Join us at Moshe Elul’s beautiful organic grape vineyards to learn what shemittah entails
Photos: Elchanan Kotler
Do you know what’s special about this year? Starting from Rosh Hashanah, all over Eretz Yisrael, the halachos of shemittah take effect.
Rabbi Efraim Lebovits of Keren Hashviis, an organization that helps farmers in Eretz Yirael keep shemittah, took us to Moshe Elul’s beautiful organic grape vineyards in Karmei Yosef to see for ourselves what shemittah entails.
Arriving at Karmei Yosef
Hashem gave us such a beautiful country! Before we even reach the farm, the views are breathtaking, with green and brown hills unrolling under a bright blue sky. Once we pull into Moshe Elul’s vineyard, Karmei Elul (that’s “Elul’s Vineyard” in Hebrew), we see row after row of grapevines as far as the eye can see.
At the entrance to the vineyard is a small orchard of olive trees that Moshe tells us was planted right before the last shemittah. It’s really pretty here. Moshe tells us that with people looking for outdoor venues due to Covid, many events took place here under these olive trees. The trees offer us a welcome escape from the sun, but we’re eager to see the vineyard that we came for.
“What are you allowed to do for shemittah?”
“How many different kinds of grapes do you have here?”
“Do you only make wine, or do people also eat the grapes?”
“Is this the first time you’re keeping shemittah?”
All the children have so many questions. Hashem told us that just like we have Shabbos every seven days, every seventh year is shemittah. It’s a Shabbos for the land. We have to let the land rest. What does it mean to let the land rest?
“The short answer of what can be done with the land during shemittah is — absolutely nothing,” says Moshe, spreading both hands, palms down in front of him. “But the long answer is a little more complicated.”
Seeing the Vineyard
Moshe leads us to a row of Merlo grape vines. Every couple of feet, there is a skinny trunk growing out of the ground along a metal pole with a branch growing out of either side, like the letter T. There are thin wires for the branches to grow on.
“What’s that?” asks Dovid Nechemia Steinbruch, pointing at a small plastic pipe running along the wire the branches are growing on.
“This pipe has holes that drip exactly the right amount of water on the vines. This Israeli invention saves lots of water. But during shemittah we aren’t allowed to water the vines to make them grow. We can only give just enough water to keep them alive,” Moshe answers.
Moshe plucks juicy bunches of grapes and passes them around. “This is the first organic, totally natural vineyard in Israel. There are no insecticides, so you can eat them straight off the vine without washing them off.”
“If we’re allowed to eat these grapes, that means they were planted at least five years ago, doesn’t it?” asks Dovid Nechemia. He’s referring to the three years we have to wait for orlah and the fourth year of netta revai, when we’re not allowed to eat from a tree.
But Moshe corrects him. “We can eat the fruit of the fourth year after pidyon netta revai — redeeming the fruit of the fourth year. These vines were planted around eight years ago, before the last shemittah. We’ve been able to use these grapes for a few years already.”
Pruning the Vineyard
With everyone busy munching on grapes (and keeping an eye out for bugs, since there are no insecticides), Moshe gives us another shemittah lesson. He points to the T-shaped split in the branches where the grapes grow. “When the trunk grows, it grows upward and splits into branches and grows along the wire we’ve put here. The very first place that branches split off from the trunk will grow grapes. But the vine will continue to grow upward and produce more leaves. Those leaves use nutrients from the plant to grow, so we keep trimming them so as many nutrients as possible will end up in the grapes.”
Trimming all the extra leaves and branches, to make sure that the fruit gets the maximum strength the plant can produce, is the melachah of zemirah, pruning. Pruning is one of the melachos that are forbidden during shemittah.
So does that mean this coming year all these vines will be growing out of control? Well, almost, but not totally.
“If you don’t trim the branches at all, it can get too heavy on top and the tree could fall over on itself and die. We’re allowed to trim the branches just enough to keep the tree alive.”
There’s also another very important consideration. We’ve been hearing a lot in the news lately about fires and the damage they can cause. Karmei Elul is in an area that is considered at risk, so regularly throughout the year of shemittah workers will be going through the area and making sure that growth doesn’t get out of hand and become a fire hazard.
Since Karmei Elul is organic, they don’t use any weed killer, so workers will bring tractors and giant lawn mowers that will keep the areas under the vines and between the vines clear of shrubs that could burn and be dangerous.
Harvesting the Vineyard
“Except for those two considerations, we’re leaving everything exactly as it is during shemittah. We usually do zemirah in the winter. But by the time winter comes, it will already be shemittah, so right before Rosh Hashanah we’re going to cut all the vines down to almost zero. We’re going to leave only the main trunk and a small stump of the side branches, so that there will be the least amount of damage to the vines when they are left to grow on their own,” Moshe explains.
Dovid Nechemia looks at the bunches and bunches of small round Merlo grapes dangling along the entire length of the vine.
“You’re just going to leave all these grapes on the vine and not harvest anything?”
“Ah, good question!” Moshe smiles.
“In another week or two, one night we’re going to come and harvest all these grapes. The laws of shemittah don’t begin until Rosh Hashanah. These are grapes from the sixth year.”
“Because they started growing before Tu B’Av, right?” asks Avrumi Lebovits.
“That’s right! Anything that grows before the 15th of Av is considered produce from the sixth year,” Moshe confirms.
“Tu B’Av is 45 days before Rosh Hashanah and it takes 45 days to be considered a plant,” Avrumi adds.
