Rabbi I Have a Problem

Is it wrong to avoid Israeli produce during the sabbatical year?

Rabbi, I have a problem


Question: I have heard that some people will not buy produce from Israel because of the shmittah (sabbatical) year. But since there is a concerted boycott campaign against Israel, shouldn’t we do everything we can to buy Israeli goods and encourage others to do so?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.

It forbidden to cultivate the Land of Israel during the shmittah, which is the seventh year of the agricultural sabbatical cycle, and it is forbidden to consume any produce that results from such cultivation. Produce that grows perennially without cultivation, such as fruit from trees, is permitted but retains a sanctified status called kedushat shevi’it, which means it cannot be traded commercially or exported outside Israel.

There are a range of creative halachic solutions to get around the shmittah restrictions but they each present their own problems and controversies. The most widely known “solution” is that of heter mechirah which, much like selling chametz for Passover, relies on a lease or sale that transfers ownership of the land to a gentile. While rejected by many halachists as a legal fiction, the heter was relied on during the shmittah year of 1889 when early pioneer settlers in Palestine faced starvation unless a creative way around shmittah restrictions was found. In modern Israel, the Chief Rabbinate performs a heter mechirah on the land. However, many do not wish to use such loopholes, which explains the often confusing mixed messages in Israel over which produce is kosher during and immediately after a shmittah year.

It could be argued that while Israel is under pressure from groups calling for boycotts, one should actively make use of the heter mechirah by going out of one’s way to buy produce from Israel. On the other hand, there is something very powerful about a people which is willing to observe shmittah according to the letter and spirit of the law. Shmittah is about recognising that for all our hard work, our livelihoods ultimately depend on God’s blessing. Shmittah, like Shabbat, is about stepping back and reflecting on this overarching truth.

Perhaps there are other ways of fighting boycotts, which target not only agricultural produce but academia and culture. The boycott campaign is painful and potentially harmful to Israel and yet throughout its brief history, with all the odds stacked against it, Israel has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. You could say that it’s due to the sheer tenacity, creativity and spirit of the Israeli people, and that no doubt plays its role. But I prefer to think that ultimately it’s because the Almighty is watching over this vulnerable little nation; shmittah is our way of saying to God, “We trust You.”

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

The shmittah has always been a puzzle. Is it possible that an entire population let the land lie fallow every seventh year and relied on the food that grew naturally or that was saved from the sixth year?

Were the storage facilities good enough to keep sufficient food for so long? And was the produce of the sixth year always so abundant that it could last for two years?

Might it have been instead that there was no absolute shmittah year, but that different sections of the land were given their own sabbatical in sequence. Thus, there were always some parts of the land never touched (because it was their sabbatical year), while other parts were in the middle of their seven-year cycle and were being farmed.

Certainly the concept behind giving the land time to replenish itself is valid and we know that if it is over-farmed, it loses its vitality and output declines. In practical terms, though, the use of fallow periods may have been overtaken by rotation techniques or genetically modified crops.

What is definitely dubious is the practice of temporarily selling the land to non-Jews — with buy-back clauses once the sabbatical is over — thereby getting round the ban as it is no longer Jewish-owned land. This is both a distasteful legal fiction and ignores the original object of letting the land rest. Another modern practice, hydroponics, is ingenious, but equally subversive.

At the same time, many would argue that a modern mitzvah is incumbent on us: supporting the people of Israel. Whatever our political stance on borders, settlements or the government of the day, we still have a responsibility to fellow Jews living in Israel, so deliberately avoiding the produce of Israel seems perverse in the extreme. This is even more so when others are boycotting Israel.

We might let go of a literal interpretation of the sabbatical year, but the idea of protecting the land can still be kept in other ways: from recycling more to avoiding pesticides.

Moreover, it need not be limited to the land of Israel and can be extended to wherever Jews live. How about dredging blocked-up local ponds and rivers or planting trees and hedgerows. Why not use parts of our gardens (including the synagogue one) for allotments — it’s educational, it’s practical, it saves importing food. In that sense, every year can be shmittah year.

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