Monday, December 22, 2014

“Har Habayit Biyadeinu!” – It Really Is Up To Us

As I write these words, I am enjoying the wonderful Chag of Chanukah, and hope that it will remain as it ought to be, consisting of warm, fun-filled evenings in front of the Menorah, armed with our dreidels and feasting on latkes, enjoying spending quality time with our family and friends. Lonni & I are enjoying it this year in a very special way – we traveled to Israel and are spending Chanukah with our children. It should be a completely joyous and wonderful time.

But, unfortunately, just under the surface, it is not so. In fact, first among the gifts that I brought for each of my children is a can of mace/pepper spray.

Much like it was many years ago, בימים ההם בזמן הזה, Yerushalyim Ir Hakodesh has become a battlefield of late. We, the Jewish people, are under attack. We are being run over at bus stations, stabbed while waiting for rides, having our children kidnapped and killed, knifed while shopping in supermarkets, shot at with thousands of missile, narrowly avoiding a horrendous Rosh Hashanah tunnel attack, attacked with axes and guns while davening in shuls . . . all while there is supposedly a cease fire. And not just in Israel. There are bombings and killings and rapes in London, Paris, Mumbai, Sydney, and smaller cities . . . and here in the USA. Just before we left for Israel we heard of the stabbing of a yeshiva student at 770 Eastern Parkway . . . and on it goes.

And the world – the same world who sees and condemns the brutal horrific killers of ISIS – ignores the fact that ISIS and HAMAS and Hezbollah and Fatah and Al Qaeda and Muslim Brotherhood and other groups, are actually all the one and the same, differing in name and location only. These same savages, who contaminate our holy Har HaBayis and then hypocritically call us the violent aggressors, want one thing only – to eradicate not only the State of Israel but Jews everywhere – from the face of the Earth. And yet, the world sees their brutality and inhumanity when they attack anyone, except the Jews. 

And what is our response to all this? Predictably, there are those on the left who blame Israel for not accommodating the “Palestinians” enough, as we have caused so much of the problems in the first place. There are those on the “extreme” political right who say that we need to respond much more firmly, and adopt an approach that takes no prisoners. (My esteemed colleague Rabbi Steven Pruzansky recently wrote a column – which he was subsequently pressured to retract – in which he offered some suggestions of what might be done, most of which were right on the money in my view, even if one could quibble about some of the others.) Those in the political center, are outraged about what is happening, but basically clueless about what can be done about it, save trying to heighten defensive security measures. Here in Israel, elections are once again in process, in no small part due to the frustrations that arise with the government's limited options in dealing with implacable enemies in the face of hostile diplomatic world.

Of course, the religious response that is mostly heard – the frum papers are full of reports of speeches given this week at the sheloshim for the four martyrs killed at prayer in Har Nof – is to increase our Torah and Tefillah and Teshuvah, and pray that Hashem finally have mercy on us. And while, of course, this is necessary, I wonder if that really ought to be the entirety of our response. To quote the esteemed Rav Berel Wein,

Redoubled efforts at greater acts of charity and more meaningful prayer services are undoubtedly noble goals but are hardly words and actions of comfort, consolation or explanation.”

  It seems to me that the time has come that we must think more boldly and meta-historically.

There was a time, about 2300 years ago, when a few Jews decided enough was enough. It was time to stop playing nice, continuing to avoid conflict with the Greeks who had, so said the accommodationists, brought so many positive ideas to the world. It was time stop pretending that the invaders were basically a benevolent group who only sought to bring modernity and culture to the backward Jews of Judea. They saw their true agenda and character – that if the Jews did not go along with their religio/cultural diktat they would murder, pillage, rape, and destroy – and faced up to the fact they were at war with these invaders. Trusting in Hashem, they fought back, they ignored all the Hellenists who preached pacifism, conciliation and peace, and succeeded in driving the invaders out; achieving peace for some generations.

For too many in Israel (and us who have strong opinions from afar), the realization that we are at war – whether we like it or not – has not yet taken hold. Too many harbor illusions that the present state of affairs of a stalemate and of containment can continue, and that if we avoid unduly provoking and annoying the Arabs we will somehow get through this. Too many accept, for instance, that the proximate cause of the slaughter in Har Nof was because of the Jews who have been attempting to pray on the Har HaBayit (Temple Mount), and if we would just “stay off the Har HaBayit”, and, in essence lend credence to the Arab ranting that our presence there “contaminates” the “Holy Arab soil”, things would improve. We have to avoid provoking them, we are told. If only Jews would accept that the Har HaBayit is forbidden to us for now, and that it is proper that the Waqf be granted full sovereign rights there, the current escalation of violence, which not a few pundits have called the beginning of the “Third Intafada”, would end and peaceful co-existence would be restored.

Clearly there are strong differences of opinion as to the Halachic propriety of entering certain parts of the Har HaBayit. The near uniform Halachic consensus was, and remains, that the large Har HaBayit Plaza contains both sacred areas that were part of the original Temple compound and thus – as long as we do not have the Parah Adumah to achieve the requisite level of Taharah (Ritual Purity) – are off limits to Jews, and also contains areas that were never within the Temple compound and therefore have no Halachic bar against entering them. The dispute is between those, on the one hand, who say that the results of modern research, and an incomparably greater familiarity with the terrain than in years past, allow us to determine exactly which are the forbidden areas, and those, on the other hand, who subscribe to the age old view (formulated largely in the Diaspora far from any access to determining the facts on the ground) that misafek (because of doubt) we must consider the entire area forbidden. Far be it for me to offer my own opinion on these sacred matters.

Furthermore, there is a special poignancy in knowing that despite the amazing gift that Hashem has given us in our time of the State of Israel and the incredible Divine Kindness that is evident (to anyone who has a non-jaundiced view) in the fantastic rebuilding that has occurred there over the past century . . . that the gift is still incomplete. For years my practice was to go to Har Hatzofim (Mt Scopus) on Tisha B'Av, and from that vantage point to recite Lamentations and Kinot, while observing “Mt Zion that is barren – where [human] foxes are walking about”. It was from that vantage point that despite enjoying an incredibly vibrant Jewish life in Yerushalayim, I was able to fully feel the words of the Festive Mussaf “We have been distanced from your land, and cannot go up and be seen and prostrate ourselves before you . . . “ Certainly, there are areas about which Hashem has not yet felt that the time is ripe for us to visit, and we must accept His will.