Moshe smiles. “This boy knows his stuff. It takes about two weeks for the roots to grow and another month to sprout and be considered a real plant. Put them together and it means that anything planted before Tu B’Av can be considered having grown before we begin the shemittah year. We can gain an entire year in 45 days.”
“Did you say you’re going to harvest the grapes at night? Why?” Shaya Steinbruch wants to know.
“All day long the tree is active. We can’t see it of course, it’s happening inside the leaves and roots and branches. At night, everything stops. All the nutrients and vitamins settle inside the grapes. We want to harvest the grapes at their maximum goodness. So that’s why we harvest them at night.”
Strangers in the Vineyard
“What’s going to happen to all the grapes that grow during shemittah?” asks Dovid Nechemia.
“Hefker maleh,” Moshe says with a big smile spreading his arms wide. “Totally hefker. That means anyone in Klal Yisrael can come and take all that they want.”
“But you’re not allowed to take as much as you want, are you? You’re only allowed to take shalosh seudot, right?” Avrumi points out.
“That’s absolutely right.” Moshe explains. During shemittah, everyone is allowed to come and take as much as they want, but the farmer, who owns the field, is only allowed to take what he needs until Pesach, and no more. That amount is called ‘shalosh seudot.’”
Break Time at the Vineyard
It’s very hot out in the vineyards and we’ve learned a lot, so Moshe gathers everyone under the olive trees and hands out popsicles and cold drinks. We laugh as we drink water and juice out of wine glasses — the only glasses that Moshe has on hand. Not far from the vineyards is Moshe’s winery, where he turns all these grapes into wine. Moshe has a “vine to wine” production going on here.
Kosher wine can’t be touched by a non-Jew. Moshe only has Jewish workers in his winery, but in the fields he has non-Jewish workers. The moment the juice comes out of the grape, it is considered wine according to halachah; all the containers that transport the grapes from the field to the winery have holes, so that any juice that gets squeezed out on the way can drip out.
Moshe points at the olives trees. “We’re going to harvest the olives after Succos, b’ezrat Hashem. We have a grove of 300 trees.”
Shaya looks confused. “But isn’t that after shemittah has already started?”
“Even though the olives will be harvested during the shemittah year, because the chanatah — the time that it became a fruit — was in the sixth year, they are considered sixth-year olives.”
We climb into our cars and follow Moshe further into the vineyard.
Moshe shows us a small pen with goats. The Ministry of Agriculture in Israel doesn’t allow all the grape seeds and skins to be thrown away after the wine has been made. The goats are here to eat them!
Promise in the Vineyard
Moshe has 14 different kinds of grapes growing in his vineyards. We’ve tasted Merlo already, and now we taste a few more. The vines about to be harvested in the upcoming weeks are all full of grapes. Moshe says this year’s crop was one of the biggest he’s ever had. In fact, it’s been about double.
He has no explanation for his bumper crop this year — he hasn’t done anything differently than he’s done in past years when the crop was much smaller — except for the Torah’s promise. The Torah promises that if you keep shemittah Hashem will give you double in the sixth year to make up what you can’t harvest in the seventh year.
Isaac Lebovits has been watching his father convince farmers to keep shemittah for many months now. He looks at Moshe and asks, “Would you keep shemittah without Keren Hashviis?”
“I would. But there are a lot of farmers who wouldn’t. This is their only source of income. Keren Hashviis makes it possible for them to keep shemittah. They give you the feeling that you’re not alone. During shemittah I feel like all of Klal Yisrael is keeping shemittah with me.”
Rabbi Lebovits is quick to tell us that shemittah is everyone’s mitzvah. “If someone doesn’t keep Shabbos, chas v’shalom, that doesn’t prevent me from keeping Shabbos. But if someone doesn’t keep shemittah, all of Klal Yisrael loses out. We were sent into galus for 70 years, for the 70 shemittahs that weren’t kept. That doesn’t mean that for those 70 shemittahs, no one kept shemittah. Some people did, but not everyone. Shemittah is very important for all of Klal Yisrael.”
As we bid Moshe goodbye and thank him for a wonderful day, and for teaching us so much, he shares one last halachah. “Right now, shemittah is a mitzvah d’Rabbanan, but if rov Am, the majority of Klal Yisrael, will be here, it becomes a mitzvah d’Oraisa. I hope that next shemittah will be a d’Oraisa shemittah.”
You also have to be careful not to throw seeds or pits somewhere they could grow. If you’re eating a kind of fruit or vegetable whose seeds grow easily anywhere, you have to make sure they go in the garbage and don’t fall where they might grow.
If you get fruit grown during shemittah, you can’t waste it or ruin it. You can only eat fruit the way it’s normally eaten. You can’t cook a fruit that is usually eaten raw or eat a fruit raw if it’s usually cooked, and you can’t throw it in the garbage. People have special containers for shemittah fruit that doesn’t get eaten, where they keep it until it gets rotten. Then you’re allowed to throw it away.
Did you know there are halachos of shemittah that you need to know, even if you don’t have a farm? If you live in Eretz Yirael, you need to be careful how you take care of your house plants and garden. You can’t water them more than what’s needed to keep them alive, or move a plant in your house outdoors to get some sun, for example.
Grapes grown to use in the Beis Hamikdash have to be grown in a special way. Instead of growing on a pole, and having the branches grow in a “T”, they have to grow naturally, like a regular tree. They form a bell shape, instead of growing in rows like the vines we’ve seen today. Moshe has designated some parts of his orchard where the vines grow this way, so that the grapes can be used for the Beis Hamikdash. Hopefully we’ll need those grapes very soon!
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 878)
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