It’s been a little over two months since Shmitah began, and kitchen life seems to be returning to some semblance of normalcy. Of course, normalcy is a very subjective term, especially when it comes to the kitchen. But let’s just say that the degree of Shmitah-related anxiety in my kitchen is far lower than it was when Shmitah first began. Things they are a-changing. The animated supermarket discussions and the incessant pings on WhatsApp groups formed to deal exclusively with the issue of Shmitah are finally petering out. We are all getting the hang of this important mitzvah.
Some mitzvot hatluyot ba’aretz, mitzvot that can only be fulfilled inside Eretz Yisrael, only come up on rare occasion. Trumot and Ma’asrot don’t usually have much of an impact on daily life since in many places, especially in these parts, those things are taken care of before the fruits and vegetables even reach the stores. No worries. But Shmitah is a different story entirely. Fruits and vegetables grown in Israel during this time are considered to have a special kedushah (holiness) and must be treated as such. One must attempt to finish all such produce on his/her plate, and in the event that there are leftovers, they are disposed of in a specially-prescribed manner. The determination of the status of produce is a complicated process and it affects food preparation, food disposal, and, like anything new, takes some time to learn.
Even with all the advanced shiurim and preparation, immediately after Rosh HaShanah the produce section of many a store becomes an unusually happening location, filled with customers scratching their heads, trying to figure out exactly what they can and cannot buy. There is usually a small crowd deliberating the issues, with each person offering their own understanding of what they learned to the lively discussion. Rabbi A. said we can always have this, except under these circumstances. Rabbi B. said this is okay, but this is better. Like everything else in our religion, there are many opinions. And there are strong opinions regarding those opinions. And one opinion often precludes the other. The case of Shmitah is no different. Observing Shmitah involves a synthesis of halachah and ideology. Some people do their best to eat food with kedushah. Others try to stay away from it for various halachic considerations. Some view heter mechirah (a leniency used to grow produce on land sold to non-Jews) as fine, or even ideal. Others do not approve of it. And there are many variations in between. The term “Shmitah l’mehadrin” is bandied about, but what is “Shmitah l’mehadrin” to one person can be sacrilege to another. We all want to do the right thing, but what the right thing is exactly is subject to much debate.
The storeowners want to give their customers as calm and positive a shopping experience as possible. While they have yet to provide a free massage for every produce purchase over 100 shekel, they do their best to display their produce in a clear way. Just as each fruit and vegetable has a sign nearby indicating the cost of each item, many stores also have signs indicating the halachic status of each item as well. In this particular case, clarity is a form of charity. The clear markings make it much easier to keep things straight. Broadly speaking, all of the types of produce fall into one of two categories: produce with kedushah or produce that somehow circumvents the Shmitah prohibitions and doesn’t have kedushah (for example, produce grown in the sixth year). Some stores provide special bags that can be used to separate produce that has kedushah from that which does not. Another accommodating convenience.
My husband attended several pre-Shmitah shiurim so he was prepared. My preparation involved taking out our Shmitah pail (used for kedushah disposal), washing it out, and placing it prominently on our kitchen counter. I thought I did a pretty good job with that. But, unfortunately, I did not attend any shiurim, and was relying on my husband and on my not-as-sharp-as-I-would-like-it-to-be memory of last Shmitah, seven years ago.
There is one halachah of Shmitah, however, that I don’t think I will ever forget. It is not permissible to take produce deemed as having kedushah outside of Israel. Years ago, when our family traveled to the US one summer during a Shmitah year, we temporarily forgot about this particular halachah. I, as a card-carrying member of the “Jewish Mothers Who Need to Feed” club, prepared healthy snacks for our children to last for our entire flight. Shortly before we headed to the gate, we suddenly remembered the halachah and quickly wolfed down a full transatlantic flight’s worth of fruit. We were exploding with kedushah!
Right after Rosh HaShanah, my family shoppers began bringing home bags filled with produce. This was during the period filled with Yomim Tovim and Shabbosim, one following directly on the heels of the other, with my kitchen in a perpetual state of commotion. My already overstuffed refrigerator was not prepared for this onslaught, and neither was my overstuffed head. Sometimes I was given instructions: “The tomatoes have kedushah.” “The cucumbers don’t.” “This cabbage has one status. The other cabbage has another status.” Sometimes I was shown a picture of a sign from the store. Sound confusing? That may be because it is!! I did not yet have a system in place and it was not easy to keep things organized with so much food and so many meals and eaters. “Don’t be afraid of kedushah,” I was told, as I was beginning to become afraid of kedushah. I tried to remember which items had kedushah and which did not. Not so easy. Then I had to remember to pass on this information to all of my eaters. Even harder. And then, of course, I had to remember to dispose of everything properly - most difficult, especially if I didn’t clearly remember the first two items on the list.
But now I’m in reset mode. I came up with an organized system that helps me keep track of which foods have kedushah and which do not. There are also these handy dandy refrigerator magnets designed for Shmitah tracking, on which you can check off which produce has kedushah. That way, everyone who opens the refrigerator can seize up the situation at a glance.
Keeping Shmitah is truly a wonderful thing, and I feel like I’m starting to really get it. We feel privileged to live here in Israel and it is very gratifying to be able to keep the mitzvot ha’tluyot ba’aretz. Hopefully, we will all feel the extraordinary brachah attributed to this special year.
Suzie (nee Schapiro) Steinberg grew up in Kew Gardens Hills. She works as a social worker and lives with her husband and children in Ramat Beit Shemesh.