And yet.

It may be true that for religious or sentimental reasons, one should refrain from going up on the Har HaBayit, even on those parts that may be permissible Halachically, as above. Nevertheless, the ONLY reason that we ought to refrain from going up is because WE have decided not to go there, for our own reasons; NOT because of what the Waqf, or the murderous, crocodile tear Islamic fanatics say. They must be told, in no uncertain terms, that Jews have absolute, inalienable, and permanent ownership over that place that is and was sacred to us, thousands of years before Mohamed supposedly (it is not even agreed upon within Islamic doctrine) ascended to wherever he went after leaving this life from there. It is OUR Temple Mount (which they deny), not theirs. And if Jews, following the Halachic authorities who permit prayer there, wish to exercise their rights, they must absolutely be allowed to do so.

I heard a great Rav in Israel once say that General Motta Gur was a prophet, though he did not know it. In the heat of the Six Day War, when the IDF successfully, and unexpectedly, captured the Temple Mount and the Old City of Jerusalem, the whole world heard the General exclaim over the radio “Har HaBayit Biyadeinu!!!  HarHaBayit Biyadeinu!!!” The Temple Mount is in our Hands!!!. Motta Gur meant that we had won the battle and restored Jewish sovereignty to its rightful position for the first time in 2,000 years. Most unfortunately, Moshe Dayan, despite the overwhelming evidence of the destruction and debasement of every Jewish synagogue and Holy site in the Old city that had been captured in 1948, at a time when Israel could have been fully justified in dynamiting the mosques on the Har HaBayit in return, instead granted full legal rights to the Waqf to have say over everything in that compound. What an unforgivably tragic decision!!! What Dayan did not realize was that the Har HaBayit was now truly our hands, to do with as WE, not them, decide.

Nevertheless, the Har HaBayit is still Biyadeinu. It is in our hands, through our actions, that its fate will be ultimately decided. Certainly, in our actions of Torah, Tefillah, Teshuvah, and Mitzvos, to allow us to have the zechus (merit) in the eyes of Hashem to fully restore us to its sovereignty. But it is also Biyadeinu, in our actions as a proud Nation that will recognize that we are not any longer supposed to take the stance that we did the thousands of years of Golus, and meekly submit to the will of the Nations around us. That, Baruch Hashem, with the restoration of our People to Our Land, a new era has begun in which we will no longer tolerate their anti-semitism, and we will proudly stand up for our rights and our security, and our Holy Places.

This article is long enough already, I will please G-d write a follow-up about what our present relationship with the nations of the world ought to be, in general, post 1948. But clearly it is time that we all acknowledge publicly that which the overwhelming majority of the Jewish people today know to be true – a new era has begun. When we are attacked, we are to react not as the helpless victims of old who had no strength or rights of our own, but as a proud Nation at War, who will not tolerate the violence of those who seek to harm them.

We, too, in America have a role to play. We have to know that there is a war going on, and call it as such. We must protest when the American Administration relentlessly pressures Israel to give more and more concessions to those who will not even recognize our right to exist. We must speak up when and where we can to defend the rights of Jews not only for self defense, but to act as a nation at war, and give no quarter to our evil enemies. And most of all, we must daven to Hashem that once again he give us תשועה גדולה ופורקן a great salvation and redemption, as the many are given over to the hands of the few , and the evildoers into the hands of the righteous.
Let us think -- just for a moment -- about the concluding verse of Maoz Tzur that we all sang so often this week,. presumably while thinking more about latkes or presents than the meaning of the words we were mouthing:

Uncover Your holy arm [power]

and hasten the End - [to bring] salvation

Avenge Your servants' blood

from the wicked nation.

For the triumph is too long delayed for us,

and there is no end to days of evil,

Repel Edom into the nethermost shadow

and establish for us the seven shepherds

הקם לנו רועה שבעה

May we have only the warmth and light of Chanukah continue to shine for us, and the final victory over all who wish us harm, when we can have a Chanukas HaBayis, a rededication of the Holy Temple, speedily in our days.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Hetter Mechira, Otzar Bet Din, & Palestinian Produce: How can we in the Diaspora participate in Shemitta?

     We have just begun the year 5775, which is observed as a Sabbatical year (Shemitta) in the Land of Israel. As, unfortunately, we have chosen to live outside Eretz Yisrael (EY) for now, the impact of the Shemitta year is not as strongly felt here as it is there. Nevertheless, given that many of us plan to visit EY, and Baruch Hashem have the privilege to purchase products from EY, I decided to write this short essay, with the following objectives:
  • To underscore that, in general, we should have a positive attitude towards purchasing products from Israel, and not fear that we are taking on unnecessary Halachic problems when encountering them.
  • To understand what the three basic Halachic approaches to observing Shemitta are.
  • To raise awareness of how Shemitta affects us outside EY.

“Problems” with Israeli produce

      When I lived on the West Coast I often supervised Kashrut in food plants. I represented the Orthodox Union (OU), among other agencies, and would follow their RFR (Rabbinic Field Representative) procedures, which works with a system for categorizing various ingredients based on their sensitivity from a kashrut perspective. The system was (more or less) as follows: 
“1” – Generically kosher from any source (flour, salt etc.); 
“2” – Kosher from a particular supplier even without a hechsher; 
“3” – from any source with reliable hechsher; 
“4” - requires particular source and hechsher and special rabbinic signature ; 
“5” - hechsher includes certification of the container it was shipped in (e.g. oil) 

and – here is the kicker – 

“6” – Generically Kosher from anywhere except Israel!! Go explain that one to your typical non-Jewish plant owner. . .

