Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

9 Tammuz 5760 - July 12, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Countdown to Shmitta 5761

By Udi Mor

Shmitta is Already Here

An Interview with Rav A. Cohen, Shmitta Director at Shearis Yisroel

Advance planning is the byword of kashrus supervision. For example, from the special arrangements that are necessary for one Pesach until the next one, and during all the intervening months, sources for raw materials must be located and approved, production runs must be planned and prepared for, distribution and marketing must be studied and plotted, needs must be monitored and preferences anticipated.

This is never more apparent than during the run-up to a shmitta year, when the complicated logistics of supplying kosher produce to a burgeoning shmitta observant community during the approximately two years that the various shmitta restrictions affect the ordinary channels of food production must be tackled and successfully negotiated.

Ascending the stairs to the offices of Shearis Yisroel on Bnei Brak's Rechov Chazon Ish, I felt as though I had been propelled forwards in time. The streets outside were bustling with preparations for Purim and, on a few balconies, the first signs of the imminent approach of Pesach were even noticeable. On the desk belonging to Shearis Yisroel's manager, Rabbi Yekusiel Dershowitz however, a calendar for 5761 lay open, already packed with closely written notes, lists, contracts and agreements for dates throughout that year. The fax's beep announced the arrival of what was the third request from a well-known provider of shmitta produce for Shearis Yisroel's supervision.

Rabbi Dershowitz noted the widespread desire on the part of the Torah public to benefit from Shearis Yisroel's high standard of supervision, and he cited the daily calls to their offices from avreichim inquiring about the progress of their preparations, as evidence of this.

While Rabbi Dershowitz examined the newly arrived fax, I put a question to Rav Cohen, "Have you learned from the experience of previous shmitta years?"

Answer: Our first step has been to locate large, well established suppliers, who will be able to meet the countrywide demand for Shearis Yisroel produce. At the same time though, we've chosen to work with several different suppliers in order to prevent a price monopoly. This is one of the things we learned from the last shmitta.

As with every shmitta, we made it clear to the suppliers that the profit margins could not be as high as during ordinary years and the truth is that they were somewhat taken aback by this. However, we can already report on plans to build warehouses in three central locations that will have cheap and easy access.

Q. Will you also be reaching the areas outside the large chareidi centers?

A. This is a critical issue for us, since Shearis Yisroel was established in order to serve communities of bnei Torah scattered all over Eretz Yisroel. We undertake to supply produce to any location in the land.

Supplies for Shmitta

Q. Rav Cohen, what is your area of responsibility?

A. My job is to implement our numerous requirements "in the field" and to ensure that our supervision is complete and that we are in full control of what is being done, while at the same time paying attention to public opinion. Our public is alert to every detail of kashrus. Be'ezras Hashem we will be setting up a special phone line for shmitta inquiries, through which people will be able to have their questions answered.

Q. Shmitta is synonymous with high prices for fresh produce and much of the community will be very hard pressed to absorb the extra expenses. What is Shearis Yisroel's Vaad Hakashrus doing to bring prices down?

A. We explore every possibility of making things easier for the suppliers, to avoid any mishaps chas vesholom. At the same time, we are preparing to lower expenses, so that the final price will be reasonable. However, it is important to remember that in order to maintain the highest possible standards of kashrus we cannot lower our standards for the sake of the price, just as we don't economize with any other mitzvah. Sometimes, it is simply not in our hands.

One of the possibilities which we have begun to implement, which can be made public at this time, is importing produce from those areas of Jordan that are chutz lo'oretz according to all opinions. Several weeks ago, Rabbi Dershowitz and I met the chairman of the Farmer's Association of one of Jordan's central areas. Jordanian agriculture is very advanced and large tracts of land are cultivated. On the other hand, our trade with Jordan is not very developed and for their part the Jordanians are very interested in upgrading it.

It's important to realize that Jordan is a very important crossroads, through which produce from the entire Middle East passes. The Vaad Hakashrus plans to send a delegation to Jordan shortly, to examine kashrus arrangements there.

Our meeting with the chairman of the Farmer's association was friendly and I recollect two interesting anecdotes. We explained to the chairman that he would be unable to market any tomatoes in Eretz Yisroel without a seal of kashrus. The Arab, who was unfamiliar with the procedures, asked in all innocence, "Does every tomato need a seal?"

