Debate Over Sabbatical Year Drives Up Prices, Spurs Challenges to Chief Rabbinate

By Joshua Mitnick

Published October 03, 2007, issue of October 05, 2007.
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Kibbutz Be’erot Yitzhak, Israel - Debate over how to implement the biblical injunction to let the Land of Israel lie fallow every seventh year is sowing the seeds for a potential rebellion against the state’s chief rabbinate.

Since Rosh Hashanah, when the most recent sabbatical — or shmita — year began, Israel’s Modern and ultra Orthodox rabbinic authorities have been divided over whether to recognize a long-observed loophole allowing farmers to symbolically transfer ownership of their land to a non-Jew for the year’s duration. In the past, farmers employing the loophole — known in Hebrew as heiter mechira, or “permission to sell” — have had their produce certified kosher. Now, ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, authorities in a number of municipalities are saying that the measure is no longer acceptable.

In the face of soaring prices and heaps of uneaten produce, an organization of nationalist rabbis — in an unprecedented challenge to the authority of the state’s chief rabbinate — is planning to issue kosher certificates of its own.

Under the 150-year-old shmita-year loophole, this central Israeli kibbutz would transfer ownership of its fields to a non-Jew so that its chickpeas and oranges could be certified kosher, but in light of the rabbinate’s newly firm stance, kibbutz authorities are uncertain.

“We are worried about the macro-level,” said Be’erot Yitzhak agriculture director Shlomo Forscher as he stood in an empty field that will be cultivated in accordance with the loophole. “Agriculture in Israel can’t survive if it falls fallow for a year. We’ll lose market share.”

In a country where the agriculture industry is estimated at $1.75 billion a year, Forscher is hardly alone.

“We expect it will be solved through understanding in the coming weeks. It’s pretty urgent,” said Zvi Alon, deputy director general of the Israeli Agriculture Ministry. “We can’t tolerate hundreds of millions of shekels worth of products clogged in the markets.”

The biblical shmita year was designated in order to allow agricultural land to rest and to permit a redistribution of wealth between rich landowners and poor tenants.

National religious rabbis, however, say the commandment has become antiquated in the same way strict adherence to the religious ban on interest is unworkable. The demands of a modern economy make the heiter mechira a necessity.

“The rejection of the heiter mechira is because the Haredi ideology is, ‘We are behaving according to our own interests, and we are not responsible to the State of Israel,’” said Rabbi Yuval Sherlow, head of a nationalist yeshiva in Petah Tikvah. “This is not leadership. I can’t accept this policy.”

Rabbis like Sherlow fear that secular supermarkets and restaurants denied kosher certificates on the basis of the heiter mechira may choose to ignore the laws of kashrut altogether. They also worry that a loss of market share could drive financially weak farmers out of business, leaving empty land open to Arab squatters.

Ultra-Orthodox authorities, meanwhile, say they never fully accepted the shmita loophole.

“Those who are complicit with the heiter mechira are an accomplice to uprooting the commandments. And our word is the opinion of the Torah,” read one Haredi poster that called for the strict implementation of a shmita ban.

“Back in the time of the Bible, Joseph dreamed about seven years of famine, and he was able to deal with it,” said Aaron Katzman, a columnist at the Haredi newspaper Hamodia who criticized the group of rabbis challenging the rabbinate’s authority over kashrut inspection. “With all of our technology, we can’t get through this one-year shmita-cycle?”

The ultra-Orthodox have pushed the government to facilitate food deliveries from the West Bank and Gaza to relieve pressure on the markets over the coming year. Efforts to arrange for passage of produce across Gaza’s closed border remain difficult.

At a grocery store in Petah Tikvah, employee Meir Yakobsen complained that that shmita-compliant produce was more than four times as expensive as the normal prices for fruits and vegetables. But if he wants a kashrut certificate, he has no choice.

“Of course it’s a problem,” he said. “The profit margins are much smaller, and the produce isn’t as good.”

Back in the fields of Kibbutz Be’erot Yitzhak, Forscher watched a tractor kick up dust as it flattened a field for planting. He said, “Everything you see here has been sold” according to the provisions of the heiter mechira.

But will the kibbutz be able to see what it grows? That, he said, “I can’t tell you today.”

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