Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

3 Ellul 5761 - August 22, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Observations: OU Gives Kashrus Certification to Heter Mechirah Products
by Betzalel Kahn

The American Orthodox Union (Union of Orthodox Congregations of America -- the "OU") kashrus certifier has approved the use of spices grown at Kibbutz Sedeh Eliahu in the Beit She'an Valley, a kibbutz whose agricultural products became a focus point of discussions on issurei sefichin during Shevi'is after its fields were sold through the Chief Rabbinate's questionable heter mechirah.

A recent article in Kosher Today, "the official publication of the kosher food industry," (7/31/01) reveals that various products manufactured in Israel and imported to the U.S. with OU certification "did not adhere to the strictest standards of Shmitah" and include sefichin grown based on the heter mechirah.

It is surprising that the OU, one of the U.S.'s leading kashrus organizations, which has been trying to earn the trust of the chareidi public recently, is responsible for bringing issurei sefichin onto the tables of thousands of unwitting customers. Yet OU has not even bothered to notify consumers of the problems to at least allow those who are aware that gedolei Yisroel have determined that the highly questionable heter should not be taken seriously to avoid these prohibited products, most of which are marketed to Jewish consumers in the U.S. (Some kashrus organizations are careful to mark a product "heter mechirah" if some of their products are sold relying on that approach.)

The organization's US spokesman confirmed the reports, offering a peculiar explanation: This year's heter mechirah was a response to "unusual hardships" resulting from the Intifadah in the West Bank. He said that the OU's policy is based on "rabbinical edicts" that allow the sale of individual properties during the shmittah year and also hold that the Beit She'an area may be outside the borders of Eretz Yisroel. This is another "heter" that the Chazon Ish rejected outright.

Last week we contacted the OU representative in Israel, who was confounded by our questions and even asked that his name not be published, saying he is compelled to follow the directives he receives from OU management in the U.S. He claimed Sedeh Eliahu is an isolated case. "None of the products marketed in Israel under OU certification rely on the heter mechirah in any way. Furthermore, even these products are only marketed outside of Israel."

But do you admit that there are spices grown under the heter mechirah?

"Sedeh Eliahu does not rely on the Chief Rabbinate's general heter mechirah, but arranged a special mechirah of its own. All of the field owners sold the fields to Arabs on an individual basis, and not through the Chief Rabbinate. The Israel Land Administration also approved the sale to non- Jews. To the best of my knowledge the sale was initiated by Rav Whitman of Tnuva."

Why didn't you print a notice on the labels of products that make use of the heter mechirah?

"Because they are not sold in Israel."

But many consumers may be unaware of the problem.

"First I'd like to say that our inspectors made sure all melochos deOraisa were performed by non-Jews. Actually this is a very, very good question, but I did not make the decision or initiate it, and I was opposed to the whole concept. [The decision not to mention the reliance upon the heter mechirah] was the idea of those who decided to do the whole project. They thought that since they held it was permitted, there was no need to publicize it. In my opinion that was how they saw it."

But do you agree that this is a serious michshol for the chareidi community, which is careful not to buy products that rely on the heter mechirah?

"I don't know. You write whatever you want to write. I'm not pleased over this. To say that it was done recklessly is not true. After the gezeira was issued we tried to limit the damage as much as possible. The truth has to be said: this had no effect on what was produced here, but the exporters claimed that if they had to stop marketing the products abroad for an entire year, they would be forced into bankruptcy. They tried to market the products without OU certification, but were unsuccessful."

Rabbonim and public figures said that the fact that a kashrus organization like the OU places a michshol lorabim regarding issurei sefichin is a cause for great concern. Such a decision to export forbidden products is particularly disturbing during this shmittah year, during which we have seen clear signs of siyata deShmaya in struggles by shomrei Torah to enforce directives issued by maranan verabonon shlita.

"The argument that the OU avoids selling [these products] in Israel is ridiculous. There is no heter to eat such sefichin outside of Eretz Yisroel, and in fact to some extent it could pose a more serious michshol to Jews in the U.S. and Europe who are less aware of the halachic problems associated with produce grown during the shmittah year," they said. They added that all those responsible for this breach should be condemned for their actions and advised that it seriously compromises the kashrus- observant public's perception of the OU.


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