When we explained why we were only interested in areas in the interior of his country, we unthinkingly blurted out that the east bank of the Jordan is actually Eretz Yisroel. We immediately caught our mistake, which could have been very costly in more ways than one. Under some pressure, we hurriedly apologized and retracted. However, the Arab was not taken aback.

"You're right," he told us. "It really is Eretz Yisrael. In this area of Jordan there are villages with genuine Hebrew names, such as Yabuka, from Ma'avar Yabok and Arnona, from Nachal Arnon."

Q. What else is in the pipeline?

A. We are planning on holding a meeting with senior officials in the Palestinian Authority.

Q. Do you intend to import from other countries as well?

A. Yes. Our suppliers are in contact with fruit importers regarding the import of all types of fruits from chutz lo'oretz.

Q. How are you coping with the legal difficulties involved in importing foreign produce, as a result of pressure from Israeli farmers to limit foreign imports?

A. We are in contact with the Ministry of Trade and Industry over raising the import quotas. We arranged a meeting between the fruit importers and Knesset members Rabbi Avrohom Ravitz and Rabbi Moshe Gafni from UTJ, so that they can determine how and what pressure to exert upon the Ministry of Agriculture in order to get them to grant higher import quotas for next year. We don't expect to score all that highly in this game but everything depends on siyata deShmaya. We are aware of the heavy pressures exerted by the farmers of Eretz Yisroel upon the Ministry of Agriculture to prevent import permits from being issued and, in ordinary years, they are quite justified. And whatever the outcome, Shearis Yisroel has no intention of letting down the Israeli shmitta observant fruit growers. We'll be setting up an otzar beis din for them to market their produce.

The Ministry's Preparations

In a communique to Yated Ne'eman, the Ministry of Agriculture stated that the issue of shmitta is being taken very seriously. The deputy director of the ministry's planning authority, Mr. Yerachmiel Goldin, who is a traditional Jew, is dealing with plans for the upcoming shmitta. Goldin reports that the issue was discussed in the aforementioned meeting between the chareidi Knesset members and the Minister of Agriculture. He states that the ministry has a definite order of priorities and that by virtue of its policy of ensuring supplies of produce to all the State's citizens, without exception, the shmitta observant community will not be neglected.

First, Goldin says, as it did in the previous shmitta, the ministry will support Israeli produce grown by gentiles for shmitta observers by increasing their water allowance, amongst other ways. If this does not yield sufficient produce, the ministry will allow produce from Gaza to be channeled to the shmitta observers. If there is still a shortfall, the ministry will allow imports from Jordan, on the basis of international treaties, again to be earmarked for the chareidi market. Last on the list of contingency plans is importing from other countries with preferential tax conditions, subject to the Law of the Protection of Natural Produce. (Israeli law does not forbid importing, but ordinarily tax regulations make this an expensive option.)

In addition, farmers who leave their fields fallow during shmitta will benefit from a ministry subsidy, Goldin says, noting that last shmitta, the ministry allocated five million shekels for approximately one thousand farmers who did no work on their land at all. A "modest" subsidy, as Goldin put it, will also be paid to farmers who raise crops on detached substrate material inside hothouses. According to Goldin, the ministry's plans have been communicated to the various kashrus supervisory bodies.

Yerushalayim Opts for Stringency:

Excerpts from an Interview with Rav Shlomo Shmuelevitz, Director of the Yerushalayim Rabbinate's Department for Mitzvos of the Land

"We operate according to the directives of HaRav Y. S. Eliashiv," notes Rav Shmuelevitz at the outset, "through his confidante HaRav Yosef Efrati [who serves as the department's rav] who, whenever any query crops up, seeks his consent before we move on. This is the guarantee that we don't stumble, for `whoever seeks the counsel of sages . . . ' as well as the channel for siyata deShmaya in all that we do. After the decisions have been made, they arrive on my desk for implementation."

Q. How are you preparing for shmitta?

A. When we began work around seven years ago, we had four and a half shops. Although the department was founded eight years ago, it was only during shmitta that things gathered momentum. We decided to set up a shmitta committee and Yerushalayim, the city with the largest population in the country, proclaimed a shmitta without the heter mechiroh.

