JEWISH WORDS

The Jewish Chronicle - - JUDAISM - HETER MECHIRAH

Rabbi Ju­lian Sin­clair’s dip into the dic­tionary

HETER mechirah is a term which has been much in the news re­cently. It is a ha­lachic de­vice at the heart of ar­gu­ments in Is­rael over the shmit­tah, sab­bat­i­cal, year.

Heter means a le­niency or loophole, from the word matir, to re­lease or un­tie. Mechirah is a sale. The heter mechirah al­lows Jewish farm­ers in the Land of Is­rael to sell their land dur­ing the shmit­tah year. Do­ing so per­mits them to con­tinue farm­ing where oth­er­wise they would have to let the land and them­selves rest in the sev­enth year, as re­quired by Leviti­cus chap­ter 25.

This seem­ing le­gal fiction was a com­pas­sion­ate so­lu­tion to the shmit­tah prob­lems of the Zion­ist agri­cul­tural pi­o­neers who feared that strictly ob­serv­ing the sab­bat­i­cal year would wipe out their fledg­ling farms and force them back to Europe.

Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan Wasser­man first is­sued the heter for the shmit­tah year of 1888-9, and Rabbi Abra­ham Isaac Kook re­peated it in 1909-10. For Rav Kook, an ar­dent Zion­ist, the value of Jews re­turn­ing to live in Is­rael jus­ti­fied em­ploy­ing the heter mechirah de­vice.

Since the es­tab­lish­ment of the State of Is­rael, the heter mechirah has been op­er­ated by the Chief Rab­binate. There were al­ways those who pre­ferred not to rely on it and ate im­ported or Arab-grown pro­duce dur­ing the shmit­tah.

How­ever, this shmit­tah year, the Chief Rab­binate has un­der­mined the heter mechirah by al­low­ing lo­cal rab­bis the free­dom not to give kashrut cer­ti­fi­ca­tion to pro­duce grown un­der its dis­pen­sa­tion. In re­sponse, a group of re­li­gious Zion­ist rab­bis has, in de­fi­ance of the Chief Rab­binate, is­sued kashrut cer­tifi­cates to heter mechirah pro­duce — break­ing the Chief Rab­binate’s mo­nop­oly over kashrut.

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