Fallow-year Wheat is Kernel of Debate over Religion in Israel

The Cabinet grappled Sunday with a new controversy that has split Orthodox and secular Jews and threatens to divide the religious establishment.

At issue is the planned export of much of Israel’s bumper wheat crop to accommodate Orthodox Jews who will not use flour made from wheat grown on Jewish-owned land during “shmita”–every seventh year when the land must lie fallow according to biblical injunction.

Wheat for domestic consumption will be imported, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars to the Treasury, under an arrangement agreed to by Minister of Commerce and Industry Ariel Sharon. But the matter has gone beyond the import of wheat to the broader issue of another Orthodox Jews can force their beliefs and practices on the rest of the society.

The authority of a Cabinet Minister to yield to the demands of a segment of the population and the status of the Chief Rabbinate as the arbiter of religious observance in Israel have also been called into question. The Chief Rabbinate ruled this year, as it has in previous years, that wheat grown during “shmita” could be consumed if the wheat-bearing land was “sold” to a non-Jew. The token sale was originated in 1919 by the then-Chief Rabbi, Avraham Hacohen Kook, to resolve the problem.

RULING REJECTED

But this year, ultra-Orthodox Jews refused to accept the Chief Rabbinate’s decision and threatened to boycott local flour mills. The more moderate Orthodox saw this as an affront to the Chief Rabbinate. National Religious Party Minister Yosef Shapira threatened to leave the government if the Cabinet decided the matter over the heads of the Chief Rabbis.

Sharon told his colleagues that he reached a compromise agreement with the Chief Rabbis whereby wheat grown locally on land nominally sold to a non-Jew will be available, but bakeries which have observed strict “shmita” regulations in past years would have access to imported wheat for their customers.

Shapira was mollified, but Immigration Minister Yaacov Tsur criticized Sharon for yielding to demands by the ultra-Orthodox Aguda, Israel and Shas parties. Legal experts said Sharon’s agreement with the extreme Orthodox bloc contravened the spirit of Supreme Court rulings that prohibit Cabinet Ministers from formulating policy on civil matters to comply with religious laws.

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