The politics of shmita

Published in The Jerusalem Post on August 27, 2000

With shmita, the sabbatical year for agriculture, just around the corner, religious and secular protagonists have yet another battlefront on which to skirmish.


A controversial new Ultra-Orthodox rabbinical ruling, reported last week, threatens to strip kashrut approval in Jerusalem and other cities from any food establishment relying on Chief Rabbinate shmita leniencies. Unless the Chief Rabbinate steps-in to halt the extremism.


Observance of shmita once every seven years is Biblically-mandated as a means of enforcing socio-economic justice and teaching man humility before God. Shmita observance, even to the point of financial loss to the farmer and economic hardship for the consumer, is considered an extremely important test of Torah-observant society’s mettle.


In Israel’s modern situation however — beset by agricultural and economic difficulties and diplomatic-military challenges — absolute shmita observance is far from simple. In response, rabbinic leadership 110 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* 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. And many farmers sign the *heter* papers “selling” their land, but fail to follow the complicated guidelines which govern farming under the *heter*.


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. (This year there also may be some shmita-free vegetables from areas of Israel beyond the ancient, sanctified borders, like the Arava, Gush Katif and the Golan; as well as produce imported from abroad at high cost).


This may be fine for a segment of the religious public. But as a matter of public policy affecting *all* Israeli consumers — with general public food providers now to be forced by the haredim into adopting stricter standards — primary reliance on Arab produce is neither realistic nor acceptable.


Last shmita, there was an epidemic of hepatitis in the haredi community, apparently caused by the contamination contained in vegetables grown by Arabs in untreated sewage water. Just this month, the Ministry of Health barred the import of cucumbers and beans from the autonomous 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. Cucumbers are a good example. Ever since last shmita and until the recent health ban, Arab farmers held a lock-hold on provision of cucumbers to the Israeli market.


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 haredim. 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.


That’s why the recent haredi ruling requiring hotels, restaurants and catering establishments in places like Jerusalem to abjure *heter mechira* veggies or risk loss of their kashrut certification – is unacceptable.


Enforcement of such a radical ruling on the broad public is politically and economically wrong-headed because it means abandoning long-term market share to Arab farmers, weakening our already battered Jewish agricultural sector, and the inevitable granting of larger water allocations for agriculture to the PA.


Enforcement of such a radical ruling on the broad public is narrow-minded and religiously-unwise – because the high cost of imported fruits and vegetables will force many food businesses out of the kosher orbit and make it more difficult for the broad public to enjoy widely-available basic kashrut.


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 getting by as a religious-haredi 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 annexations.


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*. Time for the Chief Rabbinate to make its voice heard, loud and clear, in this matter.

David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker

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