In Israel, it’s temple vs. state over farming

Times Staff Writer

Yochay Sorok and thousands of his fellow farmers should be taking the year off right now, allowing their land, and themselves, to rest in observance of a Jewish tradition that dates to Leviticus.

It is the Shmita year, an agricultural Sabbath that comes every seven years, during which, according to the Old Testament, Jewish farmers in the land of Israel must let their fields lie fallow.

But Sorok, customer relations manager for the Chubeza organic farm outside Jerusalem, is working -- as are the vast majority of Israeli farmers. Just before the start of the Jewish New Year on Sept. 13, Sorok signed papers at the offices of his local chief rabbi, technically selling the farm to a non-Jew.

He never met his farm’s “buyer” and doesn’t need to. Next September, the purchase check will be torn up and everything will return to normal.


“It’s a trick. But it’s a smart trick,” Sorok said of the nominal land sale. “That’s the Jewish way of dealing with the Torah. You reinterpret -- not for small, selfish reasons but for good reasons. . . . Giving people a living is a higher cause.”

Known as heter mechira, or permitted sale, the loophole has long been endorsed by Israel’s religious establishment as accepted practice. This year, however, heter mechira has become a hot-button issue, culminating in a rare collision between temple and state.

It began when one of Israel’s two chief rabbis, Yona Metzger, announced a change: Regional religious authorities would be free to set their own policy on whether heter mechira produce would be considered kosher. Several regional rabbis immediately took the opportunity to declare it non-kosher.

Although the move failed when the Israeli Supreme Court stepped in and ruled against Metzger, the perceived power play by ultra-Orthodox rabbis has sparked widespread resentment of their increasing power in the country.

“The seeds of a rebellion against the Chief Rabbinate have been sown,” said an editorial in the daily newspaper Haaretz.

Produce suppliers in the Mediterranean coastal city of Herzliya filed a lawsuit after their local rabbi declared heter mechira produce non-kosher.

An executive at a Herzliya-based catering company said the decision left him with a drastically reduced list of produce suppliers he could buy from without risking his all-important kosher status.

“Some things are very expensive, some things are missing altogether. There’s no cherry tomatoes, thyme or rosemary. And greens are very expensive now. Go explain to the clients that they can’t have a certain dish because of Shmita,” said the executive, speaking on condition of anonymity because he fears angering Herzliya’s powerful religious authorities.


“There are suppliers that we did not want to work with in the past, but now we are forced to because they are one of the few approved by the religious authorities this year,” he said.

Other critics called the controversy a blatant attempt by Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community to force its beliefs and kosher standards on the rest of the country.

The ultra-Orthodox, who make up about 12% of the country’s population but 30% of Jerusalem’s, have never accepted the heter mechira concept. During Shmita years, they buy only imported goods or produce grown on Arab-owned land in Israel.

“They always presented [heter mechira] as an example of the theological and religious weakness of the modern Orthodox community,” said Rabbi Gilad Kariv of the Israel Religious Action Center. Kariv, a Reform rabbi, described Metzger as “a puppet controlled by the ultra-Orthodox.”


Israeli Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon said the loss of the heter mechira loophole would cost the country’s agricultural sector $400 million.

“I will not allow the fervently Orthodox rabbis to force their views on the entire Israeli public,” Simhon told the Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot.

Other detractors included modern Orthodox Jews, who support the heter mechira principle, and non-Orthodox Israelis, who simply want to keep kosher without too much inconvenience or expense.

“I don’t accept enforcement, and I reject coercion,” Meir Fleishman, a 56-year-old contractor, said as he shopped at an organic market in Herzliya. “People must follow their conscience and act in keeping with a particular way if he thinks it is important or worthy.”


The dispute ended up before the Supreme Court after the produce suppliers in Herzliya challenged the Chief Rabbinate’s decision. In October, the Supreme Court overturned the ruling, saying that if a local rabbi refused to accept heter mechira produce, an additional, more flexible rabbi would be appointed.

The Supreme Court’s decision essentially reset the issue of heter mechira’s kosherness back to the realm of personal choice. For observant Jews, the question of how to properly observe Shmita remains subject to debate.

Although the ultra-Orthodox have always followed the letter of the Shmita law, the tradition has also drawn support from a new generation of non-Orthodox green-minded enthusiasts; they see a natural nexus between ancient Jewish tradition and organic farming principles.

“It’s really a beautiful thing . . . living in a harmonious relationship with the land. That’s what Shmita is religiously, agriculturally and scientifically,” said Jeffrey Yoskowitz, a recent transplant from New Jersey who lives in Tel Aviv. “There’s a belief that the essence of Judaism is farming. It’s an agricultural religion.”


Theoretically, Shmita should bring a boom year for Palestinian farmers, whose goods could fill the temporary market for non-Jewish produce. But that option has been largely trumped by politics this year.

The Gaza Strip until recently boasted a thriving agricultural export industry. That changed when Israel sealed off the territory after the militant group Hamas took control there in June. Even West Bank farmers are complaining this year that the concrete wall being built by Israel has made it almost impossible to deliver their produce.

The result of the Shmita controversy has been a very public black eye for the Chief Rabbinate and, by extension, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community.

Israeli lawmakers have vowed to push for legislation that limits the Chief Rabbinate’s authority. A group of moderate rabbis announced plans to begin offering their own independent kosher certifications.


The ultra-Orthodox community’s power has grown steadily over the last 20 years, and it has begun extending its beliefs further into daily Israeli life, Kariv said.

Marriage, divorce and other aspects of family law fall under the control of Orthodox rabbis. Buses in Jerusalem don’t run on the Sabbath out of sensitivity to Orthodox sentiments.

But with Shmita, the ultra-Orthodox apparently bit off more than they could chew.

“You can mess with marriage and divorce issues, you can mess with public transportation,” Kariv said. “But don’t mess with the ability of a Jewish mother to buy tomatoes.”


Batsheva Sobelman of The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.