Chief Rabbinate Begins Phasing Out Controversial 7th-Year Sale
Chief Rabbinate Begins Phasing Out Controversial 7th-Year Sale

As the upcoming Shemittah [Sabbatical] year approaches - it begins on Rosh HaShanah, September 13 - farmers and rabbis are preparing to deal with the unique Halakhic [Jewish legal] issues involved in the Biblical ban on working the fields in the Land of Israel.

The Chief Rabbinate plans to Kosher-certify fruits and bananas only if they are grown in accordance with special regulations (see below). The Rabbinate will instruct the public as to how to treat these fruits with special Shemittah sanctity. Neither fruits destined for export nor vegetables are included in this arrangement.

The Torah's agricultural ban occurs once every seven years, in accordance with Exodus 23 and Leviticus 25. Today, these Shemittah regulations retain only Rabbinic, and not Biblical, authority, due to the lack of a majority of the Jewish People in the Land of Israel [see Lev. 25,2].  For this reason and others, rabbis in the mid-19th century ruled that Jews in Israel could sell their fields to non-Jews and continue performing many otherwise forbidden farming activities.  This arrangement was known as the Heter Mechirah [the Sale Dispensation].

Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of the modern-day Land of Israel, promulgated the Heter Mechirah on a national scale, in order to prevent the collapse of the agricultural economy.

The Heter Mechirah increasingly became a matter of controversy between religious-Zionist circles, which largely accepted it, and the hareidi-religious sector, which did not.  The farmers of the latter were largely supported by communal funds during Shemittah years, while hareidi-religious consumers purchased fruits and vegetables either from Arab sources or from outlying areas of the Land of Israel not bound by Shemittah laws.

This latter approach, however, strengthens the Arab share of the agricultural market not only during the Shemittah year, but in the following years as well.

In fact, in the last Shemittah, seven years ago, 50,000 dunams (some 12,500 acres) of new agricultural farms were developed in Jordan to meet the consumption needs of those who wished to buy non-Jewish produce. Rabbi Neriah Gutel, the Dean of Orot College who has written widely on the topic, writes that not only were these farms not dismantled afterwards, but they continue even now to compete with Jewish farms in Israel.

A third approach to Shemittah that has been increasingly making inroads is the Otzar Beit Din, or Public Treasury. It is based, inter alia, on the idea that Shemittah fruits are forbidden to be sold, but not to be eaten - and in fact have a sanctity that renders their consumption extra meritorious. To this end, and in order to enable everyone to enjoy the fruits of the Land - another Shemittah objective - harvesting, fruit distribution, and land upkeep is carried out not for commercial profit, but by a public body appointed by a court of Jewish Law acting as the public's representative.

The Chief Rabbinate has decided to implement the Otzar Beit Din method on a national scale for fruits and bananas.  Accordingly, all fruits and bananas sold throughout the country under the certification of the Chief Rabbinate - which includes most large supermarkets in Israel - will not be Heter-fruits, i.e., from lands exempted from Shemittah by virtue of having been sold to a non-Jew, but rather raised in a permitted manner in accordance with Lev. 25, 6: "The produce of the land shall be food for you..."

In a letter to municipal rabbis and kashrut inspectors this week, the Chief Rabbinate writes, "Our universally agreed upon goal is to reach a point where we will not need the Heter at all, just as Rabbi Kook wrote... in order that we may observe this commandment in all its glory.  Accordingly, the Chief Rabbinate Council has decided to reduce the use of the Heter as much as possible.  For several months we have been in personal contact with every farmer... Similarly, the Heter will be implemented only in cases where other solutions - such as Otzar Beit Din, early seeding, raised platforms, and the like - cannot be used."

The ramifications for the public are two-fold: Special care will be taken to ensure that the price of fruits and bananas is not raised arbitrarily, but will rather cover only normal costs and expenses, including a fair and normal salary for those involved.  In addition, signs will be placed in the fruit sections instructing the public that the fruits must be treated with special Shemittah sanctity.  Specifically, the fruits must be used only in their normal manner (generally eating or drinking), and their remnants must not be thrown out in a degrading fashion.

To this end, Rabbinate officials said that an educational campaign would be undertaken, though its extent and framework have not yet been determined.

Most vegetables will not be included in the above arrangement.