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Government touts debt forgiveness, management programs for sabbatical year
By JEREMY SHARON
01/06/2014
The next Shmita year starts at the beginning of the next Jewish calendar year which will be in September 2014.
 
Deputy Religious Services Minister Eli Ben-Dahan and Senior Citizen Minister Uri Orbach announced an inter-ministerial initiative for a social-minded shmita year on Monday, which will be principally designed to alleviate certain debts from the elderly poor.

Ben-Dahan said that the public debate in the shmita, or sabbatical year, should not be about the technical aspects of the seven-year cycle but rather surrounding the “philosophy of the shmita and the social aspects of the Jewish sabbatical year.”

The shmita year as described in the Bible was one year in every seven in which land owners were commanded to leave the land fallow and agricultural work was prohibited, while produce growing without being worked by farmers would be available to the poor. The laws for the sabbatical year also stipulate that debts must be forgiven in the shmita.

The next shmita year starts at the beginning of the next Jewish calendar year which will be in September 2014.

“This is a tremendous opportunity to implement the central idea of the shmita that every person can begin his life anew every seven years with a new slate,” said Ben Dahan.

“I’m speaking specifically about the weak sectors of the population to enable them to begin the next seven years without the burden of debt.”

Ben-Dahan and Orbach are in negotiations with the various national bodies, including the Second Television and Radio Authority; the Israel Tax Authority; the Electricity Company; and the National Insurance Institute, to forgo outstanding debts for elderly people meeting certain criteria.

The minimum for those qualifying for debt forgiveness will likely be 75, and the various ministries involved are currently working to define the poverty level for which debts to the national entities participating in the scheme will be annulled.

In addition to the debt-forgiveness initiative, the Knesset Caucus for Jewish renewal convened on Monday to launch its own program for advancing the principles of the shmita in the coming sabbatical year.

Chairwoman of the caucus and Yesh Atid MK Ruth Calderon announced that the Welfare Ministry, in conjunction with several financial rehabilitation organizations, will provide 10,000 “normative families” who are in financial difficulties with comprehensive assistance for members of the family for their debt problems, along with vocational training and the acquisition of skills for financial management.

“I believe that if we can help 10,000 households get out of debt and return to the workforce, then we will renew some of the trust in the public sector that is so lacking in Israel today,” said Calderon.

Meanwhile, Education Minister Shai Piron said he wished to include education on the central tenets of the shmita year in formal and informal education programs during the sabbatical.

“Competition between individuals, and the materialism that has intensified in Israeli society has distanced us from the spiritual world,” said Piron during the hearing.

“We have to re-examine the relationship between the material and the spirit and to strive towards the return of humility towards nature and reality,” he continued.

And Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz said that the shmita year was an expression of the “connection between social justice and environmental justice” and added that the ministry was looking into opening certain nature sites for free admission during the shmita year.

The Knesset State Control Committee also discussed preparations for the shmita year on Monday, focusing on the technical aspects of Jewish law that affect the production and sale of agricultural produce.

In particular, it was noted that prices of fruits and vegetables during the last sabbatical in 2007/8 which were not produced through a leniency in Jewish law allowing for produce to be grown in Israel, were subject to extreme price hikes.

The committee heard that the price differential between the produce grown through the heter mechira leniency, produce from land sold to a non-Jew under a trust agreement, and produce from other sources was as much as 200 percent, although the average difference was 66 percent.

The haredi community in particular does not accept the heter mechira leniency and so was subject to extremely high food prices during the shmita.

Committee chairman MK Amnon Cohen (Shas) said that the state had failed in supervising prices and that the preparations should be made to reduce price gaps.

“Haredi families with large numbers of children suffer from insane prices for fruit and vegetables when importers see them as captive markets,” said Cohen.

Ben-Dahan said he would do everything he could to remedy the problem although noting that “the issue is not directly within my responsibility.”

He pointed out however that some of the importers are haredi and said that the haredi community should denounce anyone trying to profit from large families during the shmita.
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