Boycott or buy Israeli etrogim during shmita year?


At a citrus farm near Rehovot in Israel, a fifth-generation etrog grower is upset about a boycott, of sorts, of Israeli goods. He’s not referring to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that seeks to boycott any and all Israeli products. This “boycott” is one practiced by his Jewish brethren who are avoiding purchasing Israeli-grown etrogim — the citron fruit used throughout the Sukkot holiday — due to the strict religious restrictions on harvesting in a shmita year.

According to biblical mandate, Jews in Israel must give their farmland a rest every seventh year — the sabbatical year. That means no planting, no plowing and no growing. The fields that lie fallow are considered hefker (ownerless), and those in need can partake of whatever bounty survives. In the State of Israel, shmita has posed a challenge for farmers who cannot afford to stop their agricultural work for an entire year. Leading poskim (arbitrators of Jewish law) such as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef have sanctioned legal workarounds, including the creation of otzar beit din, in which a rabbinical court acts as steward of the land, essentially rendering it community property while compensating the owner for labor costs because farmers cannot technically profit from the sale of shmita produce. But not all Jews follow that practice, making every seven-year cycle more challenging to farmers like this one, who asked that, out of religious sensitivity, his name not be used.

From the appearance of the farmer’s bustling warehouse, it’s difficult to tell that times are harder this year. Stacks upon stacks of boxes filled with etrogim deemed kosher by onsite inspectors are rolling out of the warehouse for eventual shipment to the United States, Israel, Australia and Europe. Thai and religious Zionist employees work side by side wrapping and boxing the etrogim. In non-shmita years, he said, he uses a much larger warehouse. Because of shmita, he’ll sell only about 20 percent of his usual output.

“They’re buying less from abroad,” said the farmer, one of about two dozen Israeli farmers who grow etrogs. “They used to buy more.”

On his fields, seven out of eight etrog orchards are “resting” beneath their tarp, growing wild. Only one has been designated as the otzar beit din orchard, and it’s from these trees that etrogim are picked, cleaned, inspected and, eventually, sent for import. 

Modern Orthodox, religious Zionist, Conservative and Reform Jews generally continue to buy Israeli etrogim during a shmita year, but ultra-Orthodox circles often choose to buy etrogim grown outside Israel, particularly from Morocco, which has capitalized on shmita to expand its market. According to statistics from Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture, some 350,000 etrogim are exported annually, the majority to the United States. During the shmita year, which ends this month, sales could drop by as much as 50 percent. Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture has strict regulations on what produce can be imported into Israel for consumption during shmita, leaving Israeli Jews little choice but to buy locally.

 

The Rabbinic Council of America (RCA), an umbrella group for ordained Orthodox rabbis across the United States, supports purchasing Israeli etrogim.

“We encourage people to use etrogim that are grown in Israel during the shmita year,” said Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the RCA, speaking by phone about an opinion circulated among RCA members. “They have to be treated in a careful and special way, but we support the opinion that there is no problem whatsoever, and actually it’s important to use those etrogim and support the Israeli economy and growers in Israel.”

Fruits that grow during shmita are considered to have a hallowed status — kedushah shvi’it (sanctity of the seventh year). Peels, stems and pits must either be consumed in their entirety (such as by making juice or liquor), left to rot or sent back to Israel. 

Such restrictions have deterred Ronnie Sieger, a Los Angeles-based sofer stam (Torah scribe) and CEO of Sieger Sukkah, which sells portable sukkahs and sets of the arba minim (the Four Species for Sukkot, which include the etrog, palm, myrtle and willow).

“I had an issue last time, and I was kind of not clear on what I was supposed to do, so I tried to get clearer on what to do, and it only got more confusing,” Sieger said. “So, I’m not going to sell Israeli ones because I don’t want to be responsible for someone doing the wrong thing.”

Although Sieger said he would like to support Israeli farmers, he believes the small amount he sells does not justify the risk of error. He has observed that the sale of non-Israeli etrogim has increased during non-shmita years as well, including in California.

On the other hand, the synagogue he attends, Young Israel of Century City (YICC), will sell only Israeli etrogim.

“I am totally in support of buying Esrogim from Israel this year,” YICC’s Rabbi Elazar Muskin said via e-mail. “The major poskim have supported this position, and we should do everything in our power to buy Esrogim from Israel.”

Not all rabbis are in agreement on the issue. Rabbi Gershon Bess of Congregation Kehillas Yaakov on Beverly Boulevard, who is a member of the RCA, believes one should not purchase etrogim from Israel, citing the great religious Zionist leader Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook as one of the poskim who abides by the Mishnah’s simple instruction that kedushah shvi’it not be taken out of Israel.

“There are halachic issues involved,” he said in a telephone interview. “That’s why people avoid it if they can.”

Bess said this applies to Orthodox circles in Israel, as well. “Most people know that many people in Eretz Yisra’el are trying to get American esrogim,” he said. “The ones that basically sell to the kehillah [community] here know the issues of importing the esrog and subsequently returning the esrog, after yom tov, to Israel.”

Steve Berger, president of My Israel Connection, a company that distributes etrogim as part of its array of services designed to connect people to Israel, is on a mission to ensure that Jews around the world are aware — and observant — of rulings permitting the use of Israeli-grown etrogim, so as to ensure the viability and robustness of the Israeli market.

“If you believe in the State of Israel and you believe in Judaism, then why go elsewhere?” Berger, who lives in Los Angeles, said by phone from Israel.

He gave as an example a sign he came across in Toronto that read: “In honor of shmita: beautiful Israeli esrogim grown outside Eretz Yisra’el.” 

“I’m starting to believe that in order to fulfill a mitzvah in the Torah that applies to the land of Israel, you have to go outside the land of Israel to fulfill it.” 

To lay doubt to rest in his own community, Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, senior rabbi of Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto and formerly a spiritual leader in Los Angeles, issued a ruling, written on his synagogue’s stationary, that “out of concern for the Israeli economy, one should only purchase Israeli Esrogim.”

Rabbi Dov Osina, founding rabbi of Westwood Kehilla and a longtime distributor of the arba minim, has noticed that those who choose not to buy from Israel usually have the halachic concerns cited by Bess. Osina, too, pushes Israeli etrogim on Zionist principle, with instructions on how to handle them, but still services those who prefer Diaspora citrons. He predicts that his own sales of Israeli etrogim this year are likely to drop from 80 to 60 percent.

“I don’t feel that the reason why they are not taking the etrogim from Israel is because they don’t feel the obligation; it’s because they feel that too many hands and too many people are trying to make a profit over the etrogim from Israel, which is definitely not allowed, and the fruits of Israel have a kedushah shvi’it.” 

He added that etrogim from Israel during the shmita year should actually be less expensive than those grown outside the Holy Land. In the spirit of shmita, he will offer free etrogim to those who cannot afford a set of arba minim, which usually start at $45.

But traditional shmita — and its spirit — is kept on most of that fifth-generation etrog farmer’s land. As his workers are busy packaging the etrogs, a stranger parks his car by an unkempt, weed-stricken shmita orchard that is, nevertheless, producing a sizable harvest of kosher etrogim — belonging to any and all. The stranger found the easy way out: He picked one on his own. 

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