Q. What are the shmitta committee's goals today, in view of last shmitta's experiences?

A. We have set ourselves two main goals. Last shmitta, we had a problem with kedushas shevi'is, and gentile produce. There is a well-known difference of opinion between the major poskim as to whether kedushas shevi'is devolves on produce grown on land in Eretz Yisroel that is owned by a gentile. For many years, the Yerushalayim community conducted itself according to the opinion of the Beis Yosef, that there is no kedusha on gentile produce.

On the other hand, in accordance with the ruling of the Chazon Ish, the modern chareidi settlements follow the opinion of the Mabit, that such produce does have kedusha, and therefore may not be marketed normally.

The department, which followed the local custom, tried also to accommodate the many bnei Torah who wished to follow the Chazon Ish's opinion and displayed signs in the stores stating the source of the produce: "From chutz lo'oretz," or "From the southern arovoh", etc. (HaRav Eliashiv holds that the northern arovoh may be Eretz Yisroel and that produce should not be obtained from there, but that the southern part is definitely outside of the boundaries of Eretz Yisroel.)

Naturally, in order to avoid the controversy and the problems which crop up according to the two differing opinions, we are interested in importing most of the agricultural produce from unambiguous chutz lo'oretz, such as the eastern part of Jordan, or other areas on the periphery of the Middle East, or even further away. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the peace agreement with the Hashemite kingdom might only have come about to aid the observance of the mitzvah of shmitta.

More on Supplies

Q. How do you deal with the lack of enthusiasm on the part of the Ministry of Agriculture to import produce?

A. Last shmitta, the doors were slightly opened to imports: some apples and some onions. With a little effort, we could achieve a situation where most of the fresh produce is imported. However, in order to do so we need import permits from the ministry. This is the great problem faced by all the kashrus organizations. According to a trade agreement with Jordan, no permit is needed for up to fifty thousand tons of imports and taxes are also not levied on that amount. If we obtain the massive import that we plan, it will solve the problem of kedushas shevi'is on gentile produce in accordance with all opinions. We are moving towards our goal, with the assistance of the chareidi Knesset members.

In effect, the wholesaler is the importer. We certify that he is under our supervision and the Ministry of Agriculture grants him a license that diverts the imported produce wholly to the population that consumes it.

Q. Rav Shmuelevitz, obtaining produce from gentile owned land is quite a procedure . . .

A. For sure. The shmitta committee's first task is to obtain a list of the farmers with whom the wholesaler will be working during shmitta. Naturally, their ownership of the land must be investigated thoroughly. Only after it has been ascertained without a doubt that the land is truly owned by a gentile, will the wholesaler receive our permit to work with a particular farmer. During the harvest, our mashgiach is present until the loading. Another mashgiach waits in the warehouse. Although all agree that the prohibition against sefichin does not apply to a gentile's produce, new questions arise with which the shmitta committee has to deal.

Q. For example?

A. For example telling a gentile to do a task that a Jew is forbidden to do, which is a problem with shmitta just as it is on Shabbos.

Our second objective is to improve the prices. For many people, shmitta is associated with higher prices. We want to lower costs, such as procedural expenses, by cutting down on unnecessary activities and the like. We aim to reach a large enough market to make it impossible for farmers to bluff us over the prices and ultimately, we are striving to attain a price level for the produce that is that same as in an ordinary year. Who observes shmitta? The kollel avreichim who don't have enough money for food. True, Chazal say that Shabbos and Yom Tov expenses are separate from the year's budget but that is something which everybody must act upon for themselves. Where it concerns others, one has to try and help.

Widening the Sphere of Mitzvos Hateluyos Bo'oretz

Q. Will all the outlets that are currently under your [department's] supervision continue to be so during shmitta?

A. My guess is that they will be. Take, for example, the chain of Co-Op stores in Yerushalayim. Last shmitta, they carried produce that was cultivated relying on the heter mechiroh. Negotiations are currently underway to make the chain fully mehadrin. There are twenty-seven branches across the city, including those in Mevasseret Tziyon and Ma'aleh Adumim [both of which are actually separate towns some distance away from Yerushalayim proper, albeit within the city's urban area]. The chain's mashgiach is carrying out a virtual revolution in kashrus and the chain of stores now has mehadrin certification. I hope it will retain this standing during the approaching shmitta, to the benefit of tens of thousands of the city's inhabitants, who are meticulous about their mitzvah observance.

Q. Rav Shmuelevitz, you mentioned Ma'aleh Adumim and Mevasseret Tziyon. There are not too many members of the community that is meticulous about keeping mitzvos hateluyos bo'oretz over there, are there?

