The 11th Floor

A Perpsective Overlooking Jerusalem, Israeli Life, and Talmud Torah

Monday, September 17, 2007

No, no! That avocado is traif!

The seven year sabbatical cycle, or Shmitah, has come full circle again. Consequently, one of the most bizarre quirks of Jewish life in the land of our Ancestors comes to the forefront: In modern day Israel, the meat is always kosher, but the vegetables can be traif.

Even Iwo Burger, the Jerusalem chain which serves burgers with bacon and blue cheese proudly lets customers know that only top quality kosher meat is served at their establishment. Of course, to get non-kosher meat in Jerusalem is a sysiphisian feat (yes, I went there), but the leading brands of Israeli cold cuts? Kosher. Army bases? Kosher. Wedding halls? Major café chains? You get the idea; Kosher meat is no big deal. But with the shmitah cycle, the Jewish dietary laws turn a circumlocutious eye towards the evil red bell pepper.

The Torah is explicit about this: every seven years let the land lie fallow. In return, God will give and abundance in the 6th year to see you through, and won’t that 8th year be an agricultural hootenanny (my spouse is forcing me to use that word lest people get confused). What grows on its own can be eaten, but no active cultivation or agricultural commerce is allowed. This has never been an easy mitzvah to observe in a land where rain is sparse, soil is finicky, and between the sun and insect world crops are often not long for this world without a great deal of human help. Even in mishnaic times the limits and loopholes surrounding this commandment were being tested.

There is of course a scale of how people react to this mitzvah in the modern world. On one side there are those for whom Judaism is never difficult enough as it is, and Israeli life is simply not stressful enough. For them, food can never really be kosher enough- especially if someone who does not go to their synagogue will eat it. These folks say that during shmitah there are no loopholes, no leniencies, no exceptions, no exemptions and no common sense. The literal law will be observed with its authority unabated, and there is no growing, buying or selling crops grown in the land. Fasting twice a week and public hangings are badly needed again in the mind of such folks, as for them Torah must be soul-crushingly difficult to observe, or its not the real deal. In their harts I am confident these halachic masochists would love to see people flogged for even looking at a bell pepper this year.

Are there those on the other side who say that if there is no Temple and no divine blessings over crops, the gig is up and for now we should only make symbolic actions and study the mitzvot for future implementation, as we do with sacrifices? Of course. The Rabbis of Provonce, whom we listen to for any number of Chumrot (stringencies) , said that to observe this law is midat chadisut, an act of peity, and not currently in force. As with anyone who says that there is an lenient way in the halakha, they are dismissed like the Reform, reconstructionists, Rav Moshe Finestein (when he ruled meikiel) and the Ringling Brothers, and therefore these rabbis are completely ignored. But we do pay attention to the crazies just mentioned.

Which leaves us in a right middle ground, saying that we only have to observe the law by rabbinic fiat. Every seven years, a loophole in this middle ground that makes growing and harvesting permissible, the Heter Mechirah, is supposed to be evaluated and implemented as needed. Naturally, it is besieged by that first group of “It’s not Torah unless it kills you” people. This year, the chief rabbi of a major city in the north was sued by the attorney general of Israel for refusing to allow people to work under this loophole as they have for the past number of decades.

I’m glossing over the fact that the loophole requires selling the land to a non-Jew for the year, and some people go nuts over that very notion. And there is another loophole called Otzer Biet Din, which is seen as preferable to the heter by many scholars. But the foods grown under heter exemption are still sacred and have some ritual restrictions on them. You can’t just waste them with impunity, use them in an abnormal matter, or dispose of their remains without consideration. So even with the heter, you still have to treat the produce of the land with added respect- and that takes time and money. Without allowing the heter, the economy of modern Israel would shatter. Furthermore, there is always reliance on imported produce from abroad and even more distasteful to some (but not us), buying from local Arab farmers. Without the heter, these two food sources become predominant, and both of these rile people up just as much as the notion of selling the land to a non-Jew.

And since elements within the Rabbinate seemingly wants to be more strict than Torquemada this year, no progress has been made on using the heter, and the markets still do not have signs saying where the vegetables are from, which standard or loophole is being used, and who is keeping an eye on the avocados. So at this time guacamole may be traif.

At least the chicken is still kosher.

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