By Jeremy Wimpfheimer
In advance of the Sukkot holiday, Israeli distributors of the arba’ah minim, four species, are predicting that the Shemittah year will take a very heavy toll on their sales. This is despite commonly accepted halachic adjudications that allow for the purchase of Israeli-grown produce.
Despite the religious mandate which requires that farming be curbed during this year, leading religious authorities approve specific measures to allow for the purchase of the four species grown in Eretz Yisrael and in so doing ensure that consumers help limit the economic damage to the growers and distributors and the Israeli economy as a whole. Like all produce grown in Shemittah, the sale of the four species is supervised by a rabbinic court, which ensures that the sale takes place outside of the restrictions of the Shemittah year–a process known as otzar beit din. The Eretz Chemda Institute in Jerusalem issued a specific ruling detailing the halachot permitting and even encouraging the purchase of Israeli-grown produce in the Shemittah year.
According to statistics from Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture, in recent years, some 350,000 lulav (palm frond), etrog (citron), hadas (myrtle branch), and aravah (willow branch) sets were shipped internationally. The largest consumer outside of Israel is the U.S. market, with about 290,000 sets sold, and an additional 60,000 in other parts of the world. With limitations placed on agricultural growth during the Shemittah year–the seventh year of the Jewish agrarian cycle which calls for the land to lie fallow–many consumers choose not to buy Israeli-grown products, leading to what ministry analysts describe as a more than 50-percent drop in the four-species market.
The greatest beneficiaries of this decrease in Israeli sales are etrog growers in Morocco who capitalize substantially on the Shemittah year; approximately 2,500 etrog trees were planted in recent years in preparation for this year’s sale.
Steve Berger, who lives in Los Angeles and is president of MyIsraelConnection.com, a company known for a diverse suite of services designed to promote a connection with Israel, has become a leading distributor of the four species and is encouraging clients not to forgo Israel in this Shemittah year. “Shemittah is a beautiful and ancient ideal which is at the heart of Jewish tradition,” Berger says. “But it is not designed to create a situation where Jewish consumers are hurting the Israeli economy and favoring the coffers of Moroccan farmers. Rather, we need to ensure that people continue to buy from Israeli farmers and distributors.”
Berger’s partner, Mickey Katzburg, who supervises the Israeli distribution of the four species for MyIsraelConnection.com, warns that the damage to the Israeli four-species market will extend far past this year if too many consumers turn their backs on Israel. “If too much of the sales of etrogim go to Morocco, the farmers there will be able to develop a farming infrastructure at a faster and more competitive rate than their Israeli competitors and slowly take bigger and bigger pieces of the market in the coming years,” Katzburg says.
It should be noted that the major issue in relation to Shemittah comes from the growth of the etrog. The lulav can be harvested from Israeli trees even during Shemittah, and a sizable portion of the lulav market has already been irreversibly lost to palm growers in northern Egypt. Many halachic authorities also allow the myrtle branches to be harvested during Shemittah, while the willows for foreign customers are almost always produced locally because they are too delicate to survive overseas shipping.
“Our objective is to remind our customers that they have the ability to limit the economic damage that this holiday season could present to the Israeli growers for whom the sale of etrogim is their very livelihood,” Berger says. “This can be fully accomplished within the spirit of the Shemittah year and there is no disputing that there will be a reduction in the crop this year in recognition of this ancient and blessed law. But when halachah gives us the option to support our Israeli farmers and the nation’s economy, we need to be sure that we do everything in our power to do so.”