Sabbatical year plays havoc with Israels export of etrogs

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Hagai Kirshenbaum is the fourth generation of his family to harvest etrogs on a large orchard near 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 marks the culmination of the Jewish shmita (sabbatical) year, which began on Rosh Hashanah in September 2014 and corresponds 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 through Oct. 4), he projects he will sell only about two-thirds of his crop.

Shneur Naparstek inspects his crop in Kfar Chabad, Israel. photo/jns-flash90-nati shohat

“People choose not to buy from Israel after a shmita year despite there being poskim [religious decision-makers] who say you can,” Kirshenbaum says.

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

While he doesn’t want to judge others’ decisions, 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 livelihoods of people like himself.

 Shmita is a Torah commandment (Leviticus 25:3-6) observed exclusively in the land of Israel. As soon as the Jews settled in ancient Israel, they began to count and observe seven-year cycles. Every cycle would culminate in a sabbatical year — shmita, which translates as “release.” During that year, Jewish farmers within Israel must not cultivate their fields; whatever produce grows on its own is considered communal property, free for anyone to take.

After the founding of modern Israel in 1948, rabbis were forced to grapple 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 hametz (leavened foods) to non-Jews. Then, the hametz 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) 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 the 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.”

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, boughs with 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 in New York recently put out a primer that demonstrates the complications and options for dealing with Israeli produce during the shmita year. In that document, the university 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. The options range from buying food grown by non-Jewish farmers to avoiding Israeli-grown produce this year altogether.

Growing and selling the four species has become a major enterprise in Arab countries such as Morocco, which is now distributing these items to the United States. Some fear that if too many Americans buy etrogs this year from Morocco, the farmers will be able to develop infrastructure faster and at a more competitive rate than their Israeli counterparts, seizing market share. Moroccan farmers reportedly have planted 2,500 etrog trees in recent years in preparation for this year’s sale.

Israeli etrog exporter Kirshenbaum says he wants to ensure that the mitzvah of using the four species also helps Jewish farmers like himself.

“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?”