BEHIND THE SCENES OF MODERN DAY SHMITA OBSERVANCE
May 20, 2015
Beis Moshiach in #974, Feature

Marking forty years of Mivtza Kashrus, we had a fascinating discussion with Rabbi Meir Dovid Bergman, director of the Department for Mitzvos HaTluyos BAretz for the Badatz HaEida HaChareidis in Yerushalayim, and one of the experts in the field. * How did an Arab farmer try to smuggle bananas? How did a mashgiach discover the big oranges swindle?  Whats the problem with tithed merchandise in the market? How long do potatoes from the sixth year last? And how a family of Arab farmers was discovered to be Jewish!

humorous folktale tells of a Jew from abroad who arrives in Eretz Yisroel in a Shmita year.  Before his trip, one of his friends warns him that its Shmita and he has to be extra careful about kashrus and cant eat just anywhere, even if theres a hechsher of some kind

When the man returned home, he met his friend and told him that since he wasn’t knowledgeable about types of hechsherim in Eretz Yisroel, and in order not to get into problematic situations, he decided to be stringent and throughout his stay he only ate fruits and vegetables.

FOUR YEARS OF SHMITA

Although people abroad are aware of Shmita, it is mostly theoretical, while for kosher consumers in Eretz Yisroel, Shmita is a very complicated year.  It is even more complicated for the kashrus agencies that are responsible for supplying fresh, quality, and kosher products at the highest levels of kashrus.

“The whole subject of stringent kashrus during Shmita is inseparable from the mitzva of kashrus and the Rebbe’s Mivtza Kashrus,” says R’ Meir Dovid Bergman.  “There is a letter in which the Rebbe responds to a family that asks for a bracha for health problems and he says apparently they were not particular enough about kashrus in Shmita matters.”

R’ Meir Dovid Bergman runs the department for the Mitzvos HaTluyos B’Aretz for the Eida HaChareidis kashrus organization.  Naturally, a significant part of what he does has to do with Shmita.

“For us, Shmita lasts for four years.  It starts with precise tracking of the produce starting in the fifth year, in order to prevent a shortage in the seventh year, and continues deep into the year following Shmita with the various types of produce that are still connected to Shmita and need special supervision.”

When R’ Bergman talks about supervision, he refers to the extensive organizational system of his department, which includes advanced technological tools, surveillance systems, bullet-proof vehicles, security personnel and an army of nearly one hundred mashgichim and supervisors spread out across the country for the purpose of bringing the most kosher fruits and vegetables to the stores.

I sat facing R’ Bergman and he opened his personal computer, turned on the screen, and took me on a fascinating trip behind the scenes of Shmita observance in Eretz Yisroel.  He spouted data, facts and interesting stories about the work of the department he heads.  It turns out that behind the innocent, finely diced cucumbers and tomatoes in a religious Israeli’s salad, or the french-fries or even ketchup, is an entire world of Jews and Arabs, farmers and rabbanim, professionals, advanced means of communication, an operations and observation room that looks something like an army intelligence base, and a lot of work.

“The religious sector has grown rapidly.  When I entered the field, religious Jews lived mainly in B’nei Brak and Yerushalayim.  All the religious cities like Beitar, Modiin Ilit, Elad, and the religious areas of Ashdod, Beit Shemesh, did not exist.  The current estimates speak about close to a million and a half kosher consumers who insist on superior standards in Eretz Yisroel.  This requires the best kashrus organizations such as that of R’ Landau and the Badatz Eida HaChareidis, to constantly upgrade and develop greater expertise in order to respond to the demand which grows from year to year.

“Our department works intensively all the time but especially during a Shmita year.  The three main areas which we are involved in are separating trumos and maasros, arla, and Shmita.  Each of these areas, despite sounding simple, consists of dozens of details which the public is not aware of. People think, what could be a problem with a tomato? They don’t know how critical it is to be careful with the kashrus of even fruits and vegetables.”

