Thursday, August 30, 2007

Sabbatical Year Approaching In Israel Poses Legal and Agricultural Issues

In two weeks the Jewish New Year of 5768 begins. In Israel, that prospect is posing unique legal and religious problems since that year will be a sabbatical year during which traditional Jewish law requires that land in Israel owned by Jews lay fallow. Over the years, a number of rabbis developed a legal fiction that allowed crops to continue to be grown. Farms in Israel were symbolically "sold" to non-Jews, usually Druze citizens, and then at the end of the year, were "sold" back to their former owners. Yesterday, both Haaretz and the Forward reported that increasingly ultra-Orthodox ("Haredi") rabbis are rejecting this loophole, and are insisting that the government help them enforce a stricter reading of Jewish law.

Earlier this month, the director-general of the Jerusalem Religious Council said that only produce that complies with the stricter interpretation should be marketed, and specified two wholesalers-- chosen without formal competition-- who would be certified as selling complying produce. Three petitions challenging that method of selecting the wholesalers have been filed with the High Court of Justice. Yerachmiel Goldin, supervisor of sabbatical year issues in the Ministry of Agriculture, believes that the High Court of Justice may instruct the rabbinate of Jerusalem and other towns to accept produce cultivated under the more liberal rules.

In past sabbatical years, the Haredi community has solved the problem by purchasing produce grown by Palestinians and crops exported from Cyprus. Leaders of one Haredi group now want the Israeli army to provide security for kosher supervisors sent to Palestinian farms in the West Bank. Other options include Jewish farmers growing crops using a method in which produce is planted on detached beds having no contact with the ground, and using crops grown in areas such as the southern Arava that are not defined by traditional Jewish law as being in the area subject to sabbatical restrictions.