Happy New Year: Israeli Lands Sold to an Arab

Rabbi Yosef. They say he's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. One day he says ridiculous things and the next day he does intelligent things.

Land sale for the Sabbatical Year. It's called a legal fiction. And it's good enough for me.
Ovadia Yosef hosts 'sale' of land to Arab for shmita year
By Yair Ettinger, Haaretz Correspondent

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the highly influential Sephardi rabbi, publicly backed a controversial land sale of 2 million dunams Tuesday to meet the religious law of shmita, obliging farmers to let land lie fallow for a year, a requirement that begins next week under the Jewish calendar.

Traditionally agricultural land is sold symbolically to non-Jews for the period during which cultivation is forbidden - which Jewish law calls the sabbatical year. The Jewish New Year, which begins Wednesday, marks the beginning of a sabbatical year. The nominal sale is meant to allow farmers to keep on cultivating agricultural land throughout the sabbatical year as the land technically is not theirs.

Yosef, former Sephardi chief rabbi and spiritual leader of the Shas party, hosted in his Jerusalem home the symbolic sale of 2 million dunams (approximately 500,000 acres) of Jewish-owned land to an Arab man from Abu Gosh near the capital.

The chief Ashkenazi rabbis - headed by the leader of Israel's Lithuanian non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox community, Rabbi Yosef Sholom Eliashiv - are opposed to the practice of symbolic land sale. The detractors regard the symbolic sale as a way of dodging religious obligations. The Ashkenazi rabbinical establishment is therefore attempting to deny farmers who participate in such a sale kashrut certificates for their produce.

Eliashiv's followers are also lobbying Israel's chief rabbis to oppose the symbolic land sale. If they succeed, Israel might experience a severe shortage in locally produced kosher produce, costing farmers untold sums of money.

Ovadia Yosef's son, Rabbi Avraham Yosef, who attended the bill of sale's signing, told Haaretz that his father had "saved the country" by sanctioning the sale. However, Ovadia Yosef did not attend the actual signing.

The discontent over the symbolic sale resulted in its being conducted for the first time since the founding of the state outside the Chief Rabbinate Council's offices. Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar were not present at the signing.

The sale at Ovadia's home was the last of a succession of token transactions involving the Israel Lands Administration. In total, non-Jewish partners "bought" approximately 1.75 million dunams of state-owned land, plus some 30,000 dunams of private plots for some NIS 71.5 billion. The buyers paid a down payment of several thousand shekels, to be returned next fall.

The affair has also reached the High Court of Justice. Last week, the court demanded the Chief Rabbinate Council find a solution that will allow farmers to keep on cultivating land without losing their kashrut certification.

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