Farmers in Israel Fear Negative Effects of Biblical Prohibition After Shmittah

“And you shall take on the first day the boughs of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.” (Leviticus 23:40)

This holiday season, Israeli farmers are concerned that due to a misunderstood Biblical prohibition, Jews from outside of Israel will not purchase the special ritual plants used on Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles) from Israeli farmers as they usually do, causing a negative ripple effect on the Israeli agricultural market.

On the upcoming holiday of Sukkot, which begins on September 27 at sundown, Jews all over the world are commanded to bring together four species of plants and use them during their prayer services for seven days. These species are a citron (etrog), a palm branch (lulav), boughs with leaves from a myrtle tree (hadasim), and branches with leaves from a willow tree (aravot). Usually, Jews abroad buy the four species from Israel, but this Sukkot a complication has arisen due to the special status of Israeli produce grown in the past year.

The complication is a result of the shmittah (sabbatical) year, which ended last week. During that year, produce from Israel is considered holy and its proper use a mitzvah (a biblical commandment). However, misuse of shmittah produce would violate the commandment, a worry that has prevented many Jews from outside of Israel from buying Israeli produce grown this year.

During the shmittah year, Israeli farmers must completely desist from cultivating their fields. They relinquish personal ownership of their fields and hand it over to the general public. Whatever produce grows on its own is considered communal property, and it is free for anyone to take. Often, rabbinical courts will appoint the original farmer as a public trustee to oversee the picking and selling of the fruit on behalf of the public and pay the farmer a wage in return for their services.

While this system works for the majority of Israelis, including the religious Zionist community, many Orthodox Jews abroad simply buy their produce from anywhere other than an Israeli source in order to avoid any possible complication in transgressing the shmittah law of not misusing any shmittah produce.

However, if one takes a closer look at the Jewish law regarding the issues, it appears that this approach misses the essence of the law, according to some prominent rabbinical authorities. Rabbi Yosef Carmel of the Israel-based Eretz Hemdah Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies has come out strongly against those who choose to avoid purchasing Israeli produce.

According to Carmel, those who choose not to buy Israeli produce during or immediately after the shmittah year are “stringent where they don’t need to be stringent, because they don’t know the Jewish law.”

In spite of the shmittah prohibitions on farming, most Israeli orchards that produced etrogs, a citrus fruit which resembles a large lemon, produced just as many of the fruits this year as they have in the past. However, industry experts estimate that only half to two-thirds of the usual crop will be sold. The reason, according to orchard owner Hagai Kirshenbaum, is that “people choose not to buy from Israel after a shmittah year despite there being poskim (religious decision-makers) who say that it is not only permissible, but preferable to do so.”

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All four species grow in Israel and neighboring countries in the region, but the etrog is grown specially in Israel and forms a large part of the income of local farmers, whereas the other plants are just as plentiful in Jordan or Egypt.

Kirshenbaum, who is a fourth-generation producer of etrogs, sells many of his fruits to Jews overseas. Kirshenbaum, and other farmers like him, encourages Jews from outside of the country to purchase from Israel in an effort to support local farmers, thereby helping the land and the people of Israel.  

According to a report by Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture, Israeli farmers export, on average, 350,000 etrogs to the United States each fall holiday season. However, following a shmittah year, only about 50 percent of that amount is purchased and shipped.

Carmel, as well as other rabbis from a broad religious spectrum, compiled extensive legal responses that clearly establish the preference for purchasing fruits grown in Israel. According to Carmel, “there is a special obligation to use a set of the four species from Israel.” Carmel even goes so far as to say that this obligation should be accepted across all streams of Judaism. “This should be a consensus,” his responsa (religious response) states.

Etrogs at a four species market in Israel. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Etrogs at a four species market in Israel. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

One major distributor of the four species to Diaspora Jews, Steve Berger, president of MyIsraelConnection.com, agrees with Rabbi Carmel. Berger told Maayan Jaffe in a recent interview which appeared on JNS.org that shmittah “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.”

In fact, the decision not to buy from Israel not only hurts the Israeli economy but supports neighboring Arab nations. Growth and sales of the four species have become a major enterprise in Arab countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Morocco. These countries and others are now distributing these items to the US and even to Israel in an attempt to gain a foothold in the holiday market.

Israeli farmers are concerned that should too large a share of the American market purchase etrogs from Israel’s neighbors  this holiday season, Arab farmers will be able to develop a farming infrastructure faster and at a more competitive rate than their Israeli competitors. This would lead to a continuously shrinking Israeli share of the market in the coming years.

It is currently estimated that, in preparation for this year’s sale, Moroccan farmers have planted some 2,500 etrog trees.