Chapter14

WHY NOT TO RELY ON HETER MECHIRAH

The purchase of agricultural produce during the Shemittah year and in the following months is never easy. In Kiryat Arba there has always been at least one shop which sold non Heter Mechirah produce, although on some occasions, especially for Pesach, one had to supplement this by purchasing some things in Jerusalem. It was for the Shemittah of 5761 that “Otzar Ha’aretz” began their operations. Their objective was the use of Jewish produce without utilising the Heter Mechirah.

For the Shemittah of 5768, “Otzar Ha’aretz” greatly expanded its activities. Advertisements were put in various newspapers and other sources asking people to register with them. This involved a registration one-time payment of NIS 50, and 12 monthly payments of NIS 50. For registering, provided it had been done by a certain date, one received their book “Katif Shevi’it” which, if purchased in a shop would cost NIS 50, and in exchange for the 12 monthly payments, one received 12 vouchers for NIS 50 each, to purchase “Otzar Ha’aretz” produce on a monthly basis. In addition, one received vouchers for some benefit each month. Sometimes this “benefit” was for a kilo of oranges free of charge – why they had amongst their produce oranges at a time when oranges were still sixth year produce, no-one seems to know!

At the start of the Shemittah year 5768, there were three large supermarkets in Kiryat Arba. Two of them had departments both for “Otzar Ha’aretz” and for “Heter Mechirah.” The third one just had “Heter Mechirah” produce. However after a few months, this third supermarket was taken over by one of the other two and thus “Otzar Ha’aretz” produce was available also there.

From the literature of “Otzar Ha’aretz” it was not clear whether their produce would include that which was Heter Mechirah and therefore I telephoned them in order to ask. The first answer I got was that when other produce was not available, they would utilise Heter Mechirah. However a few days later they informed me that they would not utilise it, but instead sell imported products. I asked them to send me this latter piece of information in writing but I never received it!

What I later did discover from an article on the Internet on the “Aruiz7” Hebrew site, was that when non Heter Mechirah vegetables are exhausted, “Otzar Ha’aretz “ would place two alternatives before the consumer – one would be Heter Mechirah and the other would be imported non-Arab produce. The Bet Din of “Otzar Ha’aretz” would not decide which was preferable but every consumer would have to make the choice. Reading between the lines, it seemed to me that they had been an internal disagreement between the members of “Otzar Ha’aretz” Bet Din on whether or not to utilise Heter Mechirah produce.

I thus decided that I, as a consumer, would research the whole question of Heter Mechirah and then write a paper giving my theoretical choice on this question – although from the very start I had no intention of utilising the Heter Mechirah, whatever my theoretical conclusion might be!

From previous Shemittah years, I have quite a collection of books and booklets on the laws of Shemittah and they came in very useful in writing this paper. Two of these, namely a book by Dayan Isidor Grunfeld of the London Bet Din, and a paper in a Torah journal written by Rabbi Dr. Kalman Kahana, enabled me to learn about the historical background to the problems involving the Shemittah during the last 120 years, and, in addition, this material gave me many primary references.

I also utilised websites on the Internet, including that of “Otzar Ha’aretz,” especially for items concerning “Heter Mechirah”, and this included answers to questions submitted by the public, given by Rabbi Yehudah Amichai of Kiryat Arba who is a member of the “Otzar Ha’aretz” Bet Din and an authority on the subject. In addition, I found a paper in “text form” which had appeared many months earlier in the pamphlet by “Kommemiyut” of Bet El, which is distributed in the Shuls before every Shabbat. Since I have a strong preference for primary material, I contacted “Kommemiyut” and asked them to send me a copy of their pamphlet, which they immediately did. Only at a later date, did I discover that they had put pdf copies of past pamphlets on their Internet site.

A problem that I found when trying to find information in English on “Shemittah” on the Internet was the different ways one could spell it in English letters – for example: Shemittah, Shmittah, Shmitah, Shmita, and so on, and each one would refer one to different sites on the Internet!

