening knowledge home to the United States and share it with others.”

Crowdfunding Initiative for Shnat HaSheva

Consumption of produce from the land during the shemittah year is permitted and, according to some authorities, is the fulfillment of a Torah commandment, under specific conditions.

The Shnat HaSheva organization works to guide the Israeli public on how to consume shemittah fruits in accordance with halacha [Jewish law], especially in ways that bring together farmers and consumers.

Shnat HaSheva is organizing an ambitious project called Pri Yomi, through which some 100,000 Israeli students will receive Otzar Beit Din shemittah fruit at no charge for nine months.

“As future leaders, the students are inspired to share their appreciation of Shnat HaSheva and the underlying beauty of the mitzvah of shemittah, the sacrifices made by farmers and the potential for shemittah observance to unite Jews in Israel and around the world,” Rabbi Penner said, adding that this presents the students with “a very special opportunity to make a difference.”

The hope is that after having learned about the importance of shemittah, the potential of Otzar Beit Din and the stories of faith from many farmers, the students will return to the United States with a mission to raise awareness of and encourage North American donors to help crowdfund for the Pri Yomi initiative.

Feedback from the participating students seems to support this hope. Zakkai Notkin ’25YC of Teaneck, for example, said “the shemittah trip provided a fascinating and immersive experience, both from a theoretical halachic perspective to the facts on the ground.” Yehuda Dov Reiss ’22YC of Chicago agreed, sharing that “this trip has been an incredible, unique opportunity to see shemittah in action. We saw how much Otzar Beit Din has a real-world impact on farmers and the entire nation.”

To learn more about shemittah and Otzar Beit Din, visit www.year7.org (the site is in Hebrew).