Ukraine conflict raises religious issue for Russian Jews

Rabbis convened in Moscow this week to discuss, among other topics, how to handle the influx of sabbatical produce from Israel.

Pro-Russian separatists sit on a tank at a position near Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, September 2 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Pro-Russian separatists sit on a tank at a position near Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, September 2
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The economic conflict between Russia and the West over Ukraine has begun to affect that country’s Jews in an unexpected way, requiring local communities to grapple with a religious issue no one would have suspected would have any connection to geopolitics – shmita.
Rabbis affiliated with the Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations convened in Moscow this week to discuss, among other topics, how to handle the influx of sabbatical produce from Israel, the consumption of which poses a number of challenges for observant Jews. The Congress, also known as KEROOR, represents a range of religious communities.
In recent years, its influence has declined with the rise of the Chabad-dominated Federation of Jewish Communities, whose leadership enjoys a close relationship with President Vladimir Putin.
“This is the first time we are really confronted with this on such a major scale,” said Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, a rabbinical court judge from Moscow and the President of the Conference of European Rabbis.
Israeli agricultural exports have risen on the back of August’s Russian counter- sanctions against European food products in response western sanctions over Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula and continuing support for the rebellion in eastern Ukraine.
While trade between Israel and Russia totaled just $2 billion in 2012, Israel was a major supplier of vegetables even prior to the recent Russian- EU flap.
“Even if the sanctions are reduced, I believe our products will continue to flow into Russia” and could conceivably reach $1 billion annually, Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir told Russian news agency RIA Novosti after the food embargo was announced.
However, while certainly a boon to Israeli farmers, the massive increase in Israeli foodstuffs in Russian supermarkets adds an unsought complication to the lives of kosher consumers there.
The bible mandates that farmers in Israel desist from cultivating their fields once every seven years and food harvested during this sabbatical year, known in Hebrew as shmita, is subject to numerous restrictions, including a ban on its sale.
Shmita produce is considered ownerless according to biblical law.
Various legal justifications are utilized to prevent the land from remaining fallow, a number of which are not universally accepted among the ultra-orthodox. More moderate rabbis rely on a legal mechanism known as the “heter mechira,” in which the titles of fields are transferred to non-Jews, freeing up the Jewish farmer to engage in normal agriculture.
Others rely on Arab produce or on a system called Otzar Beit Din, in which rabbinic courts supervise the harvesting and distribution of crops, the price of which is supposed to only cover costs and does not constitute a proper sale of the produce in question. Many of the ultra-orthodox are careful not to buy heter mechira, which they consider of questionable validity.
“We are trying to observe shmita in a stringent manner,” said Rabbi Moshe Lebel, the dean of Moscow’s Torat Haim Yeshiva, where the gathering was held.
Those looking to abide by the strictest interpretations of Jewish law, however, are stymied by the lack of branding on Israeli produce that would allow them to differentiate between the various standards employed by the originating Israeli farms and by the fact that since the issue of shmita heretofore has not been one that religious Russians have had to face.
“It’s a balagan,” Lebel said, employing a Russian term used in Hebrew to denote a mess.
Russian Jews are largely ignorant of the laws of shmita, under which the leftovers of products endowed with kedushat shiviit, or sabbatical holiness, are not to be thrown out with one’s trash.
Orthodox Israelis typically maintain a separate garbage bin for such scraps that is not disposed of until it is no longer considered fit for consumption.
“Nobody knows about this at all,” Lebel said, adding that he and his fellow rabbis will be undertaking a public awareness campaign in their communities to bolster awareness of the relevant biblical and rabbinic strictures.
This task is made more difficult by the gusto with which Russian Jews consume Israeli products. The message that there may be issues with such purchases can be a difficult one to convey, Lebel added.
Goldschmidt said shmita is not the only issue raised by the increase in Israeli imports, adding that it can be assumed that Israeli produce exported abroad has not been tithed, a requirement for the receipt of rabbinical certification of a product’s kosher status.
And, while Lebel bemoaned the fact that it is difficult to differentiate various Israeli products, Goldschmidt said “a lot of fruits and vegetables are mislabeled” so it is impossible to even tell the country of origin.
Russian rabbis must work together to set standards and coordinate with import firms to trace the supply chain backwards and uncover the provenance of the produce on Russian supermarket shelves, he said.