(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A serious controversy within the haredi world erupted on Tuesday over the combustible issue of what is known as the heter mechira, a leniency in Jewish law that permits the land to be worked during the sabbatical year.
Jewish law stipulates that the land in Israel must be left fallow during shmita, the sabbatical year, which occurs once every seven years. Due to the problems that shmita posed to the early Zionist agricultural settlements, a leniency was approved by several rabbis that said that if the land was halachically sold to a non-Jew, the stipulations of Jewish law regarding the shmita would not apply.
The Ashkenazi haredi world largely rejected the leniency, however, and rabbis from the sector ruled that produce imported from abroad should be used instead.
In the Tuesday edition of Yated Ne’eman, the largest-selling haredi daily newspaper, a letter was published in the name of five of the most senior Sephardi haredi rabbis that said that “rabbis who sanctioned the heter mechira leniency in previous years did not permit it for this coming shmita,” and therefore one must not rely on heter mechira, and the land must be left fallow, no work must be done in the seventh year, and produce grown in the Land of Israel must not be purchased.
The letter was signed by the president of the Shas Council of Torah Sages, Rabbi Shalom Cohen; council member Rabbi Shimon Ba’adani; Rabbi Moshe Tzadka, one of the deans of the prestigious Sephardi yeshiva Porat Yosef; Rabbi Ben-Tzion Motzpi and Rabbi Ya’acov Haim Sofer.
Several hours after Tuesday’s edition of Yated hit the news stands, denials from the rabbis were reported by the haredi media.
The Behadrey Haredim news website reported that associates of Cohen said that the rabbi had not signed the draft of the letter as published in Yated, and that his position was that only yeshiva students need to be stringent on the issue.
Associates of Ba’adani and Tzadka also reportedly denied having signed the letter.
The signatures of the various rabbis on the letter came as a surprise, given the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s support for the heter mechira. Several videos can be seen on YouTube of Yosef answering in unambiguous fashion that the heter mechira is valid and acceptable in Jewish law.
Yated editor Benny Rabinowitz insisted, however, that the letter was authentic and that anonymous denials that the rabbis had not signed were disingenuous.
“The letter is authentic, it was signed by the rabbis in question, and any publications to the contrary are not our responsibility,” Rabinowitz said.
One explanation for the confusion over the issue was offered by Rabbi Ya’acov Sasson, a grandson of Yosef, who said that political and business interests could be behind the publication of the letter.
Speaking on the Kol Barama haredi radio station, Sasson said that people who owned kashrut-licensing businesses that use only imported produce and not heter mechira produce would profit from more people rejecting the leniency.
“People with vested interests, who have mehadrin [stringent] kashrut-licensing businesses whose only purpose is to squeeze money out of the weakest members of our community, charge twice or three times the value [for the imported produce],” he said.
“The propaganda against heter mechira is because of the interests of kashrut-licensing businesses that want to oppress the public and want to take huge amounts of money from poor yeshiva students.”