A. I must say that you've touched upon the vital issue. Our department's task is not only to take care of the individual consumer but to further the actual mitzvos as well. The Chazon Ish ztvk'l, was not only concerned with seeing that individuals kept the mitzvos of shmitta and avoided transgressing its prohibitions. He also saw to it that shmitta itself should not be forgotten and that its reputation should be enhanced.

This is the gist of a letter he wrote to Reb Chaim Ozer zt'l. "The question of shmitta has already been settled. The Chief Rabbis have already circulated their notices about the mechiroh . . . and they absolve themselves with the excuse, `It can't be helped . . . ' " he wrote sadly.

We see that there is independent value in increasing the mitzvah's honor and broadening its influence. To this end, under the guidance of our leaders, the Department has undertaken to increase observance of the mitzvos hateluyos bo'oretz, even among those who do not seek stringencies in this area. If we are instrumental in getting people who are not even aware of what mitzvos hateluyos bo'oretz are, to purchase mehadrin products from the shelves of their local stores and thus to refrain from prohibitions, that is certainly an important and a unique goal in and of itself.

Q. Rav Shmuelevitz, success is always measured in relation to the level of the original aims. How will you define success at the end of shmitta?

A. I'll answer by quoting something that HaRav Efrati repeats time and time again, at every opportunity: "The test of our success in shmitta depends upon how many more Yidden we bring into the fold of those who observe shmitta according to halocho.

Green Leaves, Clean Leaves, Kosher Leaves: A Visit to the Hothouses at Gush Katif

What was nominally a routine visit to inspect the hothouses at Gush Katif in the company of the rabbonim of Shearis Yisroel, yielded firsthand experience of life alongside the Palestinian Authority, as well as some exquisite impressions of the way Torah scholars translate Torah study into practice.

When I met up with Rav Cohen of Shearis Yisroel at an out-of- the-way road junction in the south, I started experiencing the military atmosphere that pervades the region surrounding Gaza. A helicopter fleet flew overhead. More and more army vehicles were visible on the roads. Suddenly, the typically southern looking landscape was punctuated by barbed wire fences and army outposts.

The tension peaked when we arrived at the Kissufim crosspoint, where there are several manned army watchtowers, a lot of barbed wire, several massive concrete roadblocks and many soldiers on alert. The police guard who stood at the roadblock was stopping every vehicle and inspecting the credentials of the passengers. No chances were being taken; even a chareidi appearance may be nothing more than that. A few long tense moments passed as the guard examined my identity card as no other official has ever done.

When Rav Cohen told me, "Travel here is without a seat belt," the fear dug in deeper. As we continued, large sign posts loomed up, with legends only in unintelligible Arabic. They informed us at least, that we were now inside the area of Palestinian Authority.

The view changed somewhat. There was more habitation but all of it Arab. Houses and tents stood around haphazardly, in no particular order. An Arab in a long white kaffiyeh sat by the road. Many of the yellow cabs that carry Palestinian registration plates drove past. The arrow pointing the way to the Arab town of Khan Yunis had been erased from the Israeli signpost, informing Israeli drivers that they are not advised to continue in that direction.

More outposts, watchtowers, barbed wire, armed soldiers and army vehicles with blue lights. A Palestinian factory. Flocks of sheep, some with a shepherd and some without. Wagons pulled by donkeys. Every Israeli here is protected by something -- by concrete, by a shield of wire netting against stone throwing -- while the Arabs walk about freely.

We passed through the embryonic Palestinian State and on leaving, stopped at one last roadblock. We were checked, but not our I.D. cards. Then we saw the Mediterranean. A beautiful desert scene of palms along the beach, sand dunes, the deep blue of the sea and the bright blue of the sky that fills most of the vista, and . . . hothouses. Multitudes of hothouses, all covered in shining white plastic, that are a dominant feature of the landscape, whether one likes it or not.

As we drew nearer, we could see that the hothouses spread out over many, many dunams, for as far as the eye could see, and that they were surrounded by an electrified barbed wire fence. Here again, the Arabs go about freely without a trace of fear or concern, while the Jews stay inside their settlements behind fences and guarded gates.

