With 5775 being a Shemittah year, that imbues vegetables and fruits from Israel this year with a sanctity that requires some extra attention in the kitchen.
There are various halachic methods that are used to handle Shmittah, or alternatively, circumvent it entirely.
One method is “Heter Mechira” which is similar to selling Chametz for Pesach, where the fields are temporarily sold to non-Jews. This popular method, used by the Israeli Rabbinate, is considered controversial by some, and generally unacceptable by many Hareidim.
A second and preferred method is “Otzar Beit Din”, where a religious court takes control of the field for the year, but then the vegetables and fruits have Shemittah sanctity and extra care must be taken with them.
Hareidim generally prefer a third method, where they simply buy fruits and vegetables from Arabs in Judea and Samaria. It circumvents the Shemittah issue, and makes the fruits and vegetables “Shemittah-free”, though Hareidim miss the opportunity and mitzvah to eat Shemittah food as a result.
Hareidim designate this method “Mehadrin” – though there is a lot of room to disagree with that designation.
(There’s a fourth option, which was made popular by Gush Katif. Vegetables are grown in hothouses, in pots detached from the ground. It’s an expensive way to grow vegetables, but the vegetables don’t have Shemittah status, and it supports Jewish farmers in Israel. Due to the cost, it is not extensively implemented).
Of course, adding Kosher L’Mehadrin to anything guarantees its price will go up, and Shemittah-free vegetables and fruits bought from Arabs are no exception.
Shemittah-free “Mehadrin” vegetables and fruits can easily cost two or three times more than standard “Heter Mechira” fruits and vegetables.
And that leaves room for disreputable people to try and make an easy and illicit profit.
Agriculture Ministry officials accidentally uncovered a major Arab fruit and vegetable ring this week that was taking advantage of the price difference, according to a Makor Rishon report.
Many Hareidim who thought they were buying “Mehadrin” Shemittah-free vegetables from Arabs in Judea and Samaria – simply weren’t.
The Arabs vegetable network was buying both Heter Mechira vegetables from the open market, as well as vegetables from unknown sources, without any health or agricultural supervision or certification.
The Arab network was stamping their products with fake Israeli Rabbinate certificates and selling them as “Mehadrin” to restaurants and stores who wanted or required “Mehadrin” Shemittah-free vegetables.
The vegetables were distributed throughout Israel to the Hareidi market.
At best, the Hareidim have been eating “Heter Mechira”. At worse, they’ve been eating vegetables grown using unpurified sewer water or pesticides from unknown and unsupervised Arabs fields.