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Former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Israel's Sephardi ultra-Orthodox community, issued an impassioned defense of the heter mechira, or sale permit, yesterday, even as leaders of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox community are trying to suppress its use.

The permit enables Jewish farmers to "sell" their land to non-Jews during the shmita, or sabbatical, year, when Jewish-owned land in Israel is supposed to lie fallow, thereby enabling the land to be worked as usual.

The Chief Rabbinate had always supported the permit, but this year, under pressure from leading Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox rabbis, it decided to allow each municipal rabbi to accept or reject the halakhic loophole as he saw fit.

As a result, several municipal rabbis have threatened to deny kashrut certification to any business that uses or sells produce grown under the permit in their jurisdictions.

The High Court of Justice is currently hearing several petitions against the Chief Rabbinate's decision.

Yosef used his weekly lecture on Saturday night to declare that "the heter mechira is alive and well," as it stems from the principle that "the Torah is a Torah of life, 'that a man shall do them [the commandments] and live,' not a Torah of pointless decrees."

He related the story of a married yeshiva student with 10 children who had asked him how to cope with the soaring prices of imported produce.

"I asked him: 'Why don't you buy heter mechira?' He replied: 'They say it's forbidden.' 'They say? Why do you listen to what they say? Do we have a Torah or don't we? Go buy heter mechira!'" Yosef declaimed.

Imported produce 'would be better'

However, he added, for those who want to fulfill the obligations of shmita in the best possible way, it would be preferable to use imported produce, as long as said produce does not come from Palestinian territory and is certified as kosher by the Sephardi kashrut organization rather than an Ashkenazi one.

In his lecture, Yosef gave a detailed survey of the halakhic justifications for the sale permit, as well as its history since it was first introduced - according to Yosef, in 1889.

While the halakhic ruling is usually attributed to former chief rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who was Ashkenazi, Yosef claimed that it was first approved by a Sephardi rabbi, and only adopted by the Ashkenazim seven years later.