When the price is ripe

Grocery shopping this year has taken on a whole new dimension because of shmita.

shmita shuk 224 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
shmita shuk 224 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A shopper uneasily eyes a box of prepackaged greens - usually an everyday event. This year, however, grocery shopping has taken on a whole new dimension. "I want to buy shmita... without going crazy," she says. It is now two months into the shmita year, when religious Jews are prohibited from working their fields in Israel and religious consumers are faced with the sometimes daunting task of choosing from among the various options for procuring produce. While fruits are not subject to shmita laws until after Tu Bishvat, which this year falls on January 22, the laws for vegetables have been in effect since Rosh Hashana, and the resolve of those who wish to adhere to stricter standards of kosher certification has been tested. According the Jerusalem Talmud, "The year is holy and all its produce is holy" and is therefore subject to certain prohibitions. To avoid these strictures, religious Jews buy and consume produce that is not bound by the laws of shmita. Rabbi Yosef-Zvi Rimon writes in his book, Shiurei Shmita, that the holiness of shmita only applies to fruit that ripened after the beginning of shmita. The earliest such fruit, for example, apples and almonds, are normally available for purchase around Tu Bishvat. The precise dates for every given fruit can be found in specific tables which are published in a number of shmita books. Vegetables retain the holiness of shmita longer because they were picked during shmita. At the end of the shmita, the order is maintained: Shmita restrictions no longer apply to vegetables once those picked during shmita are no longer sold in stores (around Kislev for many vegetables), while fruits are holy for longer, until those which ripened during shmita are no longer sold (for example, until Iyar for certain fruits). Again, the particular dates are listed on available shmita lists. "So far I'm holding up," says Shoshana, as she shops for groceries at the German Colony's Shuk Hamoshava, which sells Otzar Ha'aretz produce. "But I will eat at friends who buy heter mechira." Heter mechira refers to a selling of land owned by Jews to a non-Jew, which is essentially a legal fiction that allows Jewish farmers to work their land without the prohibitions of shmita. For those who accept heter mechira, there is almost no difference between shmita and regular years - the land can be worked as usual and the added cost to kosher supervision is negligible. But heter mechira is regarded as an untenable loophole by some rabbis, especially those from the haredi community. Thus the haredi community purchases its vegetables from outside the biblically defined Land of Israel or from Israeli or Palestinian Arabs. There is also a third option, a sort of middle ground between the two approaches. The Institute for Torah and the Land, which was founded in Kfar Darom in Gush Katif, and has moved to Ashkelon since disengagement, is marketing an Otzar Ha'aretz line of fruits and vegetables with the idea of finding alternatives to heter mechira that are more halachically acceptable, but without buying produce from non-Jews or from abroad. These alternatives include produce grown before shmita, produce from the South (beyond halachic boundaries of Israel) and produce grown in detached gardens. When these options are exhausted, imported or heter mechira produce will be used. One local supermarket owner says he looked into Otzar Ha'aretz but wasn't satisfied with the quality of produce available and was unwilling to pay the premium for the extra kosher supervision. "I looked into the issue because I know that many of my customers will not buy heter mechira," says Moti Bouenos, the owner of Super Hamoshava on Rehov Emek Refaim. "But heter mechira is simply much cheaper and much better quality. Also, there are problems with the supply of produce [from Otzar Ha'aretz]." But Rabbi Yehuda Amichai of the Institute for the Torah and the Land dismisses such claims. "It's true that at the beginning we had some problems," he says. "You have to remember that we were new at this business and that there were the holidays to deal with, which severely limited the number of days we could pick produce. But at this point we are meeting the demand, and are even ready for more." Asked about the higher prices, Amichai explains that Otzar Ha'aretz prices were fixed by a rabbinic advisory panel, and that the produce was slightly marked up to compensate for costs such as supervision and their unique delivery system. Surprisingly, though, this reporter's cursory investigation found the price differences between Shuk Hamoshava (Otzar Ha'aretz) and Super Hamoshava (heter mechira) to be marginal. In fact, on some items Otzar Ha'aretz was found to be cheaper. Still, these findings should be taken with a grain of salt. Otzar Ha'aretz is a relatively new endeavor, and only time will tell how prices will fluctuate over the course of the year. The group even publishes a price list, which is available online - although the price of produce at Shuk Hamoshava was higher than the Web site's list price by a significant margin. Also, produce prices can vary widely from upscale, centrally located stores to discount chains to the Mahaneh Yehuda market, where both heter mechira and Otzar Ha'aretz produce can be significantly cheaper. WITH ALL the different options and considerations - spiritual or material - to contend with, many shoppers find themselves at a loss as to what to buy. "I'm trying to go with the