The politics of shmita

By: David M. Weinberg

Sep 5, 2014

Published in The Jerusalem Post and in Israel Hayom, September 5, 2014.

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We need truly Zionist, nationally-responsible, and halachically-uplifting solutions to the shmita crisis – for the benefit of religious and non-religious Israelis alike.

www.otzarharetz.co.il

www.otzarharetz.co.il

With shmita, the sabbatical year for agriculture, just around the corner, secular, religious, and ultra-religious protagonists have yet another battlefront on which to skirmish. Every Israeli’s breadbasket will be affected.

Observance of shmita once every seven years is Biblically-mandated as recognition of G-d’s sovereignty over the land and as a means of enforcing socio-economic justice. Shmita teaches man humility before G-d. Its observance, even to the point of financial loss to the farmer and economic hardship for the consumer, is considered an extremely important test of society’s religious and moral mettle.

However with modern Israel beset by agricultural and economic difficulties and diplomatic-military challenges, absolute shmita observance is far from simple. Some farmers, backed by the impressive Ultra-Orthodox Shmita Association (www.shviit.com), indeed are letting their fields lie fallow. But that is not a solution for the entire country, which still needs to eat and keep its agricultural sector solvent.

In response, rabbinic leadership 125 years ago crafted the heter mechira, the symbolic “sale” of agricultural land to non-Jews during shmita, permitting Jews to work the land and sell the produce under certain conditions.

The heter mechira end-run around shmita has been reluctantly re-ratified by the Chief Rabbinate every shmita since then, but its implementation grows ever more problematic.

To begin with, the heter was meant as a temporary arrangement, not a two century-long exemption from shmita observance. Moreover, many farmers sign the heter papers “selling” their land, but fail to follow the complicated guidelines which govern farming under the heter.

Last shmita (in 2007-2008) the situation was greatly improved through the hard work of Tnuva’s rabbi, Ze’ev Vitman, who headed the Rabbinate’s shmita board and who worked assiduously to revamp and improve observance of the heter in a serious way by farmers across the country. Unfortunately, today’s Haredi-controlled Rabbinate has cut Rabbi Vitman out of the picture all-together, and I see no evidence that the Rabbinate is making an effort to implement heter procedures earnestly.

Orthodox Jews who impose on themselves stricter standards of shmita observance (which is their right) get through the shmita year primarily by buying Arab-grown produce or expensive foreign produce. This summer, the various Badatz kashrut organizations of the Haredi world have been busy signing produce-supply contracts with Palestinian Authority farmers.

This infuriates me. Primary reliance on Arab produce is neither realistic nor acceptable for health, nationalistic, and religious reasons.

Last shmita and the one before that, there was an epidemic of hepatitis in the Haredi community, caused by the contamination contained in vegetables grown by Arabs in untreated sewage water. At one point, the Ministry of Health barred the import of cucumbers and beans from Palestinian areas because of high levels of pathogens.

Last shmita, Arab farmers conquered vast tracts of market share in the Israeli agricultural economy because their produce was in demand, while Jewish farmers couldn’t find buyers. Many of the big food chains were forced by the Badatz kashrut organizations (which have an increasingly outsized influence on the market) not to buy and supply heter mechira vegetables.

Last shmita, Haredi kashrut organizations were forced to admit that much of the “Arab-grown” produce they purchased for their public turned out to be Jewish-grown produce, sold secretly by the kibbutzim to the Arabs for resale to the Jews. If larger than ever parts of the Israeli public are now to be coerced into buying from the “Arabs,” the fraud can only be expected to increase.

Last shmita and the one before that, the Ultra-Orthodox threatened to strip kashrut approval in Jerusalem and other cities from any food establishment relying on shmita leniencies. They forced hotels, restaurants and catering establishments in places like Jerusalem to abjure heter mechira veggies or risk loss of their kashrut certification. Enforcement of such stringent rulings on the broad public is politically and economically wrong-headed.

Moreover, it makes for inevitable and outrageous demands by the PA for larger water allocations from Israel. As it is, every Israeli citizen pays more for his or her water in order to subsidize Israel’s sale of water to the Palestinians at discount prices. And at the same time, the PA illegally and surreptitiously connects itself in many places to the water lines of Israel’s Mekorot national water company – stealing Israel’s water!

Which brings us to the crux of the matter. On the national level, observance of shmita is not just a personal matter of technical-halachic right and wrong, or a question of getting by as a religious consumer. It’s also a question of public policy. That means caring for all Jews in Israel, not just for the faultless kashrut of your own dishes and the impeccable purity of the vegetables you put in your own mouth.

Considered in this religiously-broader, more nationally-responsible context, one has to take into account other halachic imperatives: the imperative to ensure that the broad public has access to basic kashrut, and is not forced into absolute violations of tradition; the imperative of maintaining an economically-viable Jewish agricultural sector; and the imperative of protecting the Land of Israel from creeping Arab annexation.

Centuries ago, responsible rabbinic leadership understood that it had the responsibility to harmonize halacha with the greater good of society. Thus, it fashioned the pruzbul, a legal stratagem which does an end-run around the sabbatical year’s mandatory, across-the-board debt-forgiving regime. Responsible rabbis also contrived the heter iska, a halachic contract which allows businesses to overcome the Torah’s prohibition against the charging and paying of interest.

Why did they do this? Because real life and the masses required it.

Responsible rabbinic leadership of today ought realize that for the country as a whole it is not yet time to dispense with the heter mechira. Moreover, it can and should support a range of other strategies for supplying agricultural produce during the shmita year, especially the innovative, although complicated, otzar beit din arrangement.

Otzar beit din is a “public treasury” solution that involves embracing, not circumventing, Jewish-Israeli agriculture in the shmita year, and treating the produce as sacred “holy fruit.” It is a mitzvah, not a sin, to consume this produce, although extra special efforts need to be made to market, eat and dispose of leftovers in ways that are restrictive. The Otzar Haretz association offers guaranteed supplies of such special agricultural produce to consumers who register in advance through its website (www.otzarharetz.co.il).

There is no doubt in my mind that the Otzar Haretz mechanism is an excellent, all-embracing solution to the shmita dilemma, and it is unfortunate that neither the Haredi-controlled Rabbinate nor the Ministry of Agriculture is investing real effort in this direction. From national, security, economic, halachic and spiritual perspectives, the otzar beit din route is far preferable to importing agricultural produce from abroad or from the Palestinians. And according to some prominent halachic authorities, it is preferable to reliance on heter mechira produce as well.

As the special shmita year approaches (beginning three weeks from now on Rosh Hashana), I once again lament the failure of Rabbi David Stav’s candidacy for the post of Chief Rabbi. Had he won the position last year, I know that the Chief Rabbinate would have vigorously thrown its weight behind truly Zionist, nationally-responsible, and halachically-uplifting solutions to the shmita crisis – for the benefit of religious and non-religious Israelis alike.

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About David Weinberg

David M. Weinberg is a spokesman, speechwriter, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »


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