     Of course we understand this classification; given that there are issues such as Maaser, Terumah, Orlah and Shemitta associated with Israeli produce, it is often simpler to just avoid it. While this might be an acceptable approach regarding large non-Jewish factories, I believe that it is a reprehensible approach for a proud Jew anywhere in the world. Using Israeli produce has at least three major benefits: (1) it gives us the opportunity, as well, to participate in the Mitzvos Ha'Tluyos  B'Aretz (MHB) -- (Mitzvot that depend on the Land of Israel), (2) we can support the Israeli economy and our fellow Jews in an important manner, (3) we can act in a way counter to the notorious BDS movement that is trying to isolate Israel politically and economically. (Besides, the produce is delicious!) All that is needed is some simple basic education in the few added factors that we need to be aware of, and we can gain much more than just physical nutrition when eating our Jaffa oranges.

     In the space of this article, I cannot address how all of the other MHB affect us outside EY, I will limit my discussion only to Shemitta. I hope to follow up in another article about the others.

Three Approaches to Practical Observance of Shemitta

      Background - I begin with a VERY abbreviated background, as the laws are quite voluminous. Shemitta, the Sabbatical year, is an especially holy time. The Torah refers to it as “Shabbat HaAretz” (Vayikra 26:6), the Shabbos of the Land. Just as we refrain from altering the state of anything on Shabbos to remind ourselves that Hashem owns the world, and not us; so too Shemitta reminds us that EY in particular is owned by Hashem, and not us. As such, broadly speaking, all acts that have the effect of growing produce or improving the land are prohibited during the Shemitta year. The fruits or vegetables that are produced in violation of these laws are prohibited to use as well. The farmer is not to assert any ownership over any produce that grows; the fruits are considered ownerless (הפקר). It is forbidden to engage in any commercial activity with this produce. Moreover, any fruit that grows on Jewish owned land has kedushas sheviis, (Sabbatical sanctity) and there is a special positive Mitzvah to eat that fruit. A the same time, there are special rules as to how they may be prepared or eaten, how to dispose of leftovers, and – an important rule for us – that they may not be taken out of EY.

As the majority of Poskim hold that Shemitta today is only מדרבנן (Rabbinic level law) [more on that below] two important leniencies exist: (1) It is permitted to engage in those activities that are not intended to grow crops, but rather to prevent spoilage of either existent crops or of the lands, and (2) Although מדאורייתא (on a Torah level) it is permissible to eat grains and vegetables that grow spontaneously, referred to as ספיחין, already in Talmudic times, there were unscrupulous people who would violate the Shemitta laws and engage in commerce with vegetables and grains that they falsely claimed had grown spontaneously during Shemitta. As a result, the Sages decreed that ספיחין were forbidden. However, because Shemitta is מדרבנן today, we may eat vegetables and grains that grow during Shemitta as long as they were planted before Shemitta.

Again, there is MUCH more to know about the Laws of Shemitta, but this should suffice as background for the remainder of this essay. 

Practical Problems

A good case can be made for the proposition that Shemitta is the mitzvah that requires more sacrifice (מסירות נפש) than any other mitzvah. It requires a farmer, once every seven years, to completely cease his commercial activities, allow anyone who wishes to enter his field and eat anything that grows while relying on the Almighty to provide for not only the farmers and their families, but for the entire economy who depend on the agrarian sector to supply food for an entire year. The Torah itself raises this surprising request: And if you should say, "What will we eat in the seventh year? We will not sow, and we will not gather in our produce!" [Know then, that] I will command My blessing for you in the sixth year, and it will yield produce for three years. And you will sow in the eighth year, while [still] eating from the old crops until the ninth year; until the arrival of its crop, you will eat the old [crop].” (Vayikra 25:20-22) This promise is fascinating and inspiring!

Indeed, some moshavim that have completely kept Shemitta (Moshav Komemiyus is often cited) claim to have, in fact, experienced the Biblically promised bumper crop during the sixth year of every Shemitta cycle. Furthermore, there are reports of miraculous events surrounding the fields of those who meticulously keep Shemitta, as reported in the literature produced by Keren Hashviis, an organization that raises major sums to support those farmers who keep Shemitta scrupulously, and the many scholars that educate the public about the importance of Shemitta. Examples are here and here and here .

It is thus the responsibility of the Chief Rabbinate to attempt to mitigate commerce in forbidden fruit – both of the producers and consumers – as much as possible. 

Nevertheless, several problems remain. First of all, notwithstanding reports of bumper crops in Komemiyus and other places, the majority of the agricultural sector of the State of Israel as it exists in the present reality – with most kibbutzim and moshavim being non-religious – is not willing to fully abide by the Shemitta laws.It is thus the responsibility of the Chief Rabbinate to attempt to mitigate commerce in forbidden fruit – both of the producers and consumers – as much as possible.   Furthermore, since the urban majority of the population is unable (in a practicle manner) to access the fields for the free produce; and given that most people – including most religious people – are unwilling to live without their fruits and veggies due to the farmers observing Shemitta; coupled with the fact that export of produce a very major part of the national economy and the very real danger exists that – if Israeli producers do not supply their customers for a year – this important part of the economy will suffer crippling and long lasting losses; in addition to yet other important considerations; it is understandable that not everyone is willing to have the strength of faith to scrupulously adhere to a strict approach towards Shemitta. As a result, three differing approaches are followed, each with its pluses and minuses.

Three Approaches 

1) Hetter Mechira (HM) – Sale of the Land of Israel

     A great deal has been written about HM, as it is one of the great Halachic controversies of the past century. Conceived of by Rav Yitzchak Elchonon Spektor and Rav Avraham Y Kook זצ״ל around the turn of the previous century, in response to the very real PN possibility of mass starvation and irreparable damage to the nascent agricultural efforts of the Yishuv that had been implemented with so much blood sweat and tears; and given that only a limited amount of land was owned by Jews in those years; and given that the whole institution of Shemitta is only מדרבנן (of Rabbinic level) in our time, those great Sages came up with an idea similar to the sale of Chometz with which we are all familiar. If a non-Jew owns the Land, than the produce that grows on it does not have kedushas sheviis and is free of many of the Shemitta restrictions.  
     The HM was granted, however, subject to several restrictions. Prominent among them were:
  • Only non-Jews may do activities which are Torah level prohibitions; if Jewish labor must be used, in must be done indirectly (גרמא). 
  • Part of the field must be left completely fallow as per Shemitta requirements
  • Only the minimum of work necessary for this year may be done.
  • Most importantly, HM was given as a one-time Hetter, subject to being renewed, based on the פיקוח נפש (PN) threat of mass starvation and severe damage to the economy at that time.
      Since that time, HM has been renewed every seven years, and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel indeed sells all of the Land of Israel belonging to the State (which is virtually all of the land, as most people in Israel do not actually own real estate but rather have a 99 year renewable and transferable lease on “their property”) to a non-Jew, and much of the Israeli economy functions under this rubric.
    There are arguments for and against relying on HM:

 Arguments for HM include:
  • There is no other realistic way for the Israeli economy to continue its operations, and one should not rely on miracles.
  • The threat of PN is just as severe today, if not more so, now that there are over six million Jews who depend on Israeli agriculture, as opposed to the (perhaps) one hundred thousand at the time of Rav Kook’s Hetter – how will they survive?
  • Many of those who do not rely on HM advocate buying produce from Arabs. Do we really want to support our enemies? Has it not been proven in previous years that much of the Arab produce is grown with tainted water and is in fact dangerously unhealthy? Is it not true, in any case, that much of the “Arab produce” is simply Jewish produce that was bought by the Arabs and then marked up to sell back to Jews?
Perhaps the most serious argument against HM, from my perspective, is that it has no chance of being anything other than a complete legal fiction

Arguments against HM include:
  • The Israeli economy could survive based on other areas such as Hi-Tech, Tourism, and other exports; Israel is an economic powerhouse today and the PN argument doesn’t wash.
  • Generally it is forbidden to sell any part of EY to non-Jews. Obviously, the Gedolim who devised the HM found a loophole around this, but it is an undesirable loophole.
  • Many Poskim disagree the entire basis of HM, and say that it does not remove kedushas shviis.
  • If HM was kept with the restrictions as noted above then perhaps there would be an argument for it. As it is, however, it is just a piece of paper that is typically not taken seriously, and most in the industry engage in business as usual. (See an interesting interview with the non-Jew who buys the Land.)
  • The entire HM relies on the assumption that we only have a Rabbinic מדרבנן level of Shemitta today. Although there is a tremendous amount of discussion of this point amongst the Poskim, one very interesting point is worthy of noting here. A major reason that Shemitta is considered מדרבנן is that we do not have the Jubilee year (יובל ) today. The reason that we do not have יובל is that a majority of the Jewish people does not live in EY. However, that assumption is getting more and more tenuous, as Baruch Hashem we have arrived at a point that almost 50% of the known Jewish world population is currently living in EY. We are probably not quite there yet, but by the time the year 5762 comes seven years hence, we will almost certainly pass that 50 % mark, which (according to many Poskim) will mean that Shemitta will no longer be מדרבנן but in fact a Torah level Halacha, which would make the HM completely untenable.
  • Perhaps the most serious argument against HM, from my perspective, is that it has no chance of being anything other than a complete legal fiction. I recall an incisive Dry Bones cartoon from the Jerusalem Post many years ago, which was written in response to a prohibition of cigarette smoking that had been published by the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv. 
  • In that cartoon the author mused that the Orthodox reaction to the prohibition might be for them to “sell their lungs to a non-Jew, thus . . .”
  • Imagine if the Arabs would know that virtually the entire State of Israel is for sale. They have untold billions of dollars; would they not buy it? And more importantly, would we really be willing to sell it? If we would not, is the sale then any more than a sham legal fiction? This is a very strong question – in my view.
Bottom Line: While the original Rabbonim who instituted HM were Gedolim of the highest stature, it is quite questionable whether, or to what extent, one may rely on it today.

2) Purchase of Fruits and Vegetables from Arabs

As mentioned previously, produce that is purchased from non-Jews (which in Israel means primarily produced by so-called Palestinian Arabs) or imported from abroad, does not kedushas sheviis according to most opinions. The Hareidi community primarily relies on this produce as the source of its food supply during Shemitta, except for what is available through Otzar Bais Din (below). While this may solve some Halachic problems, many feel that this is an unacceptable solution.  In addition, the following arguments inhere: 

Arguments for Arab Produce include:

  1. provides a simple and straightforward way to acquire fruits an vegetables during Shemitta while avoiding difficult Halachic problems.
Arguments against Arab Produce include:

  • I have already listed some general arguments against basing the entire food source on the Arabs, based on their enmity, hygiene, and fraud.
  • Doing so avoids the positive commandment to eat Shemitta fruit, which is a privileged opportunity.
  • In Jerusalem, where many Haredim buy Arab produce to avoid Shemitta issues, they are relying on the opinion of Rav Yosef Karo זצ״ל, author of the Shulchan Aruch. However, arguably the greatest authority on MHB in modern times – the Chazon Ish זצ״ל – disagrees with this opinion. In fact, in Bnei Brak, which tends to follow the Chazon Ish, this method is not used nearly as much.
  • One can debate this, but arguably the land that is “owned” by the Arabs is not their land at all, but in fact it is Jewish land, EY, that was stolen from us. If this is true, than the produce from it has just as much קדושת שביעית as produce that was produced by Israeli farmers.
  • This deprives Jewish farmers and suppliers from the ability to earn a living in those ways that are perfectly permissible according to the laws of Shemitta.
Bottom Line: While buying produce without kedushas sheviis seems to get around the problem, it is fraught with other problems and is looked at very negatively by those who wish to support Israeli farmers and the economy.

3) Otzar Bet Din (OBD)

As noted above, it is a Mitzvah to eat the Shemitta fruit, and it is also forbidden for the farmers to engage in commerce, or even for any individual to take of the produce more than they need for their personal use (or that of their animals). Ideally, therefore, all would go down to the fields and pick what they needed and bring it to their homes. However, already in the times of the Second Temple the Tosefta (Sheviis 8:1-4) notes that this was not workable for those who lived in the cities, or even for those who lived rurally, since they were not adjacent to the field that had the particular produce that they wanted on a particular day. 

Our Sages therefore devised a system consisting of an “Otzar” – or Storehouse – administered by Bais Din – the quasi-governmental authority – which assists with this situation while staying firmly within the boundaries of Halacha. 

