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. 

Worth a trek: Searching Moroccan mountains for etrogs


We had to cross the gorge, and the only way was to walk single file on a narrow concrete gutter, maybe a foot wide, that bridged the two cliffs. Below us was a long, perilous drop onto the rocky depths.

I was traveling deep into the rural communities of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, and so I’d expected to get a little dusty. But no one readied me for this afternoon trek in the desert sun. I was wearing a button-down shirt, slacks and dress shoes, and I was carrying my iPad, computer, camera and passport. But I wasn’t entirely unprepared: I had 1.5 liters (about 6 cups) of water slung across my shoulder.

It was hot and sandy, and the sun shone down on us from a clear sky. Sweat was drenching my back. My translator, the only person in the group whom I could talk to, was several steps ahead of me. I was in the sandy middle of nowhere, feeling exhausted and, since I was standing on the precipice of a cliff in an unfamiliar place, a little scared. I started walking and didn’t look down.

But I was a man with a mission. In between audible whispers of “holy shit,” I had this thought: There had better be some etrogs at the end of this trail.

When I told people I was going to Morocco one week before Rosh Hashanah to write about the country’s insular, centuries-old etrog industry, they told me I was either crazy (it was hard to infiltrate), too late (etrog season was ending) or both. But Berbers who spend their summers growing fruit in a Muslim country for a Jewish holiday felt like too good a story to miss, so I eagerly booked my flight.

Today, almost no Jews live in Morocco, though a few dozen Jewish merchants still support the industry, sending etrogs — known as citrons in English — to Jews around the world to use on Sukkot. Because 5775 was a “shmita,” or sabbatical year, when Jewish law prohibits agricultural activity in Israel, demand for Moroccan etrogs has been especially high there this season, even though the countries don’t have formal relations. I was determined to find out just how Moroccan etrogs are grown and brought to the Israeli market.

Organizing the trip, however, ended up being far more complicated than making a couple of calls. My one contact in the Moroccan etrog business said the merchants feared journalists and wouldn’t talk to me. An Israeli professor looked at me like a concerned parent after I asked for help visiting Berber citrus farmers in the Atlas Mountains. He wrote me an email hours later saying he was “somewhat worried” about me. It was too short notice, he felt, to plan the trip properly.

Running out of leads, I used British phone-directory websites to track down a London rabbi who literally wrote the book on Moroccan etrogs. But he told me he’d just returned from Morocco, was worn out from the flight and couldn’t talk.

“Go to a town called Assads,” he advised me. “When you get there, ask for Jawad. Tell Jawad to take you to the place he took Yashar. Shanah tovah.”

Then he hung up on me. My flight was in two days.

Assads, it turned out, was a small mountain village hours away from the nearest city and barely accessible by car. To get there I’d need someone to take me. And to speak to etrog growers, I’d need to connect with someone from the town who could introduce me and guide me to the etrogs. This was not exactly an agricultural tourism hot spot.

By the time I reached the Tel Aviv airport for my flight, I’d managed to make some tentative plans. A Moroccan citrus expert, Mohamed El-Otmani, arranged someone to drive me to Assads, along with a fixer who would show me the area.

The next morning, I was shaking hands with a burly man named Mohammed who would be my driver. Mohammed, I discovered, did not speak English. Neither did the fixer. I didn’t risk asking whether either of them spoke Hebrew.

“Don’t you speak Arabic?” El-Otmani asked me. I do not. So he found me an off-duty English teacher to translate, and the four of us — driver, translator, fixer and me — set off.

Our beat-up Mercedes drove from paved road to gravel path as the cosmopolitan beach city of Agadir, where I was staying, gave way to smaller, drearier towns. French disappeared from shop signs, replaced by Arabic. Unlike Agadir, where many people wore jeans, almost all the women walked with their heads covered, while the men wore beards and caftans. Then the towns faded away, until we had to stop on the dusty road to let a herd of goats pass by.

An hour into the journey, my translator asked if I was “good at walking.” It seemed like a bizarre question, and honestly, the answer was no. Born with mild cerebral palsy, I’ve always limped on my right side and had trouble balancing.