Yet despite life's bleak outward appearance, the place is filled with a different kind of vitality. The vast majority of the insect-free vegetables that grace the tables of Yerushalayim and Bnei Brak, are cultivated here. What was it that brought the venerable HaRav Chaim Shaul Karelitz, av beis din of Shearis Yisroel, and the elderly HaRav Yosef Tzvi Dunner, leader of London's Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, all the way out here?

Demonstrating Controls

When we arrived at the Glatt Alim plant, on the settlement of Netzer Chazani, the rabbonim were in the laboratory, listening as the mashgiach explained the principles upon which the cultivation of the produce is based.

The date had been written in black marker on an erasable Formica board: Today is yom sheni of Shabbos Vayakheil, the twenty second of Adar I, 5760. All along one wall, on a raised table top, rested a wide variety of vegetable leaves soaking in bowls of water. On another wall was a giant map of the hothouses.

The group of visitors, comprised of HaRav Karelitz, the elder HaRav Dunner and his son HaRav Eliezer Dunner of Bnei Brak, a member of the Shearis beis din, HaRav Tzvi Weber, rav of Neve Yaakov in Yerushalayim and a member of the beis din of Shearis, Rav A. Cohen, Rav A. S., Shearis Yisroel's expert on hothouse cultivation. Rav Mordechai Kneppelmacher, the local Shearis Yisroel supervisor, was standing next to a lit table top, examining the green leaf in the mashgiach's hand. HaRav Eliezer Dunner was translating the mashgiach's commentary into English for his father.

A large notice hangs above the laboratory, slightly to one side: Rejected Produce. Avner Bitan, Glatt Alim's manager, explains to me that produce that has been declared unfit is brought to this point, where it is removed from its plastic wrapping and usually ends up as animal fodder.

After this inspection, the rabbonim were invited to Bitan's office for refreshments. Amusingly, some fresh lettuce leaves and pieces of green onion had been laid out next to the biscuits. Throughout the visit, Bitan was tense, listening carefully to any and every request the rabbonim made.

From here, the group continued by car to Netzer Chazani's detached substrate hothouses that are specially designed for shmitta. HaRav Karelitz sat down in the front seat of the car but he appeared to be bothered by something and kept turning around as if checking something. Then I understood.

As soon as he saw that the elderly HaRav Dunner was to sit in the back seat, he opened the door, jumped out of his seat and asked that HaRav Dunner be seated there, which the latter however, adamantly refused to do. Although HaRav Dunner was only in Eretz Yisroel for one week, primarily to supervise matzo baking at Yad Binyomin, his grandson, who was chaperoning him, told me that he'd felt obliged to devote one day to Shearis Yisroel's affairs.

At the hothouse, Rav A. S. took the mashgichim aside and began discussing with them a series of problems. I saw HaRav Karelitz bending down to examine the plastic sheeting that covers the entire floor area and the elder HaRav Dunner checking the covering inside the growing basins. The plans for the approaching shmitta have already been examined on previous visits and have been approved.

Growing Away from the Ground

We travel on to Moshav Gadid, to the farm which belongs to Yossi Yemini. As we drive past more sand, palms, sea and sky, an unusual blend of desert and beach, the rabbonim talk in learning. Maurice, Shearis Yisroel's driver, asks whether we'll need to say bircas hagomel upon returning to Bnei Brak. In the distance, looming above all the hothouses like a threatening giant, is the Arab town of Khan Yunis. "Here and in Hevron live the greatest Jew-haters," Bitan will remark to us on our journey back.

Avner Bitan introduces Yossi Yemini to HaRav Weber as "a top notch agriculturist." Yemini, who takes credit for many important developments in detached substrate cultivation -- a planting machine is one example -- enjoys full secrecy regarding his methods, as promised by the mashgiach. It is very warm inside the hothouse. The detached substrate is spread out over tables, so there ought to be no problems with holes. HaRav Karelitz removes his coat but firmly refuses all offers to take it from him.

With the tour of the hothouses over, the senior rabbonim, with the exception of HaRav Weber, prepare to continue on to Yad Binyomin. Rav A. S. has been noting down problems that have cropped up while inspecting the hothouse together with HaRav Weber. Rav Cohen, Rav Kneppelmacher and the mashgichim all remain too.

A call comes through to Rav Cohen's mobile phone, something that has been happening all the time. This time he hands the phone to me, smiling mysteriously. It is Maurice the driver, who is driving with the rabbonim. There is something he has to tell me: HaRav Yosef Tzvi Dunner is very excited about the visit.