The basic premise of OBD is that a system is set up whereby farmers, truckers, and store owners act as the Bais Din's agents in harvesting the fruits (or permitted ספיחין), preparing it to come to market (which might include processing in a factory, making it into wine or oil, etc.), transporting it to urban centers, and distributing it to consumers, while avoiding sale through normal means, but rather by using an unusual and more approximate method. As there are significant costs involved in all of these activities, the agents are entitled to be paid a fair market wage for their labor, time, and expenses in doing all of those activities. They are not, however, paid for the produce itself, and thus the produce is substantially less expensive than the usual fair market value paid in stores. The Bais Din determines how much the produce should be “sold” for based on an apportionment of the costs, “hires” the workers, and “pays” them. In our time the primary guide for the OBD system was the sainted Chazon Ish.

We are very fortunate that a very responsible OBD system was set up by MachonHaTorah veHaAretz under the auspices of Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg and Rav Yaakov Ariel שליט״א which, in my view, is the optimal system that should be used if at all possible.
Arguments for OBD include:
  • The consumers get the mitzvah of eating Shemitta fruit, while treating the produce with the special rules that apply to produce with קדושת שביעית.
  • It is a way of supporting the Jewish agricultural workers who are observing Shemitta who – while making far less money than in a regular year – have some income to support themselves and their families in a Halachically acceptable way
  • Does not have all the problems with Arab grown produce.

Arguments against OBD include:

  • OBD can only can supply a limited number of types of produce. Vegetables, in particular, are a problem, as the leniency regarding ספיחין is only for those ספיחין that were planted before Shemitta, and will not be helpful for the ספיחין that would normally be planted next summer.
  • The produce has not been as predictably available as people are accustomed to when frequenting their local stores.
  • Unfortunately, in the past, there were some incidents where purported OBD systems were not properly supervised and thus ending up violating the Shemitta laws.
  • We are very fortunate that a very responsible OBD system was set up by MachonHaTorah veHaAretz under the auspices of Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg and Rav Yaakov Ariel שליט״א which, in my view, is the optimal system that should be used if at all possible. The system that they have set up has the following features:
  • A properly supervised OBD system, as described above.
  • A large amount of produce has been procured from before Shemitta and kept in suitable storage (Otzar) for use during the Shemitta year
  • A hydroponic system has been set up to grow some produce during Shemitta, which is permissible as it does not grow in the ground.
  • Certain areas in the western Negev and the Arava have been identified that, according to Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach זצ״ל do not have the same sanctity of EY and thus one may grow some limited produce there during Shemitta which is not subject to the same rules of קדושת שביעית. The HM is used as a backup (לחומרא) for these areas
  • One can find out more about their program at the website . This is an extremely worthy organization, and supporting it while here, and using their system while in Israel, is the best way for us to participate in the mitzvah of Shemitta, in my opinion1.  Another interesting organization which is supported by a very eclectic group of people is שנת שבעת who seem to be doing excellent work in promoting Shemitta even amongst the not very religious.
  • Finally, it is important to note that OBD products have קדושת שביעית unless noted otherwise, and this are not to be taken outside of EY. This is particularly relevant with regard to Israeli wine; sometimes OBD wine is exported by those not aware of the Halacha.

Final Thoughts

In summary, although Shemitta is a time that – because of קדושת שביעית – we really may not use Israeli produce outside the Land, there are ways of helping the heroes who are attempting to fulfill the MHB with our support. When it is not Shemitta, we can certainly use Israeli produce outside the Land by becoming familiar with the simple procedures for separating the Tithes (תרומות ומעשרות). We will אי״ה write more about this in a followup article.

I recognize, of course, that the laws of Shemitta and other מצוות התלויות בארץ (MHB) (Mitzvot that are specific to EY) are many and complex and a short essay cannot begin to do them justice. I encourage the reader to use this essay as an incentive to participate in the mitzvah of Shemitta by continuing to learn about it from the voluminous material that has been published and is widely available in books and online.

---------------1 (I note that there are other organizations that also are asking for support, but are not supporting the OBD system, that are less worthy, in my view. One particularly strange organization, IMHO, is The Shmita Association, which advocates purchasing a small piece of land in Israel before Shemitta which will not be worked on, thus giving the owner the status of a Shemitta observer. This reminds me of a certain yeshiva that purchased farmland for its campus, and then put in a claim to the government program that paid farmers to leave their land fallow. Seems to me that this is not what the Almighty had in mind ….

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Zman Not Simchaseinu – The Shanda in Washington

Despite our best efforts, this past Shmini Atzeret/Simchas Torah was not quite Zman Simchaseinu (Our time of Joy); not for me nor for many others.

To be sure, there was a great spirit of joy in the shul. The Young Israel of Forest Hills has been blessed to host a new Sephardic minyan over the last two months, which has brought a great deal of new energy and excitement, along with many people, into our community. The resultant boost that we had from the joint hakafos and the post Shabbos “Hakafot Shniyot” party was wonderful and enjoyed by all. But inside, I could not get my mind off of the scandal that had blown up in Washington DC just the day before, and the worry for what it meant for the future of the Orthodox community ate at me deeply inside.

I leave it to the reader to discover the unpleasant details of the scandal surrounding Rabbi Barry Freundel elsewhere.   For me, it was extremely disheartening, upsetting, infuriating and saddening to see the huge Chillul Hashem (Desecration of G-D’s Name) that would result from the incomprehensibly bizarre, ugly – and frankly stupid and creepy  – actions of a formerly highly respected colleague, who had done a great deal of good for the American Jewish community.   The pain that we all feel for the victims, for the Freundel family, for his congregants, and for all of the women, both regular mikvah users and converts, who feel betrayed by him is beyond description.  I write here only to offer the following thoughts.

1) The Importance of the RCA GPS (Geirus Policies and Procedures) Institution

Several years ago, the Rabbinical Council of America and the Beth Din of America established the GPS system for centralizing and standardizing Orthodox conversions in a process that would dependably be “fully in accordance with Halachah (Jewish law), ensure sensitivity to the dignity of all potential converts at all times, and provide reasonable assurance that its converts and their offspring be accorded acceptance and recognition in other Jewish communities in the future.” (from their website).   This was a tremendously important accomplishment; one which brought honor, veracity and dignity to a process that previously could be described in Yiddish as a “hefker velt”; a situation whereby there were many problems of differing standards among Rabbis, pressures brought on individual Rabbis to convert those who might not truly be sincere, inadequate concern and care given to conversion candidates, and other idiosyncrasies resulting in a situation in which the validity of many Orthodox conversions were called into question.

