Are You Allowed to Water Your Garden During Shemita?

L’iylui nishmas my dear mother, אמי מורתי מרת יוכבד פעשא בת הלל ע״ה, on her eighteenth yahrzeit

Have you wondered what happens to your garden during shemita?

Most work in fields and gardens is prohibited. What about watering your trees and plants?

This is the subject of a major dispute among contemporary poskim.

The Mishna is lenient about watering

The Torah tells us in Parshas Behar (Vayikra 25, 1 – 5) that the seventh year is shemita and the land should rest. It gives several examples of work that is prohibited. You cannot plant, prune, reap grain, or harvest grapes.

Yet, despite the Biblical requirement to let the land rest, the Mishna in the beginning of Moed Katan permits watering a sensitive, thirsty field during shemita. Chazal understood that the field needs water and the crops would wilt or die if it was not watered regularly, so they were lenient. The Gemara explains that Chazal had the power to make this dispensation because the prohibition of not watering crops is only miderabanan. When the issur was created by Chazal, they still allowed one to water crops that really need hydration.

Why is watering not prohibited min hatorah? The Gemara gives two reasons:

  • Abayei says that the Mishna follows the opinion of Rebi that all of shemita is miderabanan nowadays. Since a majority of the world Jewish population resides outside Israel, all halachos of shemita are only rabbinic. Watering, and all other prohibitions, are miderabanan, so Chazal were able to create leniencies when necessary.
  • Rava says that even if shemita is min hatorah, many of the restrictions on work are still rabbinic. He notes that the Torah only listed four prohibited labors during shemita. Those are the only ones that are prohibited min hatorah: planting, pruning, reaping grain and harvesting grapes. Anything else is merely a rabbinic prohibition. Consequently, Chazal were able to allow watering when necessary, because the entire prohibition is only rabbinic.

At first glance, the Mishna and Gemara provide a simple solution for private gardeners. Most trees, bushes and plants are sensitive enough that they cannot make it through the year without watering. Therefore, it should be permissible to water them. (The Chazon Ish notes that although the above Mishna specifically allows watering a delicate grain field, the same leniency applies to any plants that regularly need water, and would fluctuate based on plant age, location, climate, etc.)

Yet, the parameters of the leniency are the subject of a major debate among recent and contemporary poskim. The widespread practice in Israel is to reduce the amount of watering that one does so that it is enough to maintain plants but not enough for them to prosper; survive, not thrive. Yet, some contemporary poskim maintain that if something falls into a category of needing to be watered, one can water indiscriminately. Where does this debate come from?

Discussions in the Rishonim

Part of this machlokes hinges on how one understands the words of several rishonim. The Nimukei Yosef (beginning of Moed Katan) explains that the rationale Chazal had for being so lenient with watering is that it is not really considered work altogether. When it comes to shemita, a true melacha is a major event that one does infrequently, like planting or harvesting. Watering is merely considered maintenance, but is not a significant melacha. Therefore, Chazal permitted it in case of loss of crops or plants.

The plain reading of the Nimukei Yosef implies that once something needs to be watered, it can be watered in unrestricted quantities. Granted, if a field were not delicate it could not be watered altogether. But once something is in the category of being sensitive, Chazal did not restrict the amount of water that one can use.

A similar conclusion might be drawn from the words of the Rambam. The Rambam (Shemita 1, 8 – 10) lists several labors that Chazal permitted during shemita. He begins with watering and adds several other similar maintenance-type actions that are allowed. When the Rambam allows watering, he does not add a limit of frequency or quantity. He merely states that it is permissible, which implies that it is a blanket leniency. Had the Rambam meant that one has to restrict the amount of watering, he should have codified that explicitly.

Yet, an opposite conclusion might be deduced from the continuation of the Rambam’s words. He adds the rationale for why watering is allowed: “And why did they allow these? Because if one does not water, the land will become barren, and all the trees in it will die.” It is reasonable to argue that by dint of the Rambam explaining why watering is permissible, he is limiting its application. The Rambam emphasizes watering is meant only to preserve trees. This might imply that watering is only permitted to save trees from dying. But indiscriminate, unlimited watering is not allowed.

The restriction of the Gemara

Another source that might imply the need to limit how much one waters is the Gemara itself. The Gemara (Moed Katan 3a) notices a disagreement in earlier sources regarding fertilizing (kishkush). Fertilizing appears on a list of rabbinically prohibited labors. But another braiysa permits it. The Gemara resolves the contradiction and explains that there are two types of fertilizing. One type is meant to help the tree grow and thrive. That is prohibited. The other is meant to cover up holes and prevent rot. That is merely maintenance and is permissible; survive, not thrive.

The Gemara seems to be a model that sheds light on the leniencies that Chazal made during shemita. They only were lenient in order to maintain trees or plants, not to make them prosper. In a similar vein, the leniency Chazal gave for watering was only in a quantity that will maintain trees, but not to help them grow.

These ambiguities play out halacha l’maaseh. Some quote that the Chazon Ish was strict that one should only water in a quantity that is necessary to allow plants to make it through the year. (For example, this seems to be the understanding of Rav Avraham Tzvi Hakohein, a noted posek in Bnei Brak, of the Chazon Ish. See his Sefer Halacha Arucha Shviis, Chapter 11, available here. This also is implied in the Sefer Mavo L’Shviis by Harav Eliakim Shlanger, 1, 24.) Rav Elyashiv is quoted as having been strict as well. This led his talmid, Harav Shaul Reichenberg (Rosh Yeshiva of Beis Hamedrash L’Halacha B’Hityashvut / Emunat Is”h [which is named after Rav Elyashiv], on the border of Har Nof and Givat Shaul) to give a chart of specific quantities to water for different types of plants based on location and time of year, in his Sefer Mishpetei Aretz. These are also summarized by Harav Reichenberg here.

