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not be published, saying he is compelled to follow the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
"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
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.