Later on, HaRav Dunner's grandson dictates to me a Hebrew translation of what his grandfather said. "I have been involved in kashrus for sixty years and I have never yet come across such an innovation in achieving maximum avoidance of bug infestation. What a great thing it is that such a wonderful invention, that prevents Klal Yisroel from stumbling over this serious and frequent obstacle, has been developed in our day. Had I not seen it myself, I wouldn't have believed it."

And HaRav Dunner's grandson adds his own admiring observation: ". . . the way they see everything through to the end!"

Rav A. S. settles it with the grower that the concrete pathway along which the carts travel, will be covered with a substance that prevents any communication of nutrients from the ground. Avner Bitan tells me that he has received blessings from HaRav Karelitz twice. "I have already made my profit," he comments. Later he explains what that profit is: the second blessing was "that my children should grow up steeped in Torah, and not in my occupation."

Following mincha in the laboratory, an halachic discussion gets underway in the manager's office. This is when the process of translating halocho into action can actually be viewed. The Glatt Alim personnel sit and listen carefully to Rav A. S., who is occasionally backed up by HaRav Weber, and they note down what he says.

In summing up, Shearis Yisroel promises that written directives will be issued to all the hothouse owners, via Rav Kneppelmacher. At my request, HaRav Weber adds that he has been favorably impressed by the visit. "They have come a long way, and show that they are well-prepared," he says, while his satisfaction shows on his face.

Keeping Insect Free on the Mann Farm: An Interview with Farmer Chanan Mann

Reb Chanan bends down and picks several leaves from an eggplant bush that is growing wild on his farm. Without speaking, he takes me to his laboratory, takes a magnifying glass out of his pocket and switches on the light that illuminates the entire table top from underneath. "Now you'll see what we've got," he says. He places the magnifying glass over a cluster of black specks in the center of the leaf and orders me: "Look!"

What I saw there, magnified, was alive, moving, not very pleasant and present in very large numbers.

Moshav Basra, a sleepy, upper-class settlement whose most spiritual element is actually in its fields, is situated between Netanya and Ra'anana, in the heart of the fertile Sharon region. The settlement's first farm, the Mann Farm, supplies insect-free vegetables, which Chanan Mann began cultivating ten years ago, combining the most advanced agricultural procedures with guidance from the bastion of agriculture according to halocho, HaRav Yosef Efrati, of the Beis Hamedrash for Agricultural Settlement According to Halocho.

"You don't need to be a genius in order to grow insect-free vegetables," Chanan tells me, "just to acquire some knowledge of vegetable growing techniques." Without going into great detail, the basic policy is to prevent virtually every kind of insect from entering the hothouse by using a very fine mesh fabric for the side walls. Each hothouse has two doors, only one of which is ever opened at a time. It is tantamount to cultivation under sterile laboratory conditions.

"If there is a problem as a result of insects getting in on the clothing of a worker, or through a hole in the plastic mesh, we spray," Chanan says. Special stickers in white, yellow and blue, are displayed inside the hothouse. These are colors which attract any insects that may have infiltrated despite all the precautions.

Reb Chanan's family live in Bnei Brak. Before he started with vegetables, Chanan raised geese on the farm. The automatic feeding machine was operated by a Shabbos clock and the eggs laid on Shabbos were of course not collected that day. On Shabbos the farm's gate is closed and the Thai workers who live there today know that any problems in the irrigation or fertilizing systems that crop up on Shabbos, will have to wait until nightfall, even if it means that an entire twenty- four hour period will elapse.

Without going into all the technicalities, Chanan gives me an idea of the dimensions of the problem by telling me that a single louse lays six thousand eggs a year. "We work keeping our finger on the pulse," he says.

One might have expected that given the staggering number of Torah prohibitions that can be involved in consuming a single infested vegetable (four, five, or six per individual insect, and one vegetable can be home to many hundreds), every observant Jew would have switched to buying the specially grown produce as soon as it was introduced. But this is by no means the case.

Chanan tells me that he once "caught" a neighbor with a cauliflower that made no pretensions to being insect free. Chanan wanted to prove to his neighbor that his purchase was definitely not what he thought it was. He removed one of the leaves and banged it several times onto a piece of paper. The paper filled up with insects.