But I wasn’t going to back down. Yeah, sure I was good at walking, I said. How bad could it be?

Four hours later, after my driver had asked several children on a deserted highway for directions, we finally reached Assads and the end of the road. And Jawad, the rabbi’s contact, was nowhere to be found. There were many people named Jawad in Assads, locals said. And anyway, none of them were around.

My only hope was to follow our fixer, on foot, and pray I found an etrog tree. The four of us set off.

At first, the path was flat and narrow, with a cliffside on my left. Then it got narrower and rougher. Then a concrete gutter appeared to our right, with us balancing in between  — me trying to compensate for my unwieldy bag.

I jumped in the gutter and soon there was nothing on either side. All four of us were crossing the gorge.

During the hour that followed, we climbed over boulders, along steep drops and through rocky valleys where there was no path at all. When I slipped and caught myself, watching rocks trickle down the mountainside and disappear, I kept walking. It was my only option.

Here I was in the remote reaches of Morocco, carrying valuable equipment, with four men I didn’t know who were speaking a language I didn’t understand. My safety — let alone my story — was riding on their trust.

But then, as we got to flatter terrain, my fixer stopped and grinned at me. He raised his fists in triumph and motioned at me to take a photo. Down the path, as we passed by a river, he pulled a cluster of grapes off a vine; we all shared the snack. I allowed myself to exhale. I looked back at the sandy brown mountainscape we’d just traversed, freckled with palm trees and set against a bright blue sky. Maybe this would all work out, I thought.

A couple hundred feet later, a man stood in front of us wearing a caftan and snow hat with what looked like a bush to our left. The fixer shook his hand. My translator pointed at the bush.

There it was, hanging just inches above the ground: a bright green etrog.

I soon saw others camouflaged among wide green leaves and weeds. The bush was, in fact, part of a grove. It looked less like the orchard I expected and more like a bramble — as if the fruit just happened to naturally grow there. I followed the branches down a rocky, uneven slope, dodging errant etrog vines and trying, once again, not to lose my balance.

The man in the caftan was Mohammed Douch, whose family had been growing etrogs here for at least three generations. He wasn’t much for description — when I asked him, three times, what his favorite part of the work was, he just said it was his tradition. But he was dedicated. He’s 67 and a retired restaurant worker, his face worn by deep wrinkles, but he treks out here for a couple of months every year to grow etrogs, he said, because the town “is a part of our body.”

Behind him, across a narrow path, was a two-story structure made of bricks and dirt with a canopy of branches for a roof. Usually, Douch explained, he lives in the city. But each summer he comes here to reside in nature.

He repeated most of what he said to compensate for the language gulf that separated us, even with a translator. It’s an experience I had throughout my trip to Morocco. Usually the failure to communicate made me feel helpless, like I was missing a large part of a country I wanted to learn about.

But in the middle of the Moroccan mountains, amid a group of people I could barely talk to, I felt a sense of belonging. Moving to a hut with a roof of branches to tend to etrogs and connect to tradition? That’s something I could understand.

Bnei Menashe in India get Sukkot’s four species


The Bnei Menashe community of northeastern India will celebrate Sukkot this year with lulavs and etrogs sent from Israel.

The Shavei Israel organization, which works to strengthen ties between the State of Israel and the descendants of Jews around the world, sent hundreds of sets of the four species to India prior to the holiday.

The Bnei Menashe, Hebrew for “sons of Manasseh,” claim descent from one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, sent into exile by the Assyrian Empire more than 27 centuries ago. They live in India’s northeastern border states of Manipur and Mizoram.

Some 1,700 Bnei Menashe live in Israel, including 450 who have arrived in the past three years and settled in the Upper Galilee. Approximately 7,300 remain in India.

“The Bnei Menashe are anxiously waiting for Israel’s government to pass a decision to allow them to come to Israel,”  Shavei Israel chairman and founder Michael Freund said in a statement. “We hope the new year will bring good news and that the age-old dream of the Bnei Menashe to return to the land of their ancestors will soon become a reality.”

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