From the English Internet sites of “Arutz Sheva” and “ynet”, I saw that there had been a number of interesting developments for this Shemittah year, arising from the fact that some official city Rabbis had refused to grant a “Teudat Hechsher” to those establishments that wanted to utilise the Heter Mechirah.

One of these developments was that a group of “National-Religious” Rabbis from the organization called “Rabbis of Tzohar” started granting their own “supervision certificates” to these establishments, which allowed them to use Heter Mechirah products. Tzohar brings out a weekly pamphlet which is distributed before each Shabbat in the various Synagogues in Israel. I discovered that a pdf of these sheets is placed on their Internet site and from a study of their archives I was able to obtain from these pamphlets, primary source details concerning this alternative Kashrut supervision. (Incidentally, after I had published my paper, I saw a news item that the Chief Rabbinate had threatened to fine the “Rabbis of Tzohar” if they did not stop issuing their own Kashrut certificates, adding that “We can’t allow every Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde to open his own kosher supervision outfit.”) Although their pamphlets did not show a sample copy of their “supervision certificate,” it did appear on the Internet and, after a considerable search, I also found copies in some national daily newspapers.

When studying these Tzohar pamphlets I saw that, ironically, in almost every pamphlet, there were advertisements for holidays in the Diaspora – China, Thailand, Hong Kong, Venice and even the Arab country of Morocco, and many more places – sometimes they appeared on as many as four of its pages and some even occupied an entire page. These advertisements even included a Glatt Kosher Pesach without gebrochts in Rumania or Turkey, amongst other places!

There were also reactions by other organisations who did not receive a Kashrut certificate because they utilised Heter Mechirah produce. Thy accordingly took the Chief Rabbinate to the Supreme Court. The rulings of the Israel Supreme Court have been scanned on to the Internet, and I accordingly downloaded their entire ruling on this subject. It was over 40 pages long and ordered the Chief Rabbinate to allow the use of the Heter Mechirah!

Another ruling for this Shemittah came in a strongly worded proclamation from 15 of the “Gedolei Hador” which was publicized just before the start of this Shemittah year and it strictly forbade utilising the Heter Mechirah. I had seen this proclamation soon after Rosh Hashanah, but for some reason I had not made a photocopy of it at the time, or even recorded where I had seen it, which is quite unusual for me! I spent hours searching for it and finally I discovered a reference to it on the Internet which stated that it had just been publicised on bill boards and in the Charedi press. From the date of this Internet reference, I had an approximate date from where to search. I began by looking at the microfilms of the Hebrew edition of “Hamodia,” but did not find it there. I then searched “Yated Neeman” and soon found it for a certain day on the top of the newspaper’s front page. At a later date I searched the English edition of “Hamodia” but again I could not find it. Why it was not publicized in “Hamodia” I really don’t know. Maybe, because “Hamodia” is more Chassidic and this particular publicised ruling was for some reason not signed by any Chassidic Rebbes, although I am sure that they all reject the Heter Mechirah.

Apart from the opinions of “Charedi” Rabbis who naturally prohibit the use of the Heter Mechirah, I also made a point of bringing the opinions of Rabbis of the “National Religious” stream who either prohibited or wanted to greatly restrict the use of the Heter Mechirah. These included Rabbi Shlomo Goren, Rabbi Moshe Ushpizai (a former Chief Rabbi of Ramat Gan), and Rabbi Moshe Levinger.

Whilst I had been studying at London University (1960-66), Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who was then Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defence Forces, had came on a visit to Israel, but I cannot remember which year. He addressed the Jewish University Students at Hillel House in London. From what I can recollect of his talk, it included the question of defending the country on Shabbat, and the subject of Shemittah also arose. He maintained that the Heter Mechirah of Rabbi Kook no longer applied today, adding that he himself does not eat anything which is Heter Mechirah. In the question period after the lecture, someone asked him how if Israel had been sold for the Shemittah year, one may override Shabbat by defending it?! He began by laughingly saying “if it had really been sold!” and went on to give an answer to the questioner on the basis of it being sold.

