Shmita politics: Here we go again

Responsible rabbinic leadership has a responsibility to harmonize halacha with the greater good of society. It is unfortunate that neither the haredi-controlled Rabbinate nor the Ministry of Agriculture is investing real effort in supplying agricultural produce during the upcoming sabbatical year through innovative “otzar beit din” and other arrangements.

Published in The Jerusalem Post, August 13, 2021; and Israel Hayom, August 16, 2021. Print-friendly copy

https://otzar-haretz.co.il
https://otzar-haretz.co.il

With shmita, the sabbatical year for agriculture, just around the corner (beginning on Rosh Hashanah 5782, September 7, 2021), 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 is meant to teach 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. A few hardy farmers 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 “sale” of agricultural land to non-Jews for the year of shmita under a trust agreement, which permits Jews to farm 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.

In the shmita of 5768 (2007-2008) the situation was greatly improved through the hard work of Tnuva’s rabbi, Zeev Weitman, 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, the Haredi-controlled Rabbinate cut Rabbi Weitman out of the picture during the shmita seven years ago (5775, 2014-2015), and this year the Rabbinate has made no earnest effort to implement heter procedures properly.

Orthodox Jews who impose on themselves stricter standards of shmita observance get through the shmita year primarily by buying Arab-grown produce or expensive foreign produce. Indeed, the various Badatz kashrut organizations of the haredi world have been busy signing produce-supply contracts with Palestinian Authority, Gazan, Jordanian, and Turkish farmers.

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

Almost every shmita cycle, there is an epidemic of hepatitis in the haredi community, caused by the contamination contained in vegetables grown by Arabs in untreated sewage water. Several times, the Israel 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.

But note: 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.

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.

In this religiously broader, more nationally responsible context, one must consider 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 diplomatically manages the sabbatical year’s across-the-board debt-forgiving regime. Responsible rabbis also contrived the heter iska, a halachic contract which allows businesses to finesse 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 entire country 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 through the innovative 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 respectful of the “holy” status of the produce. (Fear of michshol, of placing such a “stumbling block” before secular Israelis, is one reason why haredi rabbis shrink from the otzar beit din approach.)

The “Otzar Haretz” association offers guaranteed supplies of “public treasury” agricultural produce to consumers who register in advance through its website (https://otzar-haretz.co.il). The association also markets vegetables like potatoes, carrots, and pumpkin that were grown in the “sixth year” and stockpiled in coolers, and fruits and vegetables grown hydroponically by Israeli farmers or grown in the ground by Israeli farmers in the Arava desert and parts of the Negev. (In both these latter cases, the laws of shmita do not apply).

From national, security, economic, and spiritual perspectives, the otzar beit din route is far preferable to importing agricultural produce from abroad or from the Palestinians. And according to many prominent halachic authorities, it is preferable to reliance on heter mechira produce as well. It is unfortunate that neither the haredi-controlled Rabbinate nor the Ministry of Agriculture is investing real effort in this direction.

As the special shmita year approaches, I once again lament the fact that the Chief Rabbinate remains in the hands of narrow-minded leaders. Israel is stuck with chief rabbis who reject nationally responsible and halachically uplifting solutions to the shmita crisis – that would benefit religious and non-religious Israelis alike.

The chief rabbis also refuse to consider government proposals for new ways to supervise kosher food in this country; new ways of approaching the conversion of non-Jews in Israel; and new guidelines for the appointment of religious court judges (dayanim). One of Israel’s chief rabbis regularly erupts with loutish tirades, attacking Israel, secular Israelis, general education, army service, and the value of gainful employment.

The failure of the rabbinate to approach shmita 5782 with any creativity and sensitivity is proof, once again, that the system and criteria for choosing Israel’s next chief rabbis must be changed. It is essential that in 2023 Israel elect cosmopolitan and reasonable chief rabbis.

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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