Shiur #07: Preparing Fertilizer

  • Rav Moshe Taragin

This week’s shiurim are dedicated in memory of Israel Koschitzky zt"l, whose yahrzeit falls on the 19th of Kislev. 

May the worldwide dissemination of Torah through the VBM be a fitting tribute to a man whose lifetime achievements exemplified the love of Eretz Yisrael and Torat Yisrael.



 Dedicated to Maya Bernstein & Noam Silverman - 

In honor of the Birth of their daughter, Niva Hallel




The first few mishnayot of the third perek of Shvi'it address the prohibition of fertilizing land during shemitta.  The second mishna of the second perek allows fertilizing erev shvi'it until Rosh Hashana (tosefet shvi'it doesn't apply to forms of work which are only forbidden mi-de-rabanan), implying that during shemitta itself this form of activity is forbidden.  The third perek of shvi'it claims that even taking fertilizer out of the house or silo and placing it in the field is forbidden.  This mishna demands that this activity Be delayed until a very late stage of the shemitta year and be performed in a very regulated manner.  This shiur will analyze the nature of this prohibition, primarily by inspecting the terms and conditions under which one is allowed to remove fertilizer and place it in his field. 


The fourth mishna of the perek speaks of a practice of fencing in an area of a field to allow animals to graze and discharge their feces.  This is, in effect, a form of fertilizing the field.  The mishna dictates that the entire field must not be dedicated to these mini-corrals because of mar'it ayin (suspicious behaviour).  People will suspect you of constructing these temporarily fenced in corrals merely to fertilize your field.  Instead, some area must be set aside and not dedicated to these corrals in order to avoid public suspicion. 


This concern of mar'it ayin might indeed be the basis for all the prohibitions relating to fertilizer mentioned in the third perek.  Just as the extensive construction of mini-corrals might arouse public suspicion, similarly carrying fertilizer outside the storage house and piling it up in a field might prompt people to suspect that you will actually fertilize your field during shvi'it.  The earlier mishnayot do not outright mention the mar'it ayin concern with regard to someone who stores fertilizer in his field, but one can easily envision this concern applying to both cases.  In fact, the Yerushalmi explicitly speaks of mar'it ayin as the reason that storing fertilizer in fields was prohibited. 


A second approach to understanding the prohibition would be to view the act of storing or gathering fertilizer as the first stage of the fertilizing process.  Since fertilizer is applied in such significant amounts, it is first dumped in large volumes in the intended field and then scattered appropriately within the field.  Removing this fertilizer from a shed and storing it in piles in a field is actually the first stage of fertilizing and is forbidden, even without mar'it ayin concerns.  In the fourth mishna, a person is not actively involved in applying fertilizer to his field.  Instead, he merely fences in an area for his cattle to graze, assuring that fertilizer will be concentrated in a specific area.  Being that he is not actively involved in collecting or moving the fertilizer, he cannot be considered someone who has begun the process.  This fencing in can only be prohibited because of the suspicion it will arouse.  However, the first three mishnayot describe someone who actively piles the fertilizer in his field, a process which can be viewed as the preliminary stage of actually fertilizing the field.  Possibly, these actions are forbidden because they constitute an early stage of the actual work. 


The Yerushalmi (3:1) introduces an interesting halakha which might be impacted by our question.  The Yerushalmi inquires about someone who piles the fertilizer right near the entrance to his house.  On the one hand, this location – as it is viewable to a greater audience - will certainly arouse public suspicion about the owner's plans to ultimately fertilize his field.  If the root of the prohibition is mar'it ayin, we can certainly forbid such storage.  If, however, we view the placement of fertilizer in a field as a preliminary stage of fertilizing, we might only apply this designation when the fertilizer is actually placed upon the field it is meant to enrich.  If the substance is placed near a house in an area not employed for planting, we might not define this act as fertilizing and might allow it. 