PROBLEMATIC TRUMA FROM BLEMISHED MERCHANDISE

“Take for example, the topic of trumos and maasros.  Since maasros do not go to the Kohen nowadays, but are destroyed, the farmers don’t tithe from the regular produce but from the blemished produce which can’t be sold. In principle, every delivery from a farmer to the wholesale market consists of a box with spoiled merchandise for maaser.  The mashgiach in the wholesale market takes the box, tithes from it, and stamps all the merchandise as tithed.  The problem is that there is no supervision over where that box came from.  There could be many problems.  Maybe it was taken from produce that was already tithed, or there are parts of the Arava (valley region that extends from the Dead Sea all the way to Eilat) some of which are considered Eretz Yisroel and some parts which are not.  If the maaser was taken from the part not in Eretz Yisroel, or the farmer happened to gather up some defective merchandise from produce that was already tithed, the entire merchandise is tevel (produce that has not been tithed).  The prohibition of tevel is very serious; you can’t play around with it, it is Biblically derived.  So it is important to use top hechsherim.

“We, and R’ Landau’s hechsher, for example, do not tithe in the wholesale market.  We tithe at every single store from the merchandise designated for sale, after we ascertain that the maaser is being taken from the same produce.”

When it comes to arla (the prohibition against eating the fruits of the first three years’ growth), it’s even more complicated.  The modern ways of growing things make it very hard to track those trees that are halachically considered to be in their first years of growth.  Trees that come ready from the nursery or that are given various injections to speed up the growth, present a slew of halachic problems.

An entire section of the presentation is devoted to arla.  “You see,” he said, pointing at a picture which looks like an apple tree laden with fruit.  “It’s full of fruit like an older tree but it is only two years old.  Only an agronomic inspection can discover this.  Now, picture this tree in an orchard of older trees.  Under the standard kashrus supervisions they suffice with sample checking, examining a tree here and a tree there. If it’s okay, they declare the entire section kosher.  There are poskim who are lenient but we don’t rely on this.  At the Eida HaChareidis and R’ Landau, there are expert agronomists who go from tree to tree, checking each one.  When they find a new tree, it is marked with a tag and our mashgiach destroys what it produces as long as it’s arla.”

HALF A TREE ORLA AND HALF A TREE KOSHER

In the next picture he shows me, I see a pomegranate tree.  “Do you see something unusual here?” he asks me.  I don’t notice anything except for some branches coming out of the ground with pomegranates on them.

“A pomegranate tree has the tendency to grow branches down into the ground which then sprout back up from the earth.  That is considered new growth.  Here (he points), these three branches on the tree are kosher while the fruit on this branch is arla.

“Another widespread problem is everything associated with transferring things from the nursery to the field.  There are poskim who consider the period in which the tree is in the nursery as counting toward arla under specific circumstances.  However, for the most part, there is no supervision to see that these conditions are met.  Moreover, these are complicated dinim and the owners of the nurseries don’t necessarily know how to do it right. This is why, at superior kashrus agencies, we do not count the period of growth at the nursery; instead, we start counting the age of the tree from when it is planted in the orchard.

“The wax which coats the apples is something we have to look out for.  Usually, this wax is produced from the secretions of various insects.  The average kashrus agencies rely on lenient views in the poskim which allow the use of insect secretions.  At superior kashrus agencies, we are particular about using artificial wax which is manufactured out of kosher materials.”

***

“For us, Shmita lasts four years.  You cannot make it through Shmita without exacting and detailed planning several years prior.  We start setting up our systems two years before Shmita and still, the agricultural market is so volatile that in the end, it all depends on siyata d’Shmaya (heavenly assistance).

“Throughout Shmita we see miracles and wonders.  Two shmitos ago, for example, we prepared everything two years in advance, we closed deals with farmers in the Gaza Strip who were going to supply us with most of the merchandise during Shmita. We were all set with the supervisory system and everything was arranged.  On Rosh HaShana, the second Intifada began and the crossings to Gaza were completely sealed.  All business deals were off.  But Hashem did not abandon those who observe Shmita and suddenly another unexpected avenue opened and we were able to arrange produce throughout that Shmita year.”

