May Israelis eat grain products produced abroad?

Ask the Rabbi: Normative practice asserts that the grains must only have taken root by 13 Nisan.

Barley (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In addition to commemorating significant historical events usually connected to the Exodus story, the major Jewish pilgrimage holidays mark significant points of the agricultural year. Passover, for example, heralds the beginning of the spring harvest (Hag Ha’aviv, the holiday of spring), which is marked by the omer sacrifice of the first grains of barley on the second day of the holiday (Leviticus 23:11).
Nestled within the holiday’s depiction is a significant restriction on the use of the first grains before the offering of the omer sacrifice.
“Until that very day, until you have brought the offering of your God, you shall eat no bread or parched grain or fresh ears; it is a law for all time throughout the ages in all your settlements” (Lev. 23:14). Many contended that this law intends to restrict benefit from the harvest before acknowledging God as the source of the bountiful produce (Hinuch 303).
Practically, it means that grains belonging to the five major species (rye, barley, oats, spelt and wheat) that did not take root before Passover cannot be consumed until the next spring after the bringing of the omer offering.
While there are those who believe the grains must be planted two weeks before the cutoff date, normative practice asserts that the grains must only have taken root by 13 Nisan (Aruch Hashulhan YD 293:7-9).
The system works fine in the Israeli (and Mediterranean) agricultural cycle, which features a single winter harvest season. Farmers plant their fields in the fall and most crops are harvested around the time of Passover, with their final products hitting the markets after the holiday. Yet in large parts of the Diaspora, including Yemen, North America and many countries in Europe, considerable percentages of the grain grow in the summer, with the seeding taking place after Passover (especially when the holiday falls early in the Gregorian calendar).
This would not pose a problem according to those talmudic sages who asserted that the proscription only applies to grains grown in Israel, like many other laws related to agriculture (Kiddushin 36b). Other sages, however, apply this law worldwide, as implied by the expression “all your settlements” at the end of the Biblical verse (Orla 3:9). While another position relegates hadash (new grain that took root after Passover) outside of Israel to a rabbinic prohibition, thereby potentially allowing for greater leniency in cases of need, the Talmud does not give a definitive answer (Menahot 68b) Maimonides (MT Ma’achalot Assurot 10:4) and many other medieval Spanish scholars, followed by Rabbi Yosef Karo (OC 489:10), asserted that the prohibition applies in all lands. As Rabbi Binyamin Lau has documented, this ruling was not a problem in Spain but became particularly problematic in Yemen, where scholars loyal to Maimonides’s code lamented that the masses consumed products in a marketplace dependent on grains planted after Passover.
Ashkenazic scholars in Northern Europe also struggled with this dilemma, where the problem was particularly acute because of the widespread consumption of beer. Some, like Maharam of Rotenburg (Haghot Maimoniyot Ma’achalot Assurot 10:3) and Rabbeinu Asher (Shu”t Ha’Rosh 2:1), behaved stringently on a private level but refrained from publicly condemning the masses who acted otherwise.
Following earlier scholars, Rabbi Moshe Isserles contended that because of the various sources of grains, one could assume that they were taken from a previous year’s harvest or were planted before Passover unless one knew otherwise (Shu”t Ha’Rama 132). Isserles further contended that in any case, one should not condemn those who acted inappropriately, clearly recognizing that many would succumb to the socioeconomic pressure for these products (YD 293:2).
The lenient practice, however, was strongly buttressed by two additional arguments.
Some contended that hadash outside of Israel was only a rabbinic decree intended to apply to areas with similar agricultural climates as Israel (Aruch Hashulhan 293:5-6, 20-23) Alternatively, Rabbi Yoel Sirkes (17th century Poland) contended, against earlier figures (Tosafot Kiddushin 36b), that the hadash prohibition does not apply to grains grown by a non-Jew (Shu”t Ha’Bach 42). While many figures, including his own son-in-law (Taz YD 293:3) and the Vilna Gaon, strongly disagreed, this position was supported by others (Mishkenot Ya’acov 64) and celebrated by the Ba’al Shem Tov as a laudatory defense of the masses.
While some urged the pious to act stringently, this was clearly not the widespread practice for many centuries (MB OC 489:45).
In recent decades, some rabbinic figures have contended that given the global food supply, we should stop relying upon these dispensations that were given in times of socioeconomic necessity. This argument is particularly relevant in Israel, where local food producers, supervised by the rabbinate, must obey hadash restrictions. Others, however, retort that the lenient position is well-entrenched within the legal canon and does not need to be challenged. Jews, whether in Israel or the Diaspora, may comfortably consume foods comprised of grains grown from around the world.
The writer, online editor of Tradition, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.