Shmita sabbatical year puts Israel’s Sukkot four species industry in a bind

Shneur Naparstek, ultra orthodox Jewish farmer in an orchard with Etrog trees, a yellow citron, or Citrus medica, in Kfar Chabad, central Israel, on July 9, 2013. The etrog is one of the Four Species used by Jews on the week-long holiday of Sukkot, that will begin on September 18. Photo by Nati Shohat/Flash90.

By Maayan Jaffe,

Hagai Kirshenbaum is a member of the fourth generation of his family to harvest etrogim (the plural of etrog in Hebrew) on a large orchard outside of Rehovot in central Israel. Each year, he personally oversees the annual export of thousands of what the Torah calls the “fruit of a beautiful tree.”

But not this year.

This fall marked the culmination of the Jewish shmita (sabbatical) year, which began on Rosh Hashanah in September 2014 and corresponded to the Hebrew calendar year 5775. Though Kirshenbaum’s orchards produced just as many of the yellow citron fruits that Jews around the world will use this holiday season for Sukkot (Sept. 27 at sundown through Oct. 4), he projects he will sell only about two-thirds of his usual crop.

“People choose not to buy from Israel after a shmita year despite there being poskim (religious decision-makers) who say you can,” 

Kirshenbaum says. 

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Kirshenbaum says he feels Jews should make a point of buying religious and spiritual items from Israel, and that those who choose not to do so are impacting the lives and livelihoods of people like himself.

On average, Israeli farmers export 350,000 etrogim to the United States each fall holiday season—but only about 50 percent of that amount on the tail of a shmita year, according to Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture.   

Shmita is a Torah commandment (Leviticus 25: 3-6) observed exclusively in the land of Israel. As soon as the Jews settled in Israel, they began to count and observe seven-year cycles. Every cycle would culminate in a sabbatical year—“shmita,” which literally translates as “release.” During that year, Israeli farmers must completely desist from cultivating their fields. They also relinquish ownership of their fields; whatever produce grows on its own is considered communal property, free for anyone to take.

After the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, rabbis grappled with how to support local farmers whose lives were built on working the land. One method is much like the one we see on Passover, when Jews “sell” their chametz to non-Jews but still keep it in their homes. Then, the chametz is “returned” to its Jewish owners after the holiday. 

In this instance, Jews “sell” their farms and/or orchards to non-Jewish neighbors and receive them back (profits and all) in the fall, at the end of the shmita year. While this works for the majority of Israelis—including the religious Zionist community—there are many Orthodox Jews in the United  States who instead will simply buy their produce from somewhere other than an Israeli source, rather than risk a potential transgression of the shmita law.

Rabbi Yosef Carmel of Israel-based Eretz Hemdah Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies says those who choose not to buy Israeli produce during the shmita year are “stringent where they don’t need to be stringent, because they don’t know the Jewish law.”

Carmel, working with rabbinic colleagues, has compiled an extensive Jewish response on the subject detailing areas in the Torah that make clear “the special obligation to use a set of the four species—etrog, lulav, boughswith leaves from a myrtle tree, and branches with leaves from a willow tree—from Israel. This should be a consensus.”

But there is not a consensus. Yeshiva University (YU) recently put out a primer that demonstrates the complications and options for dealing with Israeli produce during the shmita year. In that document, YU lists five ways farmers can handle shmita and explains that buyers need to decide what makes sense for them based on each methodology’s pros and cons. It notes that many buyers choose a combination of methods:

• “Otzar Beit Din” requires non-Jews to work land and lots of rabbinic supervision, and ends up being expensive.

• “Yuval Nochri,” which promotes non-Jewish farmers, may negatively impact the Israeli agricultural economy even beyond the shmita year.

• “Matza Menutak” means no privilege of eating “kedushat shevi’it” (produce grown on Jewish-owned land during shmita, which has a holy status).

“Havla’ah” is buying one non-shmita item and getting permission to buy one Israeli-grown item as a result. In essence, “buy one, get one free.”

• “Heter Mechira” is a less accepted method. Even its supporters say to use it only when no other option is available. This method promotes non-Jewish agriculture, and it is unclear if the sale of land to a non-Jew is even valid or permitted.

Steve Berger, president of the tourism and product sales website, agrees with Rabbi Carmel. His company has become a major distributor of the four species of Sukkot. Berger said that while shmita “is a beautiful and ancient ideal that is at the heart of Jewish tradition…it is not designed to create a situation where Jewish consumers are hurting the Israeli economy.”

Berger noted that the growth and sales of the four species has become a major enterprise in Arab countries such as Egypt and Morocco, who are now distributing these items to the U.S.  He worries that if too much of the American purchases of etrogim this year come from Morocco, the farmers there will be able to develop a farming infrastructure faster and at a more competitive rate than their Israeli competitors, thereby continuously seizing market share in the coming years. 

Israeli etrog exporter Kirshenbaum, meanwhile, says he wants to ensure that the mitzvah of using the four species stays “pure and Jewish.”

“If the four species is just another business, they (the species) will lose their holiness,” says Kirshenbaum. “Do you want your etrog to say ‘Made in China,’ or do you want the real thing from the holy land of Israel?”

Maayan Jaffe is a Jerusalem-based freelance writer.