The advance preparations begin in the fifth year when Badatz representatives, together with the farmers, develop a plan for the crops of the upcoming year for the purpose of increasing the yield of the sixth year as much as possible.  The produce of the sixth year is generally used for industrial food products like flour, spices, canned goods, juices, etc., while the produce of the seventh year is used as fresh produce.

FOOD PRESERVATION

“In the sixth year, we also prepare a big stock of hard vegetables like carrots, potatoes, and onions.  With the proper refrigeration conditions, some of it can last for half a year and more.  So during the first half of the Shmita year, when it comes to hard vegetables, we can still supply produce from the sixth year.”

Four main possibilities are open to the consumer who wants strictly kosher fruits and vegetables during the Shmita year: produce from the sixth year, produce from outside Eretz Yisroel, gentile produce, and Otzar Beis Din produce.  Produce from the sixth year is just that, produce grown in the sixth year.  Produce from abroad comes from various countries and from parts of the Arava and Eilat which are not halachically part of Eretz Yisroel.  Gentile produce is the produce that resulted from the work of a goy and which grew on land that belongs to a goy.  Otzar Beis Din is produce that grew in the seventh year and ownership was transferred to beis din.  These fruits and vegetables cannot be sold in the usual way; only as part of defraying the costs, i.e. the payment is not for the fruit itself but for the costs of packing and distribution.  The produce from Otzar Beis din has the sanctity of Shmita and must be treated accordingly. 

The Badatz HaEida HaChareidis does not deal with this fourth category.  “Otzar Beis Din consists of so many details and we cannot guarantee that the customer will treat it with the proper sanctity, so we simply don’t deal with it.

“The best option, we think, is produce of the sixth year.  When that gets used up, we try to import produce.  The last choice is gentile produce.”

THE ARAB FARMER
WHO TURNED OUT
TO BE JEWISH

Although gentile produce is the last choice, most of the efforts of the department are in this area.  There are three main challenges when it comes to gentile produce.  The first is to check that the land is actually owned by a gentile.  The second is to check that the farmer is actually a gentile.  Third, close supervision in order to avoid fraud.

“Checking out the ownership of the land is sometimes a complicated business,” says R’ Bergman.  “We have a special team that deals with this.  We check the old Turkish land registry (Tabo) and ancient registries.  Sometimes, it’s an ancient deed and then we need to verify and crosscheck the facts.

“We once signed with an Arab who claimed the land was his. But when we checked, we discovered that just weeks before, his land had been appropriated by the government who wanted to make a highway there.  The highway is still in the planning stages and will only be paved in a few years.  Throughout these years, the farmer continues to work the land as usual, but the land actually belongs to the government.

“Or, for example, land owned by a gentile woman which reached up to the road.  We discovered that the area of the road which belongs to the council is actually much wider than the paved part.  We took precise measurements and disqualified all the rows close to the road.

“One time, we signed an agreement with a family from Chevron.  They are a large family of farmers that grows a wide variety of vegetables.  We discovered that the mother of the family is Jewish who converted to Islam years ago.  All the farmers we negotiated with were Jews.  This is why all these things require careful and professional checking.”

TECHNOLOGY IN THE SERVICE OF KASHRUS

Another problematic area which R’ Bergman and the supervisory crew contend with on a daily basis is attempts at trickery.

“I’m not going to generalize, but some of the Arab farmers or merchants show a tendency towards trying to play tricks,” says R’ Bergman cautiously.

“One time, one of our mashgichim entered a large field of pumpkins.  As he walked, he happened to kick a pumpkin which rolled like a ball.  He kicked another one and it also rolled.  This aroused his suspicion.  He investigated and found that the grower had bought pumpkins from a Jewish farmer on the cheap and scattered them about his field, thinking we wouldn’t notice.

