Last year’s shemita was a huge deal here in Eretz Yisrael – with farmers, for sure – but for us housewives as well. For us city-dwellers, who don’t own one square meter of dirt in the Holy Land, shemita changed the way we shopped, cooked, baked, ate, and took care of our houseplants and gardens.
Today, months after Rosh Hashanah and the end of the shemita year, one might think that shemita is a thing of the past, to be remembered again in another six years. But for those of us living in Eretz Yisrael, it’s far from over. We are still dealing with shemita on a daily basis. Vegetables have kedushas shevi’is based on when they are picked, so all our vegetables are now post-shemita. Fruits, on the other hand, have kedushas shevi’is based on when they reach a specific stage of growth. The fruit being picked now reached that stage of growth many months ago, so we’re still eating shemita fruits, after the seventh year has ended. And it doesn’t stop there! We must be careful when purchasing canned goods, pre-made salads and spreads, juices, and even oil! We have to check every single package and container to make sure it doesn’t contain anything with kedushas shevi’is.
Yes, one of the tremendous privileges of living in Eretz Yisrael is keeping the mitzva of shemita. Before it started, there was palpable excitement in the air. From posters, advertisements, and billboards to numerous halacha shiurim offered, the anticipation grew and grew. But that’s not to say the fulfillment of the mitzva is easy. Let’s take a look at what some of my friends and neighbors say about their experience in the last year-and-a-half.
Shemita Is Coming!
Ilana, a typical housewife, says, “It’s a bit like jumping into the deep water; you have to learn the halachos. But I feel excited and lucky: Okay, let’s start this new challenge and see what happens!”
Rena says, “I am especially excited to keep mitzvos I did not grow up with, and I love to see my children so happy to do this mitzva that I barely knew about at that age. We really get to live it!”
Sima shares their enthusiasm: “It’s an opportunity to connect to the Ribono Shel Olam. Eating fruit with kedushas shevi’is puts us on a different level. Our children share that attitude.”
Rivki takes a more cautious attitude. Her initial feeling was “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe it’s shemita again! Time passed so fast!” Although worried about the intricacies of purchasing and cooking food, Rivki says, “We got through it last time; we’ll get through it now.”
Whether one is excited or stressed out about shemita, let’s take a look at what it means to the average housewife.
Planning the Shabbos and weekly menu poses challenges. I’d often plan a menu for Shabbos only to discover that one of the key ingredients was not available that week! With time, I stopped planning in advance. I would go to the store and see which vegetables were available, and decide what to cook based on that. We used to start our Shabbos seuda with a variety of salads, typical Israeli style. During shemita, we had to do without many of them, as the ingredients were either not available or exorbitantly priced. According to Rena, “A lot of vegetables that we normally buy we couldn’t get, so we made do with what we had; there wasn’t much of a selection.” What her family missed the most was celery in the soup, as for many months it was not available in her city. Ilana had a similar shemita experience, missing out on certain Shabbos salads and often not having peppers or tomatoes.
Rivki found it hard to deal with shemita produce, whose peels and remains must be saved until they spoil. She therefore looked around, often even shopping in other cities, to buy imported produce only. Rivki’s family thus had to make do without many of their regular vegetables, because it was often hard to find imported ones. Sima, who lives in a much larger city with many competing stores near her home, said she didn’t feel the difference that much. “We did use more rice and noodles than potatoes this year, because we couldn’t get good potatoes, but it was not such a big change.”
As for me, whenever the thought crept into my mind about all that we’re giving up by keeping shemita, I would remind myself that we are such small players in the large picture. Just imagine the mesirus nefesh of the farmers, and you’ll no longer miss your favorite vegetable!
The “Pach Shemita”
Any produce that grows within the halachic boundaries of Eretz Yisrael during the shemita year has a special kedusha (holiness) and must be treated accordingly. One is not allowed to use them in an unusual manner, such as juicing or mashing, or even cooking produce that is normally not cooked. In addition, even the edible peels, pits, and leftovers of shemita produce may not be thrown away till they are spoiled and no longer edible. And if you cook a dish with one vegetable that has kedushas shemita, it transfers that kedusha to the entire dish, and it all must be treated accordingly. Many families have special mini-garbage pails, commonly called the “pach shemita,” in which they place all the shemita garbage.
