Israeli produce abroad: did all farmers in Israel sign heter mechirah?
Subscribe to our Newsletter
If someone relies on heter mechirah, can they eat Israeli produce exported abroad; do most Israeli farmers sign a bill of heter mechirah? What about terumot, ma'aserot, and orlah?
Question: Hi. I live in the United States, and we get Israeli produce imported here: fruits, sometimes herbs, and at times even vegetables (not a lot). I rely on heter mechirah. Is all of the produce exported from Israel from farmers who signed on heter mechirah, or is there also produce exported by farmers who grew it in a forbidden fashion, without heter mechirah (or a different solution, such as detached platforms)?
I received the following information during Tevet 5782 from Akiva London, the chief agronomist of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, and Rabbi Eli Levanon, who works in Milgam as a Chief Rabbinate representative responsible for heter mechirah.
Every farmer in the State of Israel was contacted by Milgam, which informed them which halachic options are available to them, heter mechirah included. The vast majority of farmers, approximately 7,200 (which comprise 95–97% of all Jewish farmers), signed on a bill of heter mechirah in a face-to-face meeting with a kashrut supervisor from Milgam and receive an explanation of the sale's significance. After signing, they receive a sales permit from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. The data is available on the Chief Rabbinate's website and it is possible to look up here any farmer's name and find out if he or she signed on heter mechirah.
Moreover, Milgam's kashrut supervisors oversee and ensure that the biblical prohibitions (sowing, pruning, harvesting, plowing) are performed by non-Jews. Any farmer who signed on a bill of heter mechirah was required to inform the supervisor (at the time of signature or afterwards) estimated times when the biblically prohibited activities will be performed throughout the entire year.
The supervisors call the farmers before these times to remind them that the biblically prohibited activities should be performed by non-Jews only and not by the Jewish farmer or Jewish workers. The supervisors make surprise visits to the fields to ensure that this is the case. There are 11 supervisors (who work nearly full time) servicing the entire country, each assigned to a different geographic location and responsible for several hundred farmers.
You should know that more than 80% of the marketplace in Israel is kosher. All of the major supermarkets, nearly all factories, all government institutions, security forces, etc.–keep kosher. There are still restaurants and institutions that do not keep kosher, but they are the minority.
Each farmer that sells produce to the kosher market cannot also sell produce without supervision this year. Signing on the heter mechirah bill of sale is a relatively simple process. After the sale, the only change that farmers need to make is that the biblically prohibited activities must be performed by non-Jews. Note that today, even in non-shemitah years, the vast majority of harvest and pruning is performed by non-Jewish workers (especially from Thailand, at times also Israeli Arabs). Ploughing and sowing are for the most part also performed by non-Jews; however, the Jewish farmer or Jewish workers often perform these actions as well during regular years.
Those if someone purchases fresh produce from places without a kashrut certificate (the open market, non-kosher supermarkets such as am:pm, small supermarkets that do not have certification, or eats at non-kosher restaurants), there is a possibility that the fruits and vegetables grew in a prohibited fashion. For this reason, it is halachically forbidden to buy produce from places without certification, just as no kosher costumer would buy meat that is "probably kosher" without knowing 100% that it's kosher (while many places that don't have kashrut certification in Israel have produce that go through at least one station that is supervised by the rabbinate: wholesale markets, major supermarkets, major warehouses, etc. However, if a non-kosher supermarket has its own warehouse, there is definitely a concern that the produce is grown in a forbidden manner).
There are farmers, especially boutique farmers, organic farmers, or even regular farmers who sell their produce directly to stores of customers who do not perform heter mechirah. In such cases, if the farmer did not perform heter mechirah, the produce is definitely not kosher and you shouldn't buy it.
The estimation of specialists in the field is that 95–97% of Jewish farmers signed on heter mechirah (or an alternative solution approved by the Chief Rabbinate). Farmers who did not sign on heter mechirah are mostly small-scale, disorganized farmers (who didn't get their act together) who do not sell their wares to major supermarkets or warehouses.
What about exports abroad?
To export abroad, farmers need to meet very strict requirements in terms of produce quality, pesticide traces, the absence of pests in produce, and more. All farmers receive export permits from the Ministry of Agriculture. These are only major, organized farmers.
For this reason, there is really no concern that a farmer exporting produce did not perform heter mechirah. While the rabbinate does not supervise fresh exported produce, since none is required, it is highly improbably that produce was grown in a prohibited fashion. Note that there are not many Israeli Arab farmers who export.
In conclusion: If you rely on heter mechirah and live outside of Israel, it is important and praiseworthy to consume Israeli produce, even during shemitah, like other years. In this way you are strengthening Jewish-Israeli agriculture in the Land of Israel and have the privilege of eating produce that grew on holy soil.
Note on separating terumot and ma'aserot and the concern of orlah during shemitah:
All years it is best to separate terumot and ma'aserot without a blessing from the Israeli produce you buy. This is because most posekim hold that it is mandatory to separate terumot and ma'aserot from this produce, but in practice this is generally not performed. Even during the shemitah year terumot and ma'aserot should be separated from fruits and vegetables without a blessing (because gemar melachah, the final processing of the produce, is sometimes performed by Jews; see The Consumer's Guide to Shemitah, chapter 10, C.2, p. 65).
As for orlah, there is no reason to be concerned that fruits exported from Israel are orlah. Prior to export, these fruits pass through major warehouses that are under rabbinate supervision. For more information about orlah and terumot and ma'aserot on exported produce, see this article we wrote on the topic.