“People with vested interests, who have mehadrin [stringent] kashrut-licensing businesses whose only purpose is to squeeze money out of the weakest members of our community, charge twice or three times the value [for the imported produce]. The propaganda against heter mechira is because of the interests of kashrut-licensing businesses that want to oppress the public and want to take huge amounts of money from poor yeshiva students."
Top Sefardi Haredi Rabbis Overrule Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Ban Israeli Produce During Shmita Causing Firestorm
Shmarya Rosenberg • FailedMessiah.com
Yesterday’s edition of the highest circulation haredi daily newspaper in Israel, Yated Ne’eman, published a letter signed by the five most senior Sefardi haredi rabbis banning the use of heter mechira produce during this shmita year (the once-in-every-seven-year year in which by biblical injunction all fields are supposed to be left uncultivated and untended), the Jerusalem Post reported.
There are three rabbinically sanctioned ways to deal with an entire year of no farming: 1) hydroponics, which under halakha (Orthodox Jewish law) don’t count with regard to shmita because produce is not grown in the ground; 2) import produce from other countries and from regions Israel controls (the area near Eilat, for example) which were never part of the biblical Land of Israel; 3) heter mechira, a pro forma land sale to a non-Jew similar to the hametz (leaven) to a non-Jew before Passover, which has been used for about 100 years. It is this last option the five leading Sefardi haredi rabbis and almost all Ashkeanzi haredi rabbis oppose. In contrast, almost all Zionist Orthodox and Modern Orthodox rabbis approve the use of heter mechira produce.
“Rabbis who sanctioned the heter mechira leniency in previous years did not permit it for this coming shmita [year],” the five top Sefardi haredi rabbis wrote yesterday, using a common haredi formulation to support adopting a stringent view that had not been previously held: that what was done by rabbis of previous generations could be done because they were very great, but because we are not so great we cannot follow that leniency now; or the rabbis who previous ruled something was permissible put a time limit for the use of that ruling that has now expired, even though the original rulings of those rabbis contain no such clear time limit; or those original rulings were written for a specific case that has now years later repeated itself, but the time limit on the original rulings has expired because they were written for a specific case in a specific period and location.
The Sefardi haredi rabbis went on to say that people should not rely on the heter mechira, and therefore no produce grown in the biblical confines of the Land of Israel should be purchased or consumed.
The letter was signed by Rabbi Shalom Cohen, the president of the Sefardi haredi Shas Party’s Council of Torah Sages; fellow Torah sages council member Rabbi Shimon Ba’adani; Rabbi Moshe Tzadka, a rosh yeshiva (dean) at the Sefardi haredi flagship yeshiva Porat Yosef in Jerusalem’s Old City; Rabbi Ben-Tzion Motzpi; and Rabbi Ya’acov Haim Sofer.
In contrast, former Sefardi haredi Chief Rabbi of Israel Ovadia Yosef, the founder of the Shas Party and its spiritual head until his death late last year and a man who is considered to be the greatest Sefardi rabbi in generations, allowed the use of heter mechira produce – which all five rabbis clearly knew before they signed the letter.
By Tuesday afternoon, people close to Cohen, Ba’adani and Tzadka told haredi media that the rabbis had not signed the letter or did not sign it in the form in which it was published.
Cohen’s unnamed associate said Cohen’s position was that only yeshiva students had to be stringent and avoid all heter mechira produce.
Yated Ne’eman’s editor, Benny Rabinowitz, insisted, the letter and its signatures were authentic.
“The letter is authentic, it was signed by the rabbis in question, and any publications to the contrary are not our responsibility,” Rabinowitz insisted.
Speaking on the haredi Kol Barama radio, Rabbi Ya’akov Sasson, one of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s grandsons, said political and business interests, not halakha (Jewish law), was behind the letter and its publication.
“People with vested interests, who have mehadrin [stringent] kashrut-licensing businesses whose only purpose is to squeeze money out of the weakest members of our community, charge twice or three times the value [for the imported produce]. The propaganda against heter mechira is because of the interests of kashrut-licensing businesses that want to oppress the public and want to take huge amounts of money from poor yeshiva students,” Sasson reportedly said.