Rabbi Ze’ev Vitman’s book, which deals with suggestions on how to observe Shemittah in the State of Israel, gave a reference to a newspaper article in “Hatzofe” by Rabbi Goren that after the establishment of the State of Israel, the Heter Mechirah no longer had any validity. At that time, the Chief Rabbinate had answered Rabbi Goren’s article with counter arguments, and in turn, Rabbi Goren had published an answer to the Chief Rabbinate. I found all these articles on microfilms of “Hatzofe” in the Jewish National Library and made photocopies of them,

Before he reestablished Jewish settlement in Hebron, Rabbi Levinger had been the Rabbi of Kibbutz Lavie, a Kibbutz of the Kibbutz Hadati movement, which is situated near Tiberius and was established in 1949. Today one of their main “industries” is a hotel which is very successful indeed and they are continually adding new wings. I myself stayed there for a few days with my family in November 2006. This hotel is glatt kosher and as a result, I am informed that the kibbutz dining room is likewise glatt kosher, and they thus observe Shemittah without utilising the Heter Mechirah.

In 1964, Rabbi Levinger had published an article in the Kibbutz Hadati magazine “Amudim” in which he came out for reducing the use of Heter Mechirah, since those who used it barely followed the instructions of the Chief Rabbinate regarding Shemittah and what is more, the population at large did not take the sale of the land seriously!

I had also found on the Internet that an Av Bet Din in New Jersey had written a very strong criticism on an article written by Rabbi Shlomo Aviner which advocated in no uncertain terms that one should use Heter Mechirah products. He even described Rabbi Aviner’s article as “demagoguery”. I managed to track down the source of Rabbi Aviner’s article which was in the Ateret Kohanim journal, and this was available in the library of “Yeshivat Nir Kiryat Arba.” Today this is an excellent Torah library. In fact I was in charge of purchasing books for this library in the late 1960s at the period of “Mitnachalei Hevron” and these books formed a good nucleus for today’s library there, and until this day, these books have the rubber stamp “Yeshivat Mitnachalei Hevron” in them.

In addition to the tens of thousands of books they have there today, they have the disc of “Otzar HaHochoma” which contains over 25,000 Jewish religious books which can be viewed in their entirety and can also be downloaded. During my research I utilized this disc to download some references I required. In addition, today on the Internet there is a site called “Hebrew Books org” with the full texts of 11,000 Jewish religious books. I gave the librarian of the Yeshivat Nir library the address of this site, but there is no Internet connection in this library.

Although the various Rabbinic rulings and proclamations for and against the first Heter Mechirah given in 1888-89 have been reproduced in many contemporary works, I prefer to search out the original material, or failing that, as close to the original material as possible. Much of this appeared in the Hebrew newspapers of that period, which were published in Eretz Israel or in Eastern Europe. They have now been scanned by the Jewish National Library and can be found on the Internet. If one knows the dates that specific items were published by these newspapers, it is easy to find them. Rabbi Kahana and Dayan Grunfeld had given references for many of these items in these newspapers and I accordingly found the material I required and downloaded it.

There were some questions I could not find the answers for in libraries or on the Internet. For example: In his own house did Rabbi Avraham Kook personally eat Heter Mechirah produce? How much of the vegetables sold as Heter Mechirah are in fact Arab produce? I first tried to put these questions on to Wikipedia Reference Desk – but I received no answers. I then asked Rabbi Yehudah Amichai. He answered me that no-one knows what Rabbi Kook did in his own house, and that produce sold as Heter Mechirah does include Arab produce – indeed most of the cucumbers reaching the Jewish market have been grown by Arabs.

I decided that it was important in my paper to show how one could in a practical manner dispense with the Heter Mechirah. I found a paper on the Internet brought out by “Machon Lev” which discussed the financial side of this question and put forward suggestions for alternatives to the Heter Mechirah.

Some of the primary material for this paper was from books published about a hundred years ago and these I found in the Jewish National Library and had the relevant material photocopied.

