- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 20, 2000

MOSHAV AHITOV, Israel Hezi Daniel talks tenderly about his peppers and tomatoes. The 44-year-old Israeli farmer says the vegetables he's been growing for 20 years on a 7-acre farm north of Tel Aviv are among the juiciest and shiniest in the country.

But this year at harvest time, instead of picking them and sending them to markets throughout Israel, Mr. Daniel might let the vegetables rot on the vine.

He and thousands of other farmers have become sandwiched between two groups of rabbis who are quarreling over a biblical decree that says farmers must let their land rest every seventh year, neither planting nor harvesting crops.

Mr. Daniel is not an observant Jew and doesn't think much of edicts laid down in the Bible thousands of years ago. But he lives in the Jewish state, where religious officials sometimes have the power to impose their austere interpretation of Jewish law on a mostly secular society.

In the weeks leading up to the Jewish new year, which begins at the end of this month, some ultra-Orthodox rabbis in positions of power are insisting that the rest period for the land this year, known in Hebrew as shmita, be adhered to more strictly than at any time in Israel's history.

Their decree has created yet another friction point between religious and secular Jews, frequent foes in what has become known as Israel's culture wars. It also has political implications. If enforced, the stricter measure will mark a radicalization of Israel's religious establishment, just as Prime Minister Ehud Barak is pledging to stem the powers of the Jewish clergy.

"For me, any change in the shmita regulations would be a very big blow," said Mr. Daniel, surveying rows of hot houses where he grows 600 tons of vegetables every year. "This is my sole source of income."

For decades, rabbis sanctioned a web of polite fictions to allow farmers to work the land right through the sabbatical year, which is first mentioned in the book of Leviticus (25:3-4): "Six years thou shalt sow thy field but in the seventh year shall be a Sabbath of rest unto the land."

Farmers were allowed to symbolically transfer their land for a year to non-Jews, usually Arabs, in a mass sale organized by religious officials of the quasi-governmental rabbinate. Since gentiles held the deed, rabbis said, it was OK to continue working the land.

At Kibbutz Kvuzat Yavne, a religious community in Israel's southern coastal plain, residents wanted an extra buffer between farmers and the land during shmita. They found it in a $3,000 electronic gadget fixed to tractors that delays the plow mechanisms by a few milliseconds.

"When I push this button," explained Mishael Hayut, who directs most of the community's work, "an electronic pulse is sent to the plough that kicks it into operation."

"So in effect, I'm not the one operating the plow. The gadget is," he said, from the seat of a tractor.

The trouble started a few weeks ago, when an influential ultra-Orthodox sage, Yosef Eliashiv, ruled that the creative solutions were efforts to con God. Shmita is shmita, he said, declaring that no food grown in Israel during the year should be deemed kosher.

Mr. Eliashiv has no official title, and his sect makes up only a small part of the ultra-Orthodox community. But because of his reputation for scriptural wisdom, Mr. Eliashiv's pronouncement reverberated loudly.

Almost immediately, Jerusalem's religious council backed the ruling and threatened sanctions on supermarkets, restaurants and hotels that buy produce grown in Israel.

The council's main weapon against proprietors is its power to revoke kosher certificates, which hang in most businesses where food is sold as a sign to customers that Jewish dietary laws are maintained. Without them, businesses would lose their religious clientele.

To protect the farmers, the Agriculture Ministry has pledged to set up farmers markets in main cities, allowing farmers to sell their produce directly to customers.

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