“In another instance, a mashgiach entered a banana orchard.  He went deep inside and noticed a large number of banana clusters covered in mud.  Once again, it turned out that they had been brought from somewhere else.  The mashgiach disqualified the entire field and at that time, there was a Badatz banana shortage.  Since then, by the way, we put a seal on every bunch separately while it’s still on the tree.

“In another instance, a mashgiach entered an orange grove and noticed piles of oranges that had seemingly been plucked right there.  But with his sharp eye he noticed that the type of orange in the crates was not the same as the oranges in the field.  He disqualified the whole batch.

“Whenever we catch and disqualify produce, we are also indirectly teaching the farmers that fraud does not pay.

“Our team of mashgichim and supervisors go out every day.  Sometimes they are in sensitive areas from a security standpoint.  We send along an armed security guard with every mashgiach. We also have armored vehicles for the mashgichim.  In addition, as the Rebbe taught us to use technology for holy purposes, we also try to use the most advanced technology to protect kashrus.”

When R’ Bergman speaks about technology, he is talking about an array of technological aids that his department uses.

“See here, this is a kosher Smartphone which is approved by the vaad of rabbanim for communications devices.  It is connected to a GPS.  When a mashgiach goes out to the field, the satellite immediately triangulates the exact spot and sends all the pertinent information about the location.  Afterward, the mashgiach enters the relevant data and it is all immediately updated at a central database.

“The farmers are given a small camera which they must wear all day. This camera sends a live feed via internet to the oversight center.  We also use cameras attached to hovercraft that transmit the images online on a regular basis to the control and oversight center of the Eida HaChareidis.”

The control center is located in a large office in Yerushalayim.  Photos of what is happening in the fields are constantly appearing on giant screens.

“One time, we noticed via the cameras, that one of the farmers was bringing into his field cartons that were a color slightly different than the cartons in which he packed his produce.  At that time, the price of mehadrin cherry tomatoes was up to fifteen shekels a kilogram versus the tomatoes from the heter mechira which cost a third of that.  The farmer thought he’d be smart and he bought a lot of cherry tomatoes from Eretz Yisroel and thought he’d sell them as his own merchandise at the higher price. We caught him with the cameras when he tried to smuggle in the merchandise.”

HECHSHERIM THAT ARE MEHUDARIM

I asked whether he had a problem supporting Arab farmers in Eretz Yisroel.  He said, “It’s a problem and we do it only when there’s no choice.  We really try to use that as a last resort.  Even when we work with gentile produce, we have an order of priorities.  We have a lot of Druze or Bedouin farmers in the Galil and the Negev. Then we look for farmers in the quiet areas that are not considered hostile.  It’s only when we have no choice that we enter deep into Chevron, Sh’chem, etc.”

To conclude, I asked what is the difference between the superior kashrus agencies of Badatz Eidah HaChareidis and R’ Landau as compared to the other kashrus agencies.  He said:

“Although one doesn’t wish to go about tooting one’s own horn there are essential differences.  The first is in the area of halachic standards and the second is with regard to supervision.

“There are often differences of opinion between poskim about certain cases.  When it’s a dispute, we always pasken stringently. Even if there are prominent poskim who are lenient, we pasken according to the stringent poskim.  Under the regular hechsherim, they pasken leniently whenever possible.

“As far as the hashgacha itself, sometimes people say to me, ‘It said “yevul nochri” (gentile produce) or “yevul chutz la’Aretz” (diaspora produce) and that’s just like saying “kosher.”’ That’s ridiculous.  No G-d fearing person would suffice with the word ‘kosher’ and even ‘kosher l’mehadrin’ without a serious organization that stands behind it.

“Even when it says ‘yevul chutz la’Aretz’ or ‘yevul nochri,’ the question is, says who? How much is the kashrus agency supervising? To what extent do they rely on the farmer? How many mashgichim are there in the area?

“We have nearly a hundred staff members when comparable departments in agencies that are less particular hire less than a third that number.  That means the supervision must perforce be intermittent which allows room for errors.  This is why I tell whoever asks me, to only use hechsherim that are superior even for fruits and vegetables.”

 

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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