The RCA committee of distinguished Rabbis, chaired initially by Rabbi Freundel, produced a beautiful system of  regional Batei Din who operate according to carefully thought out and supervised standards, and have brought hundreds of people through the conversion process in a most dignified way, while sorting out those that were not willing to fully embrace traditional Jewish Halacha.  I have proudly sponsored several candidates to the Bet Din in Queens, and the candidates and I have been uniformly impressed by the professional, caring, and ethical manner in which it has performed its duties.

However, not all in the Orthodox community have been pleased with the GPS system.  In particular, the so-called “Open Orthodox” movement has been trying for years to tear down this institution.   In keeping with their attacks on many areas of traditional Halacha, such as the ordination of female rabbis, the celebration of openly Gay & lesbian members, the assailing of the normative Halachic process and the historic validity of Biblical accounts, they have argued that the GPS violates their rights as Rabbis to decide what standards ought to be demanded of potential converts, and it is not for a centralized body to impose those standards on them.  Thus if they choose not to demand a full commitment to observing Halacha that ought not be questioned.  To quote Rabbi Marc Angel, one of their proponents, ancient sources “do not equate conversion with a total acceptance to observe Torah and mitzvot, but rather see conversion as a way for a non-Jew to become a member of the Jewish people.”    Additionally, the memory of Rabbi Avi Weiss' attack on the GPS and the Chief Rabbinate less than a year ago, in which he advocated not only that both these institutions be dismantled but that “the state [of Israel] should move to accept non-Orthodox conversions and weddings done in Israel as a matter of Israeli law” remains painfully fresh.

Predictably, opponents of the RCA GPS system have used this scandal to go on the attack in many quarters, claiming that the failings of Rabbi Freundel prove that the “Holier than Thou” stance which underlies the GPS is but hollow hypocrisy.  They are furthermore trying to instigate fear and havoc, insinuating that this incident will call into question all of the  GPS conversions, and cause untold misery for untold numbers of people, in a thinly veiled effort to undo all the good that the GPS has accomplished in its years of work.   Many non-Orthodox writers have also jumped on the bandwagon, attacking Orthodox Rabbis as misogynist sexists who exploit converts and particularly women while exerting unholy and uncalled for pressure on them to their bidding.

Additionally they are attacking the very process by which conversions are determined.  A “Bill of Rights for Jewish Converts” is rapidly circulating on the internet, which, while making some very valid points, calls into question some matters that cannot be resolved by demagoguery, such as the length of time that a conversion will take. (It is totally subjective, depending on the candidate and the situation they present, and the amount of time that a sponsoring Rabbi will feel comfortable attesting to a Bet Din that he is totally confident as to the candidate’s sincerity and commitment level, as well as the other demands on the Rabbi’s time, which cannot be predicted in advance.)  The pressures that are being brought to bear on those attempting to uphold Halachic standards while responding sensitively to what has happened will be intense.

Clearly, this is all uncalled for.  Rav Gedalya Dov Schwartz, the venerable head of the Beth Din of America, has already ruled that this incident will not invalidate any conversion overseen by Rabbi Freundel, and certainly not those overseen by any other GPS Bet Din.  The Israeli Chief Rabbinate has reached the same conclusion.  Furthermore, the RCA and all Rabbonim are taking this matter very seriously, and considering what tikkunnim and safeguards can be put in place to protect the sanctity of mikvaot, the dignity of women, and the conversion process so that nothing like this might ever happen again, chas vehsalom.   I have been privy to several internal RCA discussions, and they have already announced several safeguards and are considering others; you can follow the announcements at

It is critical that cool heads prevail here, and that we make sure that this terrible aberration remain just that.  We must derive the lessons that must be learned from this shanda while at the same time not allowing those who are attacking the overwhelming majority of Rabbis, who are  G-d fearing and men of integrity, to profit from this fiasco.

2)  No One is Above Temptation

Our tradition has always had a very healthy respect for the Yetzer Hara (Evil Inclination).  The Talmud in many places invokes the principle אין אפוטרופוס לעריות,  which (loosely translated) means that no one is above temptation, when it comes to sexual matters.  This terrible incident brings this home in a more powerful way than any mussar shmuz.   One has to have a great deal of humility in knowing that temptations are powerful, and that it is all too easy to be drawn into a sinkhole in which one's morals are irreparably compromised.

But this story illustrates another problem – that goes beyond mere sensual temptation – which can also be very dangerous.  The first question that anyone hearing this story surely asked themselves, after hearing that a respected Rabbi had stooped so low, is: Why?   If the motive were mere sexual gratification, or the desire to view inappropriate matter, surely there is sufficient  material all too easily accessible in the depraved society in which we live, whether in the media or on the internet, or any number of other places?  Why engage in such a risky and crude activity?

The obvious answer, is that it comes from something deeper than sexual proclivity. It will not engage in any attempt to psychoanalyze this, certainly not publicly.  I write about it only to emphasize this:  Anyone, and I mean anyone, can slip into crazed behaviors that can ruin their own lives and hurt many others, if they allow themselves to think that they are above temptation and can engage in behavior that Halacha forbids, while being able to set limits that will only allow it to go so far.  There are thousands of people who have learned that this is not so, many the hard way.  

As a Rabbi you get to hear all sorts of things, many which you would rather not.  Unfortunately, I know of many cases where respectable people, including leading professionals, Rabbis, Roshei Kollel, Rebbeim in Yeshivos, Doctors, Lawyers, you name it, women and men, have been ensnared at a variety of levels by an addiction to pornography and worse.  None of them meant to arrive at the depths they found themselves, of course.  Most allowed themselves this or that indiscretion, this or that ego trip or pleasure trip, and found themselves drawn into the quicksand from which there was little hope of escape without great damage being done.

If anything good can come out of this situation, perhaps it is this.  If you know of anyone (including perhaps yourself) who has found themselves subjected to temptation and inappropriate use of the internet or other lustful activity, please refer them to the literally life saving website, . It is a tremendously important resource, and it deserves all the support that can be given to it in its holy work of combating the insanity that surrounds us.

