High Court Orders Rabbinate to Use Shmita Status Quo

The High Court of Justice yesterday ruled in favor of farmers and against the Chief Rabbinate on the issue of kashrut certification for produce grown during the shmita, or sabbatical, year.

The three-judge panel, led by Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, ordered the Chief Rabbinate to exercise its authority and authorize rabbis to sign kashrut certificates for businesses that sell produce grown on land that was sold - under a legal fiction - to non-Jews, known in Hebrew as heter mechira, or sale permit. This arrangement allows Jews to cultivate the land and sell their produce during the seventh year when the land is supposed to lie fallow, and this arrangement has been used since the rebirth of Jewish agriculture 120 years ago.

A group of 11 chief rabbis of various municipalities, led by the chief rabbi of Jerusalem, had brought about the farmers' suit by announcing that they would not provide kashrut certificates to businesses that sold the produce grown under the halakhic loophole, which is not strict enough for the ultra-Orthodox rabbis.

The judges, Beinisch, Elyakim Rubinstein and Esther Hayut, stated in their decision that they were not forcing any local rabbi to act against his beliefs or interpretation of Jewish law. The ruling stated: "Our statements are directed only against the decision of the Chief Rabbinate to change its policy and to refrain from exercising its authority." The Rabbinate had previously decided to reverse its decades-long policy and this year for the first time allowed local rabbis to decide individually about the application of religious law concerning shmita.

The court also based its ruling on the process used by the rabbinate to change its policy: a telephone poll just before the Jewish new year.

In addition, the judges ruled that the Rabbinate did not balance the interests involved: the independence of the municipal rabbis against the economic, national and legal interests of farmers and the general public.

Beinisch also said that the Rabbinate's decision was out of proportion, they had no authority to take a more stringent stance unnecessarily, that such a decision seriously harmed farmers' livelihood leads to discrimination and resulted in inequality due to the high prices of produce.

The suit was filed by the Plants Production and Marketing Board and the Israel Farmers Federation, and a group of farmers and marketers.

MK Menahem Ben-Sasson, the Chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, praised the decision and said he would continue his efforts to bring about a change in the law regarding kashrut supervision. His proposal would remove the monopoly over kashrut certificates from the Chief Rabbinate, and would "prevent a reoccurence of such embarrassing acts."