On the other hand, Rav Shaul Yisraeli (Rosh Yeshiva of Merkaz Harav and Rosh Kollel Eretz Chemda, in his Sefer Chavas Binyamin) argues extensively that one there is no need to limit watering. He highlights the fact that the Rambam clearly omits any limit to watering. When the Rambam explains why one is allowed to water, he is only trying to explain to the reader why watering is an anomaly that Chazal permit during shemita. Therefore, the Rambam explains that Chazal were motivated to preserve the land and trees. As noted, this seems to be the plain reading of the Nemukei Yosef, as well.

There are two camps regarding the leniencies of watering during shemita. Some say that one is only allowed to water to prevent loss. Consequently, one needs to constantly be mindful not to give too much water to his plants; survive, not thrive. The other approach presumes that Chazal categorically permitted watering delicate plants during shemita. Once something needs to be watered regularly, it can be watered freely.

One might suggest a middle ground between the two opinions. One can limit the amount of watering he does, trying to help his plants survive, not thrive. At the same time, a rigorous chart is not necessary. As long as one’s intent is to help plants live through shemita, and not to prosper, he can experiment with how much water to give his plants. After all, some contemporary poskim, with strong echoes already in the rishonim, do not restrict how much water one has to give altogether. Yet, in deference to those that do maintain that watering has to be limited, one can try to limit it a bit, see how his plants fare, and then try to limit it a bit more. As long as one is making a reasonable effort to limit the watering, he is within the intent of Chazal that plants should be watered to survive, but not to thrive. In addition, he is covered by the fact that some poskim say that there is no need to limit watering altogether.

Protecting the tree or even the fruits?

Another point that is hotly debated by the poskim is if one knows the tree will survive without intervention, and one is watering to protect the fruits. Rav Yechiel Michel Tukachinsky (Sefer Hashemita) writes that one is allowed to water for the benefit of the fruits. He argues that the motivation of loss that allow for dispensation extends to fruits, too. Yet, he quotes that Rav Kook discussed it with him and disagreed. Rav Kook’s opinion is also written in his sefer on shemita, Shabbos Haaretz. The Chazon Ish likewise is lenient and allows one to water even if it is just to ensure the growth of the fruits.

Automatic watering with a timer

One of the ingenious ways that Israel has been able to cultivate crops and plants even in warm, arid climates is through drip irrigation. This method of watering delivers slow, steady flows of water on a regular schedule, directly to the soil around plants. The watering is usually regulated by a digital clock that is programmed to follow a schedule automatically. This method is commonly used in home gardens to. It can be inexpensive to set up and helps plants thrive even in difficult conditions.

This automatic timer can also be beneficial throughout shemita. Even if one maintains that watering must be limited, that might be limited to manual watering. We already know that the commonly accepted practice is to set a shabbos clock timer to do many melachos on shabbos, such as turning on lights. Since it is set before shabbos, it is not considered as if one is doing melacha. Similarly, if one sets an automatic watering system to water throughout shemita, it should also be permissible. Yet, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach is recorded as not permitting a timer to water in any way that one could not do it himself (Sefer Dinei Sheviis Hashalem, 10,5). It seems that the rationale for Rav Shlomo Zalman’s pesak is based on a notable machlokes that Rav Shlomo Zalman had with the Chazon Ish. Rav Shlomo Zalman gives heavy consideration to the approach of the Minchas Chinuch that part of the mitzvah of shemita is that the land should not have melacha done to it. The Torah calls shemita “shabbos haeretz,” the shabbos/ rest of the land. That implies that the land itself is not allowed to have melacha done to it. A land owner is violation of this commandment of shemita if he allows someone else to do a melacha in his field. Rav Shlomo Zalman found echoes of this idea in several Rishonim and writes about it in several places (Maadanei Aretz, Sheviis 13, Minchas Shlomo I, 51. For a summary of the sources on that topic and detailed discussion, see here). On the other hand, the Chazon Ish corresponded with Rav Shlomo Zalman and does not accept this line of thinking. Consequently, Rav Shlomo Zalman does not allow one to use any more water if he is using a timer. Yet, Rav Elyashiv (quotes in Sefer Dinei Sheviis Hashalem, ibid., and by Rav Reichenberg in Sefer Mishpetei Aretz) allowed one to use a watering timer throughout shemita at the normal rate, even if manual watering would be restricted.

Conclusion

In conclusion, there are two schools of thought regarding watering. Some rule that it needs to be limited and use a chart to try to define how much water one should use. Others allow you to freely water. One might suggest a compromise, that one can reduce his watering and see how the plants react. If they seem OK, he should consider reducing it further. As long as his intent is to try to limit his watering, he is within the dictates of Chazal. This is buttressed by that fact that some suggest that there is no need to reduce the amount of water altogether. In addition, many are leninet that the concern for loss of a tree extends to the loss of its fruits, as well. In addition, some do not see an automatic watering system as a way of circumventing watering restrictions, yet many do see it as a valid leniency.

May we be privileged to celebrate shemita when it is mideoraysa according to all opinions.

One thought on “Are You Allowed to Water Your Garden During Shemita?”

  1. Hi, Nice to read your Torah again! Hope things are going well in EY. This should be an aliyah for your mother’s neshama. Kol tuv, Dov

    Sent from my iPhone

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