flow. I'm a little confused because I want to buy shmita, but not from the Arabs," says one shopper as she picks up a package of lettuce at Super Hamoshava. "Last week I went shopping at [a haredi supermarket] and now I'm here." Another consumer was seen buying at a Sha'arei Hessed market that sells haredi-supervised produce, but complained to the shopkeeper that she wanted Otzar Ha'aretz "to support the farmers." Haredi rabbis, however, say they will not allow Otzar Ha'aretz produce because some of it, while not forbidden to eat, is endowed with a special holiness that entails restrictions with which the average consumer cannot be trusted. Some rabbis, for example, forbid squeezing fruits grown in the Land of Israel during shmita for juice, as well as disposing of them in ways that expedite their decomposition. Rabbi Meir Bergman, who heads the Eda Haredit's shmita division, said in an interview with the Arutz Sheva Web site last month that "at these levels it just isn't practical... [to use] otzar beit din," the technical name for an agreement that allows such "holy" fruit to be marketed to the consumer. That said, Bergman was quick to emphasize that supporting Gazan farmers at Jewish farmers' expense was a last resort. "Our first choice is to import from abroad, but that is limited by government restrictions," he said. "Our second choice is to buy produce from Israel's South, but this too is limited in quantity, and is not available year-round. Only our third choice is to buy from non-Jews [in the Land of Israel]." Bergman also pointed out that haredim are not pushing for the ban on importing from Gaza to be lifted, and that the Eda Haredit is purchasing produce only from the West Bank, which in any case provides a large portion of the produce sold in Israel. Rabbi Benjamin Lau, of Katamon's Ramban Synagogue, however, is opposed to eating the imported produce favored by haredi rabbis. In a letter published in Haaretz, Lau accuses the haredi world of being focused solely on the consumer, without regard for the plight of farmers. "Agriculture in Israel has been on the defensive for many years now," he writes. "The shmita year could turn out to be, for many Jewish farmers, a final obstacle that will topple them." While praising Jewish farmers who fully observe shmita, Lau insists that buying heter mechira is preferable to "abandoning the land to profiteering merchants, who, for short-term gain, are importing produce that will harm local growers."BUT HAREDIM believe the costs, whether to the economy or the pocketbook, are worth the price. "At this point, the prices are a little more expensive and the quality is still OK," says one haredi shopper. "But in any case I'm happy to do it; it's a blessing for me." Indeed, the haredi supervision was found to be the most expensive of the available options, though the price differentials are not great and discount haredi stores may still be cheaper than upscale heter mechira. And even within the haredi-supervised produce market, there is still a wide range of choice. One knowledgeable haredi man began to list the names of the various supervisions, collectively known as Badatz. Each Badatz, or rabbinical court, represents a particular segment of the haredi community, though they are all generally held to be acceptable by the majority, particularly the Eda Haredit, which is the main supplier. Both Badatz and Otzar Ha'aretz are supposed to have signs with the exact source and halachic details of every vegetable and fruit, but this reporter found that the majority of stores did not have such information posted. The shopkeeper at a community market is bitter about the high prices the Badatz charged for their supervision, pointing to a photocopied sign he says cost NIS 500. "Then people complain to me that they don't trust it because it's photocopied," he says. And more fees are tacked on at a per month or per carton basis. In addition, the shopkeeper, whose says his clientele are used to a variety of relatively gourmet produce, complains of a lack of such favorites as asparagus, broccoli and cauliflower. His business is absorbing the added costs of shmita, cutting into profits rather than raising prices, he says. Though that shopkeeper is resigned to the additional costs, a shopkeeper in the Mahaneh Yehuda market is less so. "It's all about money," says the kippa-sporting man, gesticulating from his stall. "Even this sign is worthless," he says, pointing to a heter mechira authorization. "If I were going shopping I wouldn't look at it. God created my kiwis as much as anyone else's." Still, the extra supervision may be worth the price for some businesses. The Otzar Ha'aretz grocer at Shuk Hamoshava spoke of lost "leftist" clientele, but says the demand is more than made up for by new customers coming to buy his relatively hard-to-find stock. And some may buy heter mechira on a regular basis, but purchase more stringently supervised vegetables for family or guests. While some of the people interviewed who buy Otzar Ha'aretz or haredi produce say they would not think twice about eating heter mechira when invited out, one haredi man says that he would not. For one Jerusalem restaurant owner, peace of mind is the most important consideration. "I agreed to pay the extra price for mehadrin supervision [which provides a mixture of Otzar Ha'aretz and non-Jewish produce] because I don't want to alienate any of my clientele." The owner points out that she hasn't looked into the specifics of the type of produce she receives nor the difference in price. Instead, her top priority is to ensure all her customers will feel comfortable. "In a year-and-a half it will all be over," she concludes.