Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A Shemittah Dilemma

Yesterday, I took part in the Rabbinical Council of America's mini-conference in Israel on behalf of Tzohar, and we spent much of the day touring the Shomron.
At the Tura Winery
Among the stops on the tour, we visited the Tura Winery in Recheilim, where we enjoyed a wine tasting and explanation. In recent years, I've grown to enjoy a fine wine now and then, and I found their Merlot excellent. (they will gladly ship to the United States for two dollars a bottle!) This is in no small part due to the fact that their vinyards sit at the top of Har Brachah (which we also visited later, and which also boasts an excellent winery) whose elevation and cool temperatures are apparently perfect for growing grapes essential to excellent wine. Let's just say that I didn't utilize the spittoon during the tasting, and left the winery in an excellent mood.
During the tasting, our guide explained the challenge she and her husband were facing as the Shemittah year approached.
Farmers have essentially four choices: Farm the land (violating halachah), leaving the land fallow entirely, utilizing heter mechirah (which thus permits the farmer to essentially farm and sell the product in the normal fashion), or use a system called Otzar Beit Din. It's beyond the purview of this post to explain the nuances of Otzar Beit Din, but essentially, under the system, the farmer joins a larger collective in which he essentially becomes the agent of the community to farm the land not for his personal use, but for communal use. Thus, he can farm the land and harvest it for everyone, but he can only sell it at the cost of producing it.  More importantly, the produce retains "kedushat She'viit" - the holiness of Shemittah, which carries a series of requirements, including that it cannot be discarded in the normal manner, wasted at all, and, most significantly, it cannot be exported outside of the Land of Israel.
Rabbis Enjoying the Wine Tasting
Currently, the Tura winery sells about thirty percent of the twenty-five thousand bottles it produces each year outside of Israel. More significantly, the owners feel that they have pretty much tapped out the Israeli market. In order to grow, they need to increase their exports, which they've been doing each and every year.
Except in the wine world, you can't just skip a year. Your buyers will find other suppliers, and other product to sell to their customers. And a business can't just overlook thirty percent of its income. They count on that business to make ends meet.
So, faced with this challenge, their posek, Rav Elyakim Levanon, instructed them to utilize heter mechirah. This would allow them to continue to produce and market the product normally.
Except they don't want to.
These are religious people. They've dedicated their lives to building the Holy Land. They literally, with sweat and tears, built their yishuv and winery, from the ground up. Utilizing heter mechirah means selling the Holy Land to a gentile - an act that counters their worldview and everything they stand for.
This isn't a dilemma with simple solutions.
Our tour guide, sharing her struggle, said that to her mind, the challenge was even harder because "Shemittah is supposed to make life easier for the farmer" - giving the land, and the farmer, a needed year of rest. "Except today, it only makes things harder."