May Hashem have mercy on His people, and help us to restore honor to His Holy Name and Torah.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Shidduch "Catastrophe": A letter to the Editor of Mishpacha Magazine that was declined for publication

To the Editor of Mishpacha Magazine:

Dear Sir or Madam

I read the article by Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz entitled There IS no Shidduch Crisis in your August 6 edition with great interest. I want to thank him, and you, for devoting so much attention to this very serious issue. Upon reflection, I would like to make the following observations, some of which differ with Mr. Rechnitz. I base myself on my experience of having been, ב"ה, in the Parsha and married three children in the past two years, and from what I hear as a Rav and a member of the community.

To begin with, let me summarize what I feel are the main points of Rechnitz presentation:
  1. Too few of the young women are married by age 21. It is not a crisis, but a catastrophe that, for example in Los Angeles, only 13 of 72 girls of a high school graduating class were engaged or married by age 21-22. Furthermore, Any change should not have to come from the girls, as the risk to the current group of girls is too high if they will wait until they are older to begin dating.
  2. This is not a problem among Chassidim and Chareidim in Eretz Yisroel, and other populations. It is only "our oilam – the American Yeshiva World – that is dealing with a self-created problem.
  3. This is a problem to which too many have become deaf, blind, and desensitized. We speak about it and then push it aside as we digest our dessert.
  4. The problem has nothing to do with money, as money cannot and will not solve this catastrophe.
  5. The core of the proposed solution is that bochurim should begin shidduchim when they are about 20 or 21, and an elaborate description of how the yeshivos would adapt to this is laid out. Even though the bochurim may be insufficiently mature at this age for marriage, (or even at 23), they can be expected to rise to the occasion and quickly become men when they need to, much as young men do in the army, or during times of crisis -- you grow into the role.
I would like to examine these points, in the order noted above.
  1. The notion that if young women are not married by age 21 or 22, it is a catastrophe in the making.

    In short, I believe that this type of thinking is, in itself, one of the main causes of the problem.

    Apparently there is an unwritten rule that as soon as a young woman in our community finishes the year after high school, or even earlier, she must immediately enter the shidduch process. If a year goes by, and it is two whole years, Heaven Forfend, after High School, and the big Two Oh looms, it is time to begin panicking and to enter crisis mode. 


    Why do we already begin to consider this a crisis and misfortune, and 21 year old girls begin worrying about becoming spinsters?

    Here are some possible factors that ought to be examined in the light of this problem:
    • There is an ethic that it is undesirable, or even dangerous, for a young woman to have finished High School and Seminary, and not be interested in getting married quite yet. That somehow it will be harmful if she finds employment or goes on for higher education for a year or two while having some degree of independence.
      While many young women do want to marry younger, I know of many others who would prefer to have a year or two as a young adult without having the responsibilities, and yes  –  the burdens, of being a wife and mother  by age twenty. To be free to work, explore, travel, see something of the world outside of school and seminary and figure out for themselves who they are and where they fit in to the community. They resent greatly the pressure of having to immediately put all their efforts into getting married, for fear of being left out while all the good bochurim will already be taken.

      The manufactured urgency that sees it as a “catastrophe” when the majority of girls are not married by age 20 is certainly part of the problem.

    • The result of this urgency is that the families of the young women are put in the position of having to launch an all-out desperate effort to snag one of the available good young men, while the families of the bochurim can sit back and wait in relative calm while the many offers pile in. The Gemara in Kiddushin 2b which states that it is the way of a man to pursue a wife, and not the way of a woman to pursue a husband, has lost all meaning. Instead, a herd mentality prevails whereby every young woman and her parents are told, explicitly or implicitly, that they better immediately get in the game when their daughter is eighteen, or else. They will be told horror stories about how difficult it is to find a shidduch, and how they must immediately make contacts with the shadchanim because any good bochur already has a long list of offers and they cannot delay. This of course contributes to the crisis when the desperate search does not produce results as quickly as desired.
  2. This is a problem only in the American Yeshiva world. That is not the case. The Israeli Yeshiva world has a very similar problem. The modern Orthodox also have a large and frightening problem of too many singles, as anyone familiar with the scene in Upper Manhattan is well aware of.

    While there are some differences between these communities and the issues that they face, there are also commonalities that contribute to the problems in the Yeshiva
    oilam. Issues regarding parnassah, misguided priorities when looking for a shidduch, and of too much community pressure to conform to certain ideas and standards without allowing those who are a bit different to find their way within the community.
  3. It is true that too many have become desensitized to dealing with the issues. A compelling reason for that is that although there are fairly obvious problems with the system that are endemic; people throw up their hands knowing you cant fight the system – that is the way things are and they cannot be changed. Most people do not like banging their heads against a brick wall; if they feel it is hopeless that change will happen, they turn away from the problem, as it is too stressful.
  4. The claim is made that the problem has nothing to do with money. By this Mr. Rechnitz means ostensibly that throwing money at the problem by creating programs, incentives, etc. (which Mr. Rechnitz has done and continues to do in a magnificent way) will not alone solve it. While this may be true, saying that money has nothing to do with the problem is very inaccurate; the fact is that money has EVERYTHING to do with the problem.

    To put it bluntly, as the Shidduch “system” now works, unless a girl is (in descending order of importance) either (A) from a wealthy family willing to support a young man for years in a comfortable lifestyle, or (b) very beautiful, or (c) has exceptional yichus, or possibly (d) has an unusual amount of talent or personality, her chances of finding a shidduch are drastically reduced. This is a sad fact, which any shadchan will confirm.

    There is not much that can be done about factors (b)-(d). Heavenly gifts will be reacted to in given ways, and that is the way of the world from time immemorial. While more education might help mitigate these factors (as discussed below), there is no question that factor (A) has become horribly distorted in the yeshiva world, causing great misery. So long as it is expected that every young man be supported comfortably for years while learning in Kollel, and that every young woman is expected to marry a young man who will be learning in Kollel, a great premium will be placed on the girls who come from wealthy families, to the detriment of others.