Each housewife develops her own system for dealing with the “holy trash” till it’s no longer edible. Rena sets a disposable plastic dish out on the counter each day. The peels and pits collect all day long, and at the end of the day, she ties it up in a bag and puts it on her windowsill to rot for a few days before throwing it out. Rena has three large baskets that she fills in a rotation system. By the time basket three is full, basket one is sufficiently rotted to throw away. Ilana says they try to avoid certain shemita produce that has too much peel to save, such as grapefruits. She has a preschool in her home and finds it especially challenging when children bring fruits and vegetables to daycare. She doesn’t enjoy watching over everyone else’s garbage! Rivki avoids the issue altogether by not bringing shemita produce into the house.
I had a very interesting experience last Pesach with my shemita garbage. I was doing my Pesach grocery order and had a choice of shemita potatoes or imported ones. The imported potatoes were significantly more expensive per kilo, and we go through dozens of kilos of potatoes on Pesach, so I decided to order the shemita ones. Boy, was that a mistake! It’s one thing to save a few tops of peppers or apple cores; it’s another story altogether to save such huge quantities of potato peels! Every day I was filling up another huge shopping bag of potato peels! I had trouble finding places to leave them all till they were sufficiently rotten. After all, you don’t want to smell them as they rot, nor do you want fruit flies in your kitchen. Let’s just say, I learned my lesson the hard way. For potatoes, I’ll pay the price and buy imported ones in the future!
Milk does not grow from the ground, so what can possibly be wrong with milk during shemita? One opinion states that one cannot use milk if the cows were fed produce that was grown during shemita. While many people don’t follow this opinion, quite a few do. There are one or two companies that distribute milk conforming with this opinion, along with Israeli leben (not to be confused with what the Americans call leben, which is a totally different product!) and soft white cheese. Ilana, whose family does not use standard milk products, said she found it to be a challenge. “I really missed the hard cheese,” she says. One friend of mine goes as far as to not use any dairy products at all, other than the milk from this one company. That means no milk chocolate either – now that is real mesiras nefesh! The added challenge with the milk is that this special milk is not sold in the stores but distributed one day per week at certain locations. It’s another errand to run, and it has to be done on that specific day, with exact change in cash. But, each additional shemita challenge presents us with additional rewards as well!
In the last few weeks before the start of shemita, preparations were well under way. While my own preparations included going to a hilchos shemita refresher course and placing my little “shemita bins” prominently on my countertops, others had more intense preparations. Zahava lives on a ground floor apartment with a lovely yard. Prior to shemita, they prepare their yard by trimming all the trees and branches till they look bald, knowing that they won’t be able to trim them again for an entire year!
Another neighbor, Rochel, has a real green thumb. She too lives on the ground floor, and has both a front and a back yard. She invests a tremendous amount of time and money making a beautiful garden. Prior to shemita, she decided to put down fake grass in her front yard, as she cannot bear to see it getting overgrown and full of thorns. Rochel’s backyard is filled with all sorts of potted plants. Those too pose a shemita problem, as any plant in a pot with holes is considered to be attached to the ground and cannot be cared for in the usual way during shemita. Rochel solved that by spreading large plastic tarps all over her back yard and placing the plant pots on top of the tarps.
The gardening issue doesn’t end there, though. It affects much more than just the plant lovers. We have air conditioner drain pipes that run into our downstairs neighbor’s garden. Instead of leaving the pipes to make a puddle in the mud, they place them just right to provide free irrigation to their plants. We had to reroute the drain pipes so that we wouldn’t be watering their plants every time we turned on the air conditioner!
Every year, the city council of Kiryat Sefer trims all the local palm trees the week before Sukkos, leaving the trimmings free for taking as schach. This past year, they trimmed the trees ahead of time, before Rosh Hashanah and the start of shemita.
As the end of the shemita year approaches, a very special event takes place in the streets of Bnei Brak: the shemita parade. Dozens of farmers line up in their tractors on one of the main roads. The children in town present them with a royal welcome, including a display of signs and banners, which they worked hard to prepare. All the men and boys come out to greet the farmers with tremendous respect over the enormous undertaking they’ve just completed! They sing and dance together in the streets, and some of the Gedolei Hador speak words of encouragement to these brave farmers. It’s definitely a most fitting tribute to the strong-willed farmers who laid their tools aside for an entire year!
As soon as Rosh Hashanah is over, the post-shemita frenzy begins. On Motzei Yom Tov, I stepped outside and could see the streets already filled with men and teenage boys trimming bushes and trees, clearing away overgrowth and weeds, and making their property presentable again.
I’ll end with a bracha: As Rav Shteinman said at the shemita parade: May we be zocheh to keep the next shemita as shemita de’oraysa, with the coming of Mashiach!
Aidel Matskin (nee Berman) grew up in Baltimore and now lives in Kiryat Sefer.