In advance of the upcoming Sukkot holiday season, Israeli distributors of the four species (arba minim) are predicting that the shmitta Sabbatical year will take a very heavy toll on their sales, due to widespread ignorance of the laws pertaining to shmitta.
This despite well-known and commonly accepted halachik adjudications that allow for the purchase of Israeli-grown produce.
The four species (a palm branch, etrog citron fruit, an hadas (myrtle) and arava (willow) branches) are crucial to the observation of the festival of Sukkot - which commemorates the Jewish harvest festival, among other things - during which they are waved together in a ritual during daily prayers.
Despite the religious mandate which requires that farming be curbed during this year, leading religious authorities approve specific measures to allow for the purchase of four species grown in the holy land, and in so doing ensure that consumers help limit the economic damage to Jewish growers and distributors and the Israeli economy as a whole.
Like all produce grown in the shmitta, the sale of four species is supervised by a highly-respected rabbinic court which ensures that the sale takes place outside of the restrictions of the shmitta year – a process known as Otzar Beit Din.
The Eretz Chemda Institute in Jerusalem issued a specific ruling detailing the Jewish laws permitting and even encouraging the purchase of Israeli-grown produce in the shmitta year.
According to statistics from Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture, in recent years, some 350,000 arba minim sets were shipped internationally. The largest consumer outside of Israel is the US market with some 290,000 sets sold and an additional 60,000 in other parts of the world.
With limitations placed on agricultural growth during the shmitta year - the seventh year of the Jewish agrarian cycle, during which the Torah mandates the land must lie fallow - many consumers choose not to buy Israeli-grown products, falsely believing that doing so is forbidden. This phenomenon has lead to what Ministry analysts described as a more than fifty-percent drop in the four species market.
That ignorance is largely due to the fact that for many centuries since the destruction of the second Jewish commonwealth and subsequent exile in the first and second centuries BCE, there was no significant Jewish agricultural industry in Israel. The reemergence of such an industry is relatively recent (since the establishment of the modern State of Israel in 1948), and as such many long-forgotten or neglected Jewish laws are only now being restudied.
Many consumers instead often turn to the Arab market as an alternative. The greatest beneficiary of this decrease in Israeli sales are etrog growers in Morocco, who capitalize substantially on the shmitta year with some 2,500 etrog trees planted in recent years in preparation for this year’s sale.
Steve Berger, who lives in Los Angeles and is President of MyIsraelConnection.com, a company known for a diverse suite of services designed to promote a connection with Israel, has become a leading distributor of the four species and is encouraging clients not to forego Israel in this shmitta year.
"Shmitta is a beautiful and ancient ideal which is at the heart of Jewish tradition," Berger says. "But it is not designed to create a situation where Jewish consumers are hurting the Israeli economy and favoring the coffers of Moroccan farmers. Rather, we need to ensure that people continue to buy from Israeli farmers and distributors."
Berger’s partner Mickey Katzburg, who supervises the Israeli distribution of the four species for MyIsraelConnection.com, warns that the damage to the Israeli four species market will extend far past this year if too many consumers turn their backs on Israel.
"If too much of the sales of etrogs go to Morocco, the farmers there will be able to develop a farming infrastructure at a faster and more competitive rate than their Israeli competitors, and slowly take bigger and bigger pieces of the market in the coming years,” Katzburg says.
It should be noted that the major issue in relation to shmitta comes from the growth of the etrog. The lulav (palm frond) can be harvested from Israeli trees even during shmitta. Yet due to ignorance a sizable portion of the lulav market has already been irreversibly lost to palm growers in northern Egypt.
Many halachic authorities also allow the myrtle branches to be harvested during shmitta while the willows for foreign customers are almost always produced locally because they are too delicate to survive overseas shipping.
"Our objective is to remind our customers that they have the ability to limit the economic damage that this holiday season could present to the Israeli growers for whom the sale of etrogim is their very livelihood," Berger says.
"This can be fully accomplished within the spirit of the shmitta year and there is no disputing that there will be a reduction in the crop this year in recognition of this ancient and blessed law. But when halakha gives us the option to support our Israeli farmers and the nation’s economy, we need to be sure that we do everything in our power to do so."