            Quite possibly, this question fueled an interesting debate in the first mishna.  At a certain point Chazal allow a person to begin piling the fertilizer in his field – in large and uncommon quantities).  The Tanna'im debate at which stage this allowance applies.  According to the Tanna Kamma, after the season in which workers typically are no longer involved in fertilizing, a homeowner may begin to pile his fertilizer for the next year.  Other Tanna'im offer different time constraints.  The basic claim is that fertilizer may only be piled after the fruits cannot possibly benefit anymore from fertilizer or after the fertilizer itself begins to decompose.  Might this disagreement be in some way related to the root of the prohibition?  If the concern surrounded mar'it ayin, it would be sufficient to wait until the current fertilizing season concludes to avoid any suspicions.  Anyone who witnesses the moving of fertilizer onto the fields after the season has concluded will undoubtedly assume that the loading is in preparation for next year.  If, however, piling were itself considered the beginning of the process, we might only permit it after the process is no longer technically possible.  Once fertilizer can no longer improve the fruit or the fertilizer itself starts to decompose, we can no longer ban something as a preliminary stage of the process. 


            Another interesting discussion surrounds a halakha mentioned by the third mishna in the perek.  As stated earlier, after a certain period large amounts of fertilizer may be piled in a field.  What happens if a person does not immediately possess these large volumes of fertilizer?  May he amass this volume gradually, or must he place the entire amount at once? The mishna cites a disagreement between the Tanna Kamma, who allows this scheme, and Rebbi Elazar ben Azarya, who doesn't.  Immediately, we might analyze the argument in terms of our original question.  In fact, the Yerushalmi introduces two reasons for Rebbi Elazar's stringent position.  One opinion indeed suggests that Rebbi Elazar prohibits this practice because of mar'it ayin.  Clearly, if we are concerned with mar'it ayin, we would be more likely to caution against this practice.  Even though the popular season of fertilizing has passed, suspicions might still exist as to the true intentions of the landowner.  Interestingly enough, a different opinion in the Yerushalmi suggests that Rebbi Elazar was more concerned with a person initially piling a small quantity, intending to supply more, and subsequently forgetting to pile the additional quantity.  In such an instance, the person is actually fertilizing that area  (because he is piling a reasonable rather than a large quantity).  Evidently, many felt that even Rebbi Elazar's stringent opinion was not based upon the mar'it ayin concern.  Certainly, the Tanna Kamma, who rejects Rebbi Elazar's opinion entirely and allows gradual piling, does not view the overall issue as stemming from mar'it ayin.  Hence, he would allow gradual piling as long as the primary season has passed and large enough quantities are ultimately brought out. 



            An interesting perspective might be gained from a seemingly unrelated mishna.  Shvi'it 3:10 describes someone who is building a fence between his land and a public thoroughfare. Rebbi Yehoshua claims that while digging out the land to build the fence he should pile the earth in the public domain and subsequently remove it.  Piling the earth in his own lot would arouse suspicion that he had worked that land.  Rebbi Akiva argues, primarily because one is not allowed to dump refuse (even temporarily) in a public area.  Without this option, the only way of disposing of the extra earth is to pile it in his own land the way in which farmers are allowed to pile fertilizer - three piles for each beit sa'ah.  Evidently, Rebbi Akiva saw this ratio of three large piles per beit sa'ah as a device to avoid mar'it ayin.  Since farmers rarely create such massive piles, onlookers will understand that typical agricultural procedures are not occurring and instead, fertilizer or land is being temporarily piled.  If the size of these piles is meant to solve the mar'it ayin issue, then this leniency might apply beyond the discussion of fertilizer to other areas in which marit ayin might be of some concern.  If, however, the problem with piling fertilizer was that such preparation was actually the start of the fertilizing process, the size requirement must be understood differently.  Evidently, such sizes are permissible because they are larger than the usual quantity employed in standard fertilization.  If so, the shiur has uniquely local applicability – namely, at what point does a pile of fertilizer become so large that it is obviously being stored rather than utilized?  We would not expect this shiur to have currency in unrelated areas, such as the disposal of dug up earth.  By stretching this shiur, Rebbi Akiva might have been hinting at his perception of the prohibition to pile fertilizer and the ultimate solution of placing large quantities.