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In two days time, the Jewish people will celebrate Tu B’Shevat, the 15th of Shevat, which is often referred to as the Jewish New Year of trees. Tu B’Shevat celebrations often focus on the seven species that the Torah associates with the land of Israel (wheat, barley, pomegranates, figs, dates, grapes and olives) or on fruits in general.
This year, those preparing for Tu B’Shevat must keep in mind one extra consideration - the question of shmittah. Shmittah refers to the sabbatical year during which the Torah commands the people that the land of Israel must lie fallow for the year. Since the commandment is particular to the land of Israel, one might wonder how shmittah would affect the Jews in North America.
While the commandment of shmittah most directly affects farmers in Israel, who lay aside their plows for the year, it is the responsibility of the Jewish consumer to ensure that the food from Israel they purchase outside of Israel is not in violation of the laws of shmittah.
Modern day labelling laws make it fairly easy to be careful about shmittah observance. Fresh produce usually bears a sticker noting its country of origin. If not, this information is often posted in the supermarket. Slightly more complicated, however, are processed foods such as a jar of pickles, as the produce used therein may be from the previous year or may be a concern even for the year to come. Most reliable kosher certifications try to ensure that these issues are dealt with in advance.
While it seems counter-intuitive to avoid buying produce from Israel, one should remember that shmittah depends on emunah (faith). Within the Torah text instructing the observance of shmittah, God promises that those who show care and concern for the laws of shmittah will prosper in the year that follows (see Exodus 25:20-22).
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