The State Control committee chairman told all those responsible for the preparations of the shmita sabbatical year to prevent steep rises in food prices that have been witnessed in the past.
“It must be ensured that the average consumer is not harmed and that no cartel takes control of the market, holding customers prisoner [to inflated prices],” Shas MK Amnon Cohen said at the committee’s meeting yesterday.
The shmita year, which commences in just two months time, is the Jewish sabbatical year. It takes place once every seven years during which the land must lie fallow and agricultural work is prohibited, although certain produce growing without being worked is permitted.
Cohen said compared to the preparations for the previous shmita, budgets, supervision and price stability for the upcoming sabbatical were being dealt with in an efficient manner, praising Deputy Minister for Religious Services Eli Ben-Dahan for his efforts on the issue.
“Competition among fruit and vegetable importers must be guaranteed” in order to avoid serious price gouging, he said.
Although large parts of the national religious community rely on the heter mechira leniency, which allows the land to be worked if it is symbolically sold to a non- Jew, haredim do not follow this option.
Produce that was not brought to market using the heter mechira was subject to extreme price hikes during the last shmita.
Ben-Dahan informed the committee that more than 6,500 farmers in Israel have or are receiving guidance, advice and assistance for choosing one of the options available to them during the shmita year.
This includes switching to hydroponics agriculture for the year, a method of growing produce in water without soil, which is permitted during shmita; the heter mechira solution; the Rabbinical Store House solution in which representatives of the rabbinical courts act as the consumer’s agent without the direct input of the farmer; or for the farmers to simply take a full, state-subsidized sabbatical.
The Ministry for Religious Services has put on conferences for farmers, agricultural unions, moshavim and kibbutzim with 18 working groups managing the relationship with agricultural producers and marketing networks.
According to the ministry, only 150 to 200 farmers have opted to take a complete sabbatical.
According to Deputy Director of the Ministry of Agriculture Tzvika Cohen, 87 percent of the public is prepared to use fruits and vegetables grown with the heter mechira leniency, and he said that there will be no problem with produce supplies for this category.
He said for the remaining 13% of the population, it appeared that there would also be sufficient produce, but if necessary, produce would be imported from abroad with reduced tax liabilities.
Minister for Agriculture Yair Shamir spoke warmly during the hearing about the role of the shmita year and the importance of preserving it.
“The shmita expresses the connection of the Jewish people to its land, and the implementation of the sabbatical year is part of the people’s rebirth in its land,” Shamir said.
“When we were a scattered and dispersed people there was almost no significance to this commandment, but now we have returned to our land we are fulfilling the return to Zion.”