VEGA News Item

Unholy Harvests in Sabbatical Years - 04/03/2008
New Thinking on Archaic Jewish Farming Practices
New Thinking on Archaic Jewish Farming Practices

1. The start of Israel’s blockade of the Gaza strip has prompted a crisis in kitchens across the Jewish state. Orthodox Jews are orchestrating their own boycott of Israeli goods and they are clamouring to get their hands on produce from Gaza and other Palestinian areas.

2. The boycott is not motivated by politics, but by a biblical injunction in Leviticus, one of the “household” books of the Old Testament and a stern reminder of organic principles that “in the seventh year the land is to have a Sabbath of rest, a Sabbatical to the Lord.” According to calculations by rabbis this Jewish year, which began in September, is “a seventh.” It means that no new crops can be planted, so vegetables cannot be grown. Minimal maintenance can take place only on fruit trees (defined as those that bear produce year on year).

3. So as Gaza looks to Israel for its fuel, Orthodox householders look to Gaza for their vegetables. Agricultural produce from here – and other areas that are outside the Land of Israel as defined by the Talmud – is perfectly permissible. Produce is being flown in, at a steep price – from as far afield as China and America. In Britain, which usually only receives agricultural imports from Israel, goods are leaving for Israel as they arrive.

4. Israeli produce in British shops presents Orthodox Jewish shoppers with dilemmas. And Israel’s strongest advocates, who respond to the campaign to shun Israeli goods by buying extra in a bid to offset trade lost by the boycotters, are perplexed when they see Galilean sweetcorn and Jerusalem basil. Do they buy, thus acting on their solidarity to Israel, or do they follow their religion and thus unwittingly join Israel’s detractors?

5. Can the situation become even more complicated? Well, yes, even in choices that affect shoppers in Britain. While much of Israeli Orthodoxy strictly enforces the ruling and shuns local produce, some rabbis claim that it is permissible – even desirable – to buy the vegetables that are supposedly prohibited. These contradictory schools of thought are locked in a 119-year-old dispute on which the Orthodox British shopper must make a judgement in the vegetable aisle, explains the Times (23 January 2008).

6. The debate started in the late 1880s. For centuries this sabbatical had been little more than an academic subject, as few Jews lived in the Holy Land, but as Zionists arrived and struggled to establish agriculture, they complained that surrendering a seventh of their produce would make their task nearly impossible. One leading rabbi, Elchanan Spector, said that farming could continue if the land was sold to a non-Jew and then bought back when the Sabbatical was over. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, first Chief Rabbi of the pre-state Israel, and many other influential religious authorities, approved, and under his successors this has become standard practice. However, “many equally influential rabbis lambasted the practice, regarding it as an unconvincing get-out.”

7. Israelis demanding foreign produce follow this school of thought, while other Orthodox people – sometimes even in the same family – claim the land sale is binding and eat domestically-grown produce. Tzohar, an alliance of religious Zionist rabbis, is promoting this practice. Its chairman, Rabbi Rafael Feuerstein, says: “This solves a conflict of values, both of which have status in Jewish law. First is the need to keep farming going, and self-sufficiency in production is a matter of national welfare given Israel’s uncertain security situation. Second is the Sabbatical regulation. Even without the Sabbatical restriction, many people are leaving farming in Israel as it is difficult to make a decent salary. Trusting this land sale and buying Israeli vegetables – in Israel and abroad – is important if Israeli farming is to survive; it is key to survival of the State.”

8. An émigré from London, Rabbi Yoel Moore, leads the antis. He is an activist in the pressure group called the Institute for Agricultural Research According to the Torah. He states: “This leniency was permitted because of special circumstances that no longer apply. The agricultural community was just starting out and people were in danger of losing their livelihoods. Now, doing without agriculture for one year in seven would hardy harm the economy. The reasons for allowing the leniency no longer apply, so it should no longer be used.”

9. The British Jewish mainstream has rejected the land sale custom. The London Beth Din, the ecclesiastical court of the Chief Rabbi, has issued statements advising people “to avoid using products that are grown in Israel”. Other Orthodox synagog organisations concur, according to the article in the Times, which comments, however, that “the reality, as in most matters of religious observance, is that people are largely acting on their own judgment. While careful not to undermine the leadership by stating so publicly, many religious figures privately voice disquiet.” One leading religious-Zionist comments: “I would probably disagree with the authorities on this, but I would not give guidance to my congregation accordingly as rabbinic authority rests with them”.

10. It seems therefore that populations Jewish or not in our Northern European latitudes may enjoy Mediterranean-style healthy diets without let or hindrance from Israeli scruples over land care and prices, or fallowing, set aside, environmental and wildlife concerns, and possibilities of soil sickness, regeneration, and organic conversions. All of these are factors due eternal respect, as much as the atmosphere and aqueous reserves. Jewish pragmatists still have some way to go before they can display similar respect for the treatment of commercial animals as beasts of burden, power, food, and clothing and the reverence they receive from consumers of their meat, killed in rituals maintained with authority that is due for undermining as effectively as the land sales qualify for replacement and abandonment in the workings of the New Kinder Farming.  

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