(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In a ruling that strikes a blow to haredi religious hegemony in a state where Judaism and democracy often clash, the High Court of Justice on Wednesday overruled the Chief Rabbinate in a quarrel over shmita (sabbatical year) kashrut standards.
Responding to a petition by a wholesale produce provider, the court ruled that it was illegal for the Chief Rabbinate to allow Herzliya Chief Rabbi Yechiel Ya'acobovitz to deny kosher certificates to restaurants, hotels and other food-serving venues that sell fruits and vegetables that were grown, according to a leniency called heter mechira, in Jewish-owned soil inside the borders of the Land of Israel during the shmita year.
Although the Chief Rabbinate officially recognizes heter mechira, it also has an interest in reducing its use and to encourage more stringent approaches to shmita-year produce. Permitting Ya'acobovitz to adopt a more stringent approach was part of this policy of the Chief Rabbinate.
But the High Court rejected the Chief Rabbinate's policy of encouraging more stringent kosher supervision methods, arguing that it was an unjustified infringement on non-haredi individuals' rights. The court ruled that Ya'acobovitz, a haredi rabbi who adopted a stringent interpretation of Jewish laws governing shmita, must either provide kosher certificates himself or allow more lenient rabbis to do so.
Kiryat Ono Chief Rabbi Ratzon Arussi, a member of the Chief Rabbinate's governing body who supported the Chief Rabbinate's decision, said in response that it was another example of the court's unjustified intervention in purely religious matters.
"The High Court over the years has gradually chiseled away at the religious establishment's autonomy," said Arussi. "The court has intervened in cases dealing with divorce law and conversions, and now it is overruling the Chief Rabbinate on the issue of shmita. This decision is another serious blow to the Chief Rabbinate."
On August 21, the wholesale produce provider Asif Yinov petitioned the High Court of Justice to force Ya'acobovitz and the Chief Rabbinate to grant kosher supervision to vegetables grown by Jewish farmers.
Company owner Eyal Yisraeli argued before the court that he would sustain serious financial losses as a result of Ya'acovbovitz's decision, since all of the fruits and vegetables he markets would not be considered kosher according to the rabbi's stringent standards.
Local restaurants, hotels and caterers interested in maintaining the religious consumer market would not buy fruits and vegetables from Asif Yinov.
"Today's decision is a victory for democracy," said Yisraeli. "I have nothing against religious people," he added. "I am even willing to fight for their right to live in accordance with their beliefs. But rabbis have no right to force their beliefs on others."
According to Orthodox Jewish law, every seventh year Jews are commanded to refrain from working the land of Israel. During this year plowing, sowing, planting, trimming and other field chores are forbidden.
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 end of the 19th century, when a critical mass of Jewish farmers, many of whom religious, immigrated to Israel and established a burgeoning agricultural industry, some rabbis have permitted a heter mechira, literally permitted sale.
According to this practice, farmers were permitted to temporary "sell" their land to non-Jews.
Transferring the land from Jewish to non-Jewish hands abrogates the inherent holiness of the land, thus permitting all types of work.
This legal solution eased the plight of farmers with field crops who could not afford to go an entire year without income. Heter mechira also enabled consumers to obtain fruits and vegetables.
In addition to the economic incentives, adherents of heter mechira also had a clear political goal. They wanted to make sure Jewish-owned farmland continued to be worked by Jews during the shmita year, thus preventing Arab squatters from taking control of land left fallow. They also wanted to support Jews over Arabs.
However, heter mechira has always been controversial with a large, vocal group of rabbis bitterly 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.
Haredi consumers are careful to buy produce from Arab farmers who own land in Israel or in Judea and Samaria. In the wake of the Hamas takeover, frequent closures and curfews make growing risky for Gazan farmers since they cannot be sure they will be able to export what they grow.
Haredim also buy produce that is imported from outside Israel. Ya'acobovitz adheres to this stringent view. As a result, he refused to sign off on kosher certificates for businesses that sell produce that come 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% to 90% of the local produce market, according to Yerachmiel Goldin, who is in charge of shmita in the Agriculture Ministry.