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Rabbis air warning about forbidden fruit
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Rabbis air warning about forbidden fruit

‘Sabbatical’ law means some Israeli produce is not fit for the pious

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

When the Orthodox rabbi tells congregants, “Don’t buy Israeli,” it is the proverbial man-bites-dog story.

And guess what? At Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David in West Orange, the rabbis recently reminded congregants not to buy Jaffa clementines, Israeli mandarin oranges, and Dorot carrots from local grocers.

The reason is Jewish law, not politics: This is a shmita, or sabbatical, year, when biblical agricultural laws dictate what produce should and should not be grown in the Holy Land.

Under the laws of shmita, which apply every seven years, agricultural lands in Israel must remain fallow, and observant Jews must obtain their fruits and vegetables elsewhere. 

Pious consumers get around the ban by buying their produce from non-Jewish farmers, including Palestinian growers in the West Bank, or from greenhouses that grow vegetables on platforms disconnected from the land.

More controversial, however, is a 125-year-old rabbinic loophole, known as heter mehira, through which agricultural lands in Israel are “sold” to non-Jews, allowing the lands to be cultivated and vegetables grown during shmita. Rabbis permitted the sale of land to non-Jews on a one-time basis, clearly stipulating that the heter mehira must be re-evaluated for each future Sabbatical year.

Continuing the heter mehira is a topic of fierce rabbinic debate. Most of the major American kashrut authorities (including the OU, Star-K, CRC, Kof-K, and OK) do not accept the loophole; nor does the local Va’ad HaRabonim of MetroWest.

Thus the e-mail to members of AABJ&D, saying, “ShopRite, Costco, Farmer’s Market, and other stores” sell the forbidden fruit, which “should not be purchased.”

In any case, as the e-mail pointed out, that “in normal circumstances,” shmita produce should not be exported, even if the heter mehira is accepted. If the produce, however, bears the imprint of a major kashrut organization, it is acceptable to eat.

Observing the shmita year in America “is complicated,” acknowledged Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler of AABJ&D. The synagogue decided to send the e-mail, he said, because “more and more Israeli produce” is showing up in local markets, “and people are asking what to do.”

Zwickler acknowledged in a phone conversation that it is late in the Jewish year, which started at Rosh Hashana, to send out such an announcement, but that the questions about the produce had been coming to him recently.

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