Otzar Beit Din
As the Shmita (Sabbatical) year approaches, it is time to think about what our choices are for buying fruit during the Shmita year. One option is buying from the Otzar Beit Din (Storehouse operated by the Court).
What exactly is Otzar Beit Din and where does it originate from?
We are taught some of the laws of Shmita in Parshat Behar (Vayikra 25:1-6):
God spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai saying: Speak to B’nai Yisrael and say to them: When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a Shabbat of God. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a Shabbat of complete rest, a Shabbat for God: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. But you may eat whatever the land during its Shabbat will produce—you, your male and female slaves, the hired and bound laborers who live with you.
The ideal during the Shmita year was for all of the fields to be left open and everything grown there would be considered “Hefker” (ownerless). Whoever needed food would be able to go in and take what they needed. But what happens when you need a lot of different types of fruits from all over the country? This is where the Otzar Beit Din was needed.
We learn in Tosefta Shviit 8:1-2:
Originally, agents of the Beit Din (rabbinic court) would sit at the entrances of the cities. Whoever brought fruits (Shmita produce) in his hand, they (the Beit Din) would take them from him and would give him from them enough food for three meals. The remainder would be placed into the otzar (storehouse) that is in the city.
When it was the time for harvesting figs, the agents of the Beit Din would employ workers to gather them, pack them in cakes of pressed figs, put them in barrels and place them into the otzar in the city.
When it was the time for harvesting grapes, agents of the Beit Din would employ workers to gather them, stomp on them in the wine-press, collect them in the barrels and place them in the otzar in the city
When it was time for harvesting olives, the agents of the Beit Din would employ workers to harvest them, press them in the olive- press, collect (the oil) in barrels and place them in the otzar in the city.
On Erev Shabbat they would distribute a sufficient amount for 3 meals for each member of their household.
We learn from the Tosefta that the Beit Din did the work by harvesting, preparing and delivering the produce around the country.
How was the Beit Din allowed to harvest and process the Shmita produce in an ordinary manner? We learn in the Mishna, Shviit 8:6 that this would be forbidden:
Figs of the Shmita year may not be cut with a muktzeh (fig knife), but they may be cut with a sword. Grapes may not be trodden in the wine press but they may be trodden in the kneading trough. Olives may not be pressed in a small olive press or with a beam but one may crush the olives and put them in a small press.
The Chazon Ish (Shviit 12:6) based on the Ramban (Vaikra 25:7) explains that these prohibitions may not be done by the owner of the field. However, when the Beit Din takes possession of the ownerless field, this work is permitted as the Beit Din is not expressing ownership. The court can collect payment to cover the costs of the labor but one may not pay for the actual fruit.
While the Rambam in Hilchot Shmita v’Yovel does not quote the Tosefta’s concept of Otzar Bait Din (either because it was a solution for that specific time period, or because he thought that it didn’t need a separate Halacha), the Ramban and the Rosh in his commentary on Masechet Shviit 9:8 and others do bring the words of the Tosefta.
In the year 5670 (1909-1910) the Otzar Beit Din was established by the rabbis of Jerusalem and Rav Chayim Berlin as a result of a proposal by Rav Kook (which combined Otzar Beit Din with Heter Mechira). The Chazon Ish revived the Otzar Beit Din in 5705 (1944-1945).
One type of Otzar Beit Din that is in effect today follows the ruling of the Chazon Ish. It is a distribution system run by a Rabbinic court who serve as agents of the consumer. They take over the farms for the year and all of the harvesting, transporting and distributing that needs to be done. Shoppers don’t pay for the fruit, they only pay for the labor involved. Since today Shmita is a mitzvah d’rabanan, a rabbinic mitzvah, rabbinically the produce has Kdushat Shviit (sanctity), and must be treated as holy. Special stores are set up all over Israel with Otzar Beit Din produce.
The fruit from the Otzar Beit Din has Kdushat Shviit and must be treated with respect. Leftovers that are no longer fit for consumption (by humans or animals) may be thrown away with the regular garbage as usual. Leftovers that are fit for consumption (by humans or animals) may not be thrown away with the regular garbage and must be placed in a Shmita garbage until it rots. If pits and peels are no longer edible they would go in the regular garbage, if they are edible, they would go in the Shmita garbage.
Wine with sanctity may not be wasted and therefore we should not have the cup overflowing at Havdala where it will spill over and we should not take out wine from our cups at the Pesach Seder for the Ten Plagues.
We are also only supposed to use Shmita produce for what it was intended for and therefore the fruits should only be eaten when they are ripe and only fruits that are normally juiced should be squeezed into juice.
Otzar Beit Din is one of a number of solutions which help us observe Shmita today. Next time we will discuss Heter Mechira.