Court Hears Petitions on Shmita Produce

The Chief Rabbinate reached one of its most controversial decisions in recent years through a telephone poll last month and without consulting or keeping a protocol, the High Court of Justice in Jerusalem heard on Wednesday.

The court was reviewing petitions demanding the Chief Rabbinate force municipal rabbis to provide kosher certification for shmita, or sabbatical, year produce according to the halakhic loophole of heter mechira, or sale permit.

Earlier this week, the chief rabbis said they could not intervene as kashrut was not a matter of a minimum threshold. Among the petitioners are produce wholesalers from Herzliya and the Plant Marketing Board.

Attorney Ilan Bombach, who is representing Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger and the Chief Rabbinate, told the court that the religious body had voted twice on whether to allow municipal rabbis an independent stance on the matter. Both votes, Bombach said, were conducted over the phone, with all 15 members voting unanimously in favor of the precedent-setting move. The council's policy allows municipal rabbis to take a hard-line stance on the halakhic issue. Metzger had been abroad in one of the votes.

"The doorposts of your establishment are moving, and you go ahead and conduct a phone survey?" Justice Elyakim Rubinstein asked Bombach in criticism of the Chief Rabbinate's modus operandi.

Since 1889, the Chief Rabbinate required municipal and local rabbis to approve as kosher fruit and vegetables produced under the halakhic loophole. Under heter mechira, Jewish-owned land is "sold" to Gentiles, thereby allowing all produce from such land to be sold as kosher.

"For this organization to backtrack on such a time-honored decision, it need reach the decision in an educated manner and explain this change of heart," Rubinstein added.

The rabbis argue that allowing local rabbis to make their own decision constituted "pluralism in each and every community."

The rabbis rejected the petitioners' claim that widespread import of produce from abroad would cause Israel's farmers to lose their local market, calling it "speculative." Additionally, Bombach told the court that kashrut certificates would not be taken at once from businesses that market fruit and vegetables using the more lenient stance. According to Bombach, the recall for kashrut certificates will in most cases apply only to the most stringent kosher certificates and not ordinary kashrut permits. The Israel Farmers Federation and the Plant Board told the court that farmers will lose billions of shekels and produce prices will rise greatly due to the Chief Rabbinate's rigid approach.