(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The final arguments were heard Wednesday by the High Court in a case that has pitted the Chief Rabbinate against Jewish farmers over interpretation of the intricacies of ancient Jewish law regarding the Sabbatical shmita year.
In the coming weeks the secular High Court may or may not decide to intervene in the clash between the sides. Either way, the court's decision will inform relations between the religious and secular institutions of a country in which state and "church" issues are irrevocably intertwined.
The Rabbinate, a state-funded Orthodox institution with a monopoly over all religious services, including kashrut supervision, demands the right to take a stringent interpretation of Jewish law in regard to the growing of fruits and vegetables in the land of Israel during the shmita year.
Jewish farmers and produce wholesalers, meanwhile, say that the rabbinate's stance will cost them as much as NIS 2 billion in lost revenues.
According to Jewish law, every seventh year Jews are commanded to let the land of Israel lie fallow. Plowing, sowing, planting, trimming and other field chores are forbidden. Annual crops, such as wheat, corn, tomatoes and cucumbers, cannot be grown in land owned by Jews during the shmita year. Perennial crops such as fruit-bearing trees are subject to numerous restrictions.
However, there is a loophole that has been used since the end of the 19th century, when a critical mass of Jewish farmers, many of them religiously observant, arrived in Israel and faced ruin unless they were allowed to work the land.
The solution, called "heiter mechira" or "permitted sale," involves "selling" Jewish-owned fields to non-Jews during the shmita year. After the shmita year the ownership reverts to the Jewish farmers. This "sale" allows the Jewish farmers to work the land as usual, with a few limitations.
Although the Chief Rabbinate officially recognizes heiter 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 heiter mechira. Instead, each rabbi would be granted full autonomy to decide for himself whether or not to rely on heiter mechira as a solution.
As a result, Jewish farmers operating under heiter mechira will be unable to sell their produce under kashrut supervision in towns such as Petah Tikva, Jerusalem, Bat Yam, Herzliya, Kfar Saba, Afula, Rehovot and other towns. These farmers estimate a dramatic fall in revenues.
Attorney Ilan Bombach, who represents the chief rabbinate in the supreme court case, said that the supreme court had no business interfering in a religious issue that was solely the Chief Rabbinate's purview.
"The Supreme Court has a history of staying out of inherently sacred issues that are, and should be, decided by religious leaders," said Bombach.
Attorney Amir Renen, who represents one of five groups of farmers and wholesalers who petitioned the High Court, argued that the rabbinate's position was untenable.
"The Chief Rabbinate has an obligation to provide kosher supervision for produce grown by Jewish farmers in every city and town."