Having assembled all the material, I was able to write up my paper. It included a historical survey of the Heter Mechirah in the period of about one hundred years ago, the current 5768 Shemittah, whether the Heter Mechirah given in the past was still valid today, a discussion of whether the Heter Mechirah is ideologically acceptable, whether it is a genuine sale and whether it could be abolished, of where to shop during the Shemittah period, and finally my personal answer of what produce to choose when no non-Heter Mechirah vegetables were available. My answer was - imported vegetables.

I wrote up this paper in both Hebrew and in English. The texts are virtually identical and all the 92 footnotes in each edition correspond with each other. Copies were give to the various libraries which had provided me with material and to various other organisations and individuals.

As with all research, after one publishes a paper, one finds further material. This paper is not an exception! On reading the introduction to Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach’s “Ma’adnei Eretz”, I saw two pieces of information that I would have incorporated in my paper had I known about them earlier. One was that Rabbi Kook said that if people put pressure on people who did not want to use the Heter Mechirah, he would withdraw his Heter Mechirah. The second was that Rabbi Diskin could not decide whether to permit or forbid Rabbi Naftali Herz’ proposal to sell the fruit trees for the Shemittah period.

I gave a copy of my paper to the library of Yeshivat “Nir” Kiryat Arba. It was then obviously seen by the editors of that Yeshiva’s journal “Alonei Mamrei”, since they then approached me to publish it in this journal. I told them that they could download it from my site on the Internet but because one reads Hebrew from right to left, they might have to make some corrections. They added that they would publish it together with observations from various people. They hoped that one of them would be Rabbi Yehudah Amihai, who lives in Kiryat Arba and is the Director of “Machon Torah V’ha’aretz, but he did not give his observations.

They also told me that they would make “cosmetic changes” to my paper and then show me a copy for my agreement. This they did and they handed me a copy on the same day as I was going away on a week’s holiday. I informed that I would be away but they said that there was no urgency for me to go over it. However, I took it with me on holiday, read over it numerous times and wrote in my various corrections.

I noticed that they had made a number of subtle additions in order to give the impression that it was only “charedi” Jews who did not accept the Heter Mechirah and that this was in contradistinction to the “dati leumi” Jews who utilised it. They had also moved some of my sentences from the body of the paper to just the footnotes. One of these sentences was one of the most important sentences in my paper!

I deleted these “subtle additions” of theirs and restored my sentences from the footnotes to the body of the paper itself. After I returned from my holiday, I asked them to send me their version of my paper by e-mail in order that I could put in my corrections and return them the corrected version, which I did.

About a month later the journal came out with my paper which occupied 15 pages. I saw to my annoyance that they had returned this important sentence to the footnotes and had on one occasion restored the word “charedim” which I had deleted. Otherwise, they had in general, nor altered my corrections.

In addition, the editors had written two articles with criticisms on my paper. One was a general article of length 9 pages written by both editors. The second was written by just one of the editors on the early history of Heter Mechirah, an article of length 22 pages.

I told the editors that I intended to answer their criticisms, to which they readily agreed. I first very carefully read over their two articles and drafted my reply. I answered the various points made in their general article. Amongst my various points, I noted that the very same “dati leumi” groups who utilized the Heter Mechirah, which they said they did in order to protect the livelihood of the Jewish farmer in Israel, included week after week in the pamphlets which they brought out for Shabbat, pages of advertisements of holidays abroad – China, Thailand, Italy, Turkey, America and even the Arab countries of Morocco and Tunisia! I asked what about the livelihood of the Jewish hoteliers and Jewish travel guides in Israel?!

Although I praised the second article as an excellently researched one, I pointed out it was totally irrelevant to my paper. I stated that it was only of historical interest what certain Rabbis had ruled a hundred or so years ago. What was of importance was how these very same Rabbis would rule today. I brought numerous proofs to show that today they would forbid the Heter Mechirah.

After writing my reply, I sent it to the editors by e-mail and then confirmed that they had received it. As at the end of 2008, a further volume of this Yeshivah’s journal had not yet been published.

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