(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In a case that is pitting secular legal authority against the religious establishment, Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz has attacked the Chief Rabbinate for allowing its local rabbis to adopt stringent kosher criteria during the upcoming shmita (sabbatical) year.
In a written statement, Mazuz notified the Supreme Court that he could not defend the Chief Rabbinate before the court in a case involving kosher supervision in the predominantly secular town of Herzliya.
The local rabbi of the seaside town, Rabbi Yechiel Ya'acobovitz, has refused to provide kosher certificates to restaurants, hotels and other food-serving venues that sell vegetables grown in Jewish-owned soil inside the borders of the Land of Israel during the shmita year.
On August 21, wholesale produce provider Asif Yinov and his attorney, Amir Renan, petitioned the Supreme Court to force Ya'acobovitz and the Chief Rabbinate to permit the sale of these vegetables. Attorney Ya'acov Weinroth is representing the rabbinate and Ya'acobovitz.
According to Jewish law, working the land of Israel is prohibited in every seventh year. During that time, Jews may not engage in plowing, sowing, planting, trimming or other field chores. As a result, no annual crops, such as wheat, corn, tomatoes and cucumbers, can be grown in land owned by Jews during the shmita year. Perennial crops are subject to numerous restrictions.
Still, since the end of the 19th century, when a critical mass of Jewish farmers immigrated to Israel and established a burgeoning agricultural industry, some rabbis have permitted "heter mechira" or the temporary sale of Jewish land to non-Jews as a legal solution to the plight of farmers who could not afford to go an entire year without income.
Transferring the land from Jewish to non-Jewish hands abrogates the inherent holiness of the land, thus permitting all types of work.
However, heter mechira has always been controversial with a large, vocal group of rabbis opposed to what they call "a desecration of the Holy Land." These rabbis argue that the sale is purely fictitious and, therefore, non-binding. As a result, all the annual crops grown on this land during the shmita year are forbidden for consumption, enjoyment or profit.
Ya'acobovitz adheres to this stringent view. As a result, he has refused to sign off on kosher certificates for businesses that sell produce from heter mechira fields.
In contrast, the Chief Rabbinate officially recognizes heter mechira as a legitimate solution for farmers unwilling, or unable, to leave their land fallow. The Chief Rabbinate even set up a special body, headed by Rabbi Ze'ev Weitman, chief rabbi of the Tnuva Dairy concern, and Rabbi Avraham Yosef, chief rabbi of Holon and son of Shas mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, to implement heter mechira.
In fact, heter mechira represents 85-90% of the local produce market, according to Yerachmiel Goldin, who is charge of shmita in the Agriculture Ministry.
Meanwhile, haredi consumers are careful to buy produce only from Arab farmers in Israel or in Judea and Samaria. In the wake of the Hamas takeover, very little produce is expected to leave Gaza. Haredim also buy produce imported from outside Israel.
Haredi kosher supervision firms such as Kashrut Le'Mehadrin, under the direction of Rabbi Yosef Yekutiel Efrati, have been trying to expand their operations during the shmita year to include markets that are predominantly secular, as part of a larger battle to reduce heter mechira to a minimum. These firms also stand to make a profit from their expansion, not just in the shmita year, but also in future years, since business relations developed during the shmita year can be maintained.
Although the Chief Rabbinate officially recognizes heter mechira, the rabbinate's 15-man governing council voted on August 30 that no local rabbi would be forced to accept the rabbinate's stand on the practice. Instead, each rabbi would be granted full autonomy to decide for himself whether to rely on heter mechira as a solution.
But Mazuz argued that once the Chief Rabbinate recognized heter mechira as a legitimate and kosher solution, it was obligated to provide a kosher certificate to restaurants and other food venues that sold heter mechira produce.
"The Chief Rabbinate's governing council is obligated to provide Herzliya with a rabbi who will give kosher certificates under the criteria of heter mechira in accordance with the council's own decision to recognize heter mechira," wrote Mazuz."It is unreasonable for the rabbinate to refuse to do this, in contradiction of its own decision to recognize heter mechira and at a great cost to both Herzliya's citizens and farmers."
Yehuda Hasson, the owner of Pastabar, an Italian restaurant under kosher supervision in Herzliya, said that if he were forced to buy vegetables under haredi kosher supervision, he would have to pay twice as much.
"Vegetable costs are equivalent to about 5% of my revenue," said Hasson. "If the cost doubles, it would mean a loss of all my profits. I'd have to stop kosher supervision altogether."
Hasson said that he spends about NIS 12,000 a year on kosher supervision.
"Ya'acobovitz is causing people like me to feel nothing but disgust for religion," he said. "Instead of trying to bring Jews closer to their tradition, the rabbi is pushing them away."