Court: Local Rabbinates Have No Independent Say Over Shmita Sales

High Court nixes decision letting local rabbis decide whether to grant sales permits to farmers during sabbatical year.

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The High Court of Justice on Wednesday invalidated a decision of the Chief Rabbinate which would have given local rabbinical councils independent say over whether to permit a halakhic loophole allowing the sale of Jewish land to a non-Jew in the sabbatical (shmita) year.

The Chief Rabbinate had decided to give local rabbinical councils autonomy in determining whether to grant this sales permit, or "heter mechira."

The sales permit enables Jewish farmers to "sell" their own land to non-Jews during shmita - when Jewish-owned land in Israel is supposed to lie fallow - thus enabling the land to be worked as usual.

The Chief Rabbinate's decision would have given rabbis who oppose the loophole arrangement freedom to give kashrut certification only to businesses in their city that agree to import produce.

The court ruled that the Chief Rabbinate must override any council rabbi that refuses to grant the sales permit and appoint in his place a rabbi that would allow the loophole.

In its decision, the High Court wrote that the decision of the Chief Rabbinate would harm all agriculturalists and the public at large.

Estimates made by vegetable growers put the potential losses of the Chief Rabbinate's decision at NIS 700 million, while Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon (Kadima) has stated the figure would be closer to NIS 2 billion.

The High Court ruled that until the rabbinate decides to change its shmita policy, it must heed the warnings of representatives from the Agriculture Ministry and industry.

The Chief Rabbinate had always supported the sales 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.

MK Ben-Sasson vows to push for new laws to end the Rabbinate's monopoly on Kashrut certification

Chairman of the Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee Menachem Ben Sasson (Kadima) on Wednesday vowed to continue to push for stricter laws against wrongdoing in the giving of Kashrut certification, with the intent to end the Rabbinate's monopoly on the awarding of certification.

Ben Sasson expressed regret that the Rabbinate refused to heed the committee's suggestions to find a solution to the problem, instead leaving the issue to the courts to decide.

"This is a double failure. They have ignored their national responsibilities and have shown complete inflexibility in regard to the needs of Israel's consumers, business owners, and agriculturalists," Ben Sasson said, adding that he intends to expedite the passing of more stringent laws in order to avoid another "embarrassing" incident of this sort.

Agriculture Minister: High Court ruling 'a victory for sanity'

Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon on Wednesday called the High Court ruling "a victory for sanity" and added that consumers and agriculturalists were spared a serious economic burden.

Head of the National Religious Party Zevulun Orlev praised the High Court ruling, saying that it represented a 'black day for the Rabbinate, which had surrendered to the methods of the Ultra-Orthodox, and sinned against its government and the soil beneath its very feet."

The Rabbinical organization Tzahar, which has taken steps to found an independent Kashrut certification framework, also offered praise of the High Court ruling, saying that they hope the Chief Rabbinate will adhere to its national responsibilities.

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