By Rabbi Moshe Bloom
Torah VeHa’aretz Institute
Purim is fast approaching, with wine featuring prominently. A salient theme in the Megillah is banquets and wine-drinking. There is also a mitzvah to drink wine on Purim (to what extent is another discussion). Wine enjoys a unique status in Judaism, has a special blessing, and is used for many mitzvot (such as Kiddush, Havdallah, circumcision, and weddings).
Another expression of this special status and the centrality of wines and grapevines that is less-known is the prohibition of kilei ha’kerem. The grapevine is the only “tree” next to which it is forbidden to plant annual crops. This is the only kila’im (forbidden mixture) prohibition with produce where it is not only forbidden to eat what grew as a forbidden mixture, but it is even forbidden to derive benefit from it.
Chazal instituted the prohibition outside the Land of Israel due to the severity of the prohibition. In practice, there is a dispute as to the exact scope of the prohibition in the Diaspora.
Israeli wines are famous throughout the world for their excellent quality and have won numerous international prizes. Israeli wines are almost always kosher and meet the highest kashrut standards. In this piece and next week’s piece we will explore a new vine-growing trend that began in recent years — ecological wine. It turns out that this method creates complicated halachic questions.
The following article is by Dr. Mordechai Shomron, the resident agronomist of Torah VeHa’aretz Institute. It appeared in the quarterly periodical “Emunat Itecha” in Tammuz 5778 (July 2018).
The prohibition of kilei hakerem (intercropping with grapevines) is different from the injunctions against kilei zera’im (interplanting with seeds) and kilei ilan (grafting). Even if one were to plant vegetable seeds together or graft fruits or vegetables in a forbidden manner, the produce is still permitted for consumption. Not so with kilei ha’kerem: if one interplants in a vineyard, it is prohibited to eat or benefit from the produce grown alongside the vineyard (also called cover crops), and the vine must be also be destroyed, as it states: “פֶּן תִּקְדַּשׁ הַמְלֵאָה הַזֶּרַע אֲשֶׁר תִּזְרָע וּתְבוּאַת הַכָּרֶם — else the crop, from the seed you have sown, and the yield of the vineyard may not be used” (Devarim 22:9).
In the past few generations, since the beginning of the Jews’ return to the Land of Israel, and especially now, there are many vineyards for both table grapes and wine grapes growing all over Israel. These vineyards can be found from the tip of the Golan Heights through the Upper Galilee, and all the way down to the Aravah and Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev. Grape-harvesting season for table grapes starts in the early spring in the Aravah and Jordan Bank, and ends in Shevat for the high-quality vineyards in the Lachish region.
Such a long season would never have been possible a decade ago, and certainly not two generations ago. Elongating the harvest season is made possible thanks to smart combinations of different cultivars and to the exploitation of the extremely varied climate conditions all over the Land of Israel, a country not lacking for anything: “אֶרֶץ אֲשֶׁר … לֹא תְּחַסֵּר כָּל בָּהּ” (Devarim 8:7). There is no match anywhere on the globe for such a long harvesting season for table grapes in such a small stretch of land. Of course, we must give credit to the amazing farmers who, with their hard work and with Divine assistance, achieve extraordinary results. From a financial perspective, table grapes are branded in the marketplace as a high quality crop, so they can be sold expensively throughout the marketing seasons.
The standard practice for growing table grapes includes clearing out all weeds from the vineyards for various reasons, so it is safe to assume that there is little chance of interplanting in table-grape vineyards. Until recently, this has also been the standard practice for wine-grape cultivation: clearing out any weeds that might compete for water and mineral resources and thereby minimize the risk of pests and the spread of disease.
New Trend in Vineyards
Recent years have seen the beginning of a new trend of leaving weeds in the vineyard, or, alternatively, planting various cover crops alongside them, also known as intercropping or interplanting. Intercropping is not a new method for orchards, but until recently it was rarely used in vineyards. There are several reasons that farmers intercrop:
- Preventing soil erosion and drift
There are vineyards planted on steep inclines or declines, which are subject to topsoil drift due to rain. Leaving weeds in place or planting annual crops with extensive root systems helps minimize this problem.
(2) An agro-ecological ideology that values sustainability
According to this general outlook, any harm done to plants or animals is wasteful and needless. The basis for this thinking, with some limitations, is not new and can be found in Torah sources, as the Midrash states: “See to it that you do not degrade and destroy my world, for if you destroy it no one will be there to fix it up after you” (Midrash Rabbah, Kohelet 7:1).
(3) Minimizing pesticide use
Avoiding spraying the grapes with poisonous chemicals reduces the risk of harming the soil, the greater environment, and the people who consume the produce.
(4) Maintaining the beneficial insect population
Leaving weeds or cover crops after blooming and seed dispersal attracts and maintains the beneficial insect population. At the same time, it could provide forage for pests that can destroy the plants or fruit, and then the harm outweighs the benefit. This approach goes together with ongoing monitoring of the populations of beneficial insects and pests and maintaining a healthy balance between them, as is standard practice in organic farming. At times, farmers pay a heavy price with the diminishing of quality and quantity of the harvest but generally receive in compensation higher profit for their organic produce. In the case of leaving weeds in the vineyard, the wine is branded “ecological wine.”
There are other reasons for leaving weeds in the vineyard, including:
(1) Increasing rain penetrability to the soil in heavy rains
(2) Reducing soil heat during the summer
(3) Reducing water evaporation from the soil while drying the topsoil which, according to some approaches, can enhance wine quality
(4) Reducing soil tightening caused by mechanical vehicles driving through the vineyard
Next week we will explore the scope of the prohibition and possible solutions.
Rabbi Moshe Bloom is head of the English department of Torah VeHa’aretz Institute. For additional information and inquiries, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 972-8-684-7325.