    This letter is not the place to discuss whether or not every yeshiva bochur should be looking forward to learning in Kollel for years; whether this is a sustainable economic model; or if this is what Hashem wants for most Bnei Yeshiva. I raise it here only as it relates to the Shidduch Catastrophe discussion. Put simply, the economic demands that are being made by the bochurim today  – very often with the blessing and encouragement of their Rabbeim –  are large contributors to this crisis.
    I personally know of two particular cases when bochurim were instructed by their rebbeim, You are a metzuyon – a great catch for some young woman. Make sure that you tell the shadchan that you will only go out with a girl whose family will commit in advance to fully and comfortably supporting you for at least five years in Kollel. Parents know that How much money will you give? is virtually the first question that they will get from any potential shadchan. In such an atmosphere, money has everything to do with the shidduch catastrophe.

    The problem is only exacerbated by the fact that the young women are also expected to be the breadwinners of the family for as long as possible, in addition to being the wife, mother, and homemaker. And she will be expected to do so with only the skills gained in High School or a year of seminary (See #1 above). Thus if a girl does not come from a wealthy family, and does not have the credentials to get a well paying job, she is considered inferior marriage material for a young man who wants to learn in Kollel.

    Now it is certainly true that there are a significant number of young women who come from families who are willing and able to support a young man in Kollel who
    nevertheless are finding great difficulty in finding shidduchim. As to them Mr. Rechnitz is quite correct that money is not the issue. Even so, I maintain that money has distorted the shidduch process greatly, in that it has created an atmosphere of entitlement whereby young men are seen (and too often they or their families see themselves) as the prize whom all these young women must vie for, and thus will only go out with those who offer the most perfect future scenarios, rather than themselves having to be worthy of the wonderful young women. More on this below.

    Bottom Line – While money cannot alone solve the problem; money too often IS the problem.
  5. The main proposition – that a structure be set up for the boys to marry younger, assuming that they will man-up to mature fast enough to do so – requires some comment.

    For those young men who are mature enough to marry younger, and who are willing to maturely assume the responsibilities, I certainly see no problem with following this route.

    The problem is that there are many young men who are truly not ready to be married at age 21. Speaking for myself, (I married at age 30, although I probably was mature enough by 27 or so, no matter what all those young women felt . . . ) I know that I was not anywhere near ready to marry at age 21, or even 23, for that matter. Some people need more time to develop the maturity, wisdom, and responsibility that ought to be required of any man who is undertaking to be a husband to a Bas

    It may be true that in the army, or at times of crisis, men have had to
    grow up fast and assume responsibilities beyond their years. I am no psychologist, but I feel fairly certain that this often came at great emotional and psychic cost. There are endless stories of deep personal trauma suffered by those thrust into adult situations before they were ready, and of the trauma they then visited upon their wives and children, including verbal and physical abuse, divorce, and worse. Mandating that every young man marry at a younger age is a potential recipe for even worse catastrophes, I am afraid to say.

    The sharply rising
    occurrence of divorce in the Yeshiva world was not mentioned in this article, but certainly needs to be addressed when considering an overhaul of the shidduch system. I am not convinced that encouraging pre-mature marriage would not have potentially calamitous side-effects.
So much for my comments on the ideas that Mr. Rechnitz raised. I will refrain from discussing the arguments that he made regarding the rebbe-Talmid relationship (Many people find their Rebbi as someone other than their Rosh Yeshiva; sometimes later in life), or the different types of yeshivos that are needed. But I did want to raise some ideas that might also be helpful in this important discussion:
      1. If, in fact, we want to encourage young men to marry earlier, it would be helpful to begin preparing them for marriage earlier as well. I once heard a mechanech in Eretz Yisroel giving his 18 year old students the excellent advice that during their years in Yeshiva, one of their main goals should be to make themselves into the type of man that a girl that they respect would want to marry. While this certainly includes becoming a Talmid Chacham and Baal Midos, it also ought to include awareness of what it takes to be a good and caring husband and father. This should be reinforced in many ways during Yeshiva years, and not left for the Chassan Shmuz two weeks before the wedding.

        This should certainly include much discussion and one on one consultation about the important qualities that this particular bochur should seek. It should emphasize that the main thing Klal Yisroel needs now are good, vibrant marriages and families, and not just many children. I know of too many cases where young men, (and even older men in their thirties and up) have been told that they need to marry someone no older than 21 because (a) they can thus have many children, and (b) they will have a wife that they can still
        mold, who is not set in her ways. This attitude is, in my opinion, misplaced in that (a) the quality of the husband-wife relationship as equal partners is more important than how many children they will have, and (b) it is immature, condescending, and paternalistic to say that the wife must be molded to the husbands whim, rather than that they grow together into a mature relationship.

        I have often heard it said that
        there are so many quality girls around, while there are relatively few quality boys available. This has little to do with the familiar statistics that regarding birth rates and marriage ages. Rather, in the opinion of many, the mosdos for young women are doing a better job preparing their talmidos to be mature, responsible wives and mothers than the yeshivos are doing in preparing young men to be husbands and fathers.

         It is not so much that there are so few young men around; it is that there are relatively few quality young men who are being competed for by the many young women who deserve first quality husband material, and are having difficulty finding them.
      2. Too many young women are being taught that the only worthwhile husbands are those who will be learning in Kollel. I am not arguing here that Kollel is not appropriate for many young couples; rather that it is not necessarily for everybody. I am arguing that there are many fine young men who are Yirei Shomayim, Kovei Itim L’torah, wonderful Baalei Midos and Chessed, who, for whatever reason, are not learning full time. These young men should not be seen as second rate material, but as first class potential husbands for many fine young women. Girls are often not getting this message from their mechanchim and mechanchos, as Kollel life is being pushed as the only desirable goal for a serious Bas Yisroel. This needs to be tempered; Kollel life should be viewed as a wonderful aspiration, but not as the only one that young women should consider.
There is obviously much more that could be said on this topic. I did want to at least begin to address some of the important thoughts that this article raised, and hope that you allow the larger public to consider these ideas.

Once again, I commend Mishpacha magazine, and Mr. Rechnitz, for shining the spotlight on this issue


Rabbi Yehuda L. Oppenheimer