However, Chanan's neighbor remained adamant. "My grandmother checked vegetable leaves, my mother checked vegetable leaves and I'll also check vegetable leaves," he insisted. Chanan however, refers to this as an ostrich attitude and says that people inexplicably ignore the prohibitions against eating insects. It is scandalous that in chareidi-populated areas, vegetables that are not insect-free can still be found on sale today.

Chanan takes out a list of vegetables that, under ordinary conditions, never escape infestation. The list includes green onions, broccoli, cauliflower and sweet corn. Even though the climate in chutz lo'oretz is less favorable to infestations, it is still virtually impossible for these items to be completely clean.

The Rav's Directives

The Mann Farm operates under the supervision of HaRav Moshe Vaye, who is known as an expert in preventing and removing insect infestation and who pays the farm a fortnightly visit. Although the plastic wrappers in which the produce is sold mention that it should be rinsed in water, HaRav Vaye recommends that to make quite sure, the vegetables should be soaked in either plain or soapy water.

Many irreligious Jews also prefer buying the insect-free produce, either because they are repelled by the thought of consuming insects or simply because it is universally agreed that strictly kosher food is of higher-than-average quality.

One day, a nonobservant lady called Chanan up and told him that she'd bought something grown on his farm and that it had been terribly infested. Aghast, Chanan asked her to describe the insects to him. It transpired that she was looking at nothing worse than particles of the earth in which the vegetable had grown.

All the various systems on the Mann farm, such as the irrigation, fertilization and spraying systems, are computerized. When the need arises, insecticides are sprayed from large overhead fans. Chanan stresses that they try to avoid spraying as much as possible and that it usually doesn't have to be done very often. The sterile growing conditions are maintained until the marketing stage.

Shmitta is Close

Preparations for the upcoming shmitta year are underway at the Mann Farm as well, based upon HaRav Eliashiv's directives, as conveyed by HaRav Efrati. The principle involved is a simple one, which was agreed to by HaRav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt'l, and ylct'a, HaRav Eliashiv and HaRav Wosner.

The produce is grown on what amounts to an unholed plant pot (otzitz she'eino nokuv). In order to employ this heter, the poskim insist upon five basic conditions being met: first, that there are no holes in the surface upon which the produce is being grown; second, that the cultivation takes place inside a building, which in this case is a hothouse. The other three conditions involve gentiles: both the vessel inside which the produce grows, and the substrate upon which it rests, must belong to a gentile and finally, that all procedures involving agricultural work that is forbidden during shmitta by Torah law, be carried out by gentiles.

An additional requirement is that there be a double layer of plastic separating the plant pots from the ground. "Here," Chanan tells me, "there are three layers anyway, for a technical reason, so there is no problem at all." During shmitta, one third of the Mann Farm's hothouses will be shifted to their shmitta mode.

We sat in the laboratory, which is the room used by the mashgiach. Chanan explains what the mashgiach's job is. "First," he says, "we sort the vegetables long before the mashgiach arrives. Even the gentile workers know that infested vegetables are discarded. The mashgiach's first task is to take samples from every corner of the hothouse. He then checks them on the illuminated table, using a special magnifying glass. Any queries that arise are sent on to Yerushalayim, to HaRav Efrati's beis hamedrash. A negative answer can mean throwing away an entire batch, and Chanan says, "It happens every week."

All of the Arab and Thai workers who are employed on the Mann Farm know the halachic guidelines of the work they are engaged in and they observe them just as the farm's owner does. The foreign workers know that every new batch of produce coming from the hothouses needs to be hung with a special red sign that declares it not tithed, until the mashgiach arrives and removes it.

When one of the Thai workers came inside during our conversation, Chanan, surprisingly, spoke to him in fluent Thai. Thirty years ago, he explained, he moved with his family to Thailand, where his father was hired by the king to establish a farm. It took Chanan two-and-a-half years to master the language and his knowledge helps him today in his dealings with his workers. For their part, the Thai workers return to the Mann Farm year after year, because of the treatment that they can only hope to receive from a Torah observant employer.

The Mann Farm owns one hundred and thirty hothouses spread across the fields of Basra. Leafy vegetables and tens of different kinds herbs form the bulk of their yield.

In a brief visit that we paid to one of the hothouses, I was able to see how it was being converted for shmitta use. In one of the hothouses, I suddenly came across a solitary willow tree. With a smile, Chanan explained that it is a very special kind of willow, which he grows for his own use on Succos!


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