Commentary: The Seven-Year Hitch
I’ve never been much of a gardener. To be fair, I haven’t had a lot of opportunity. I did grow up in a fairly bucolic Long Island, New York, town, but the grass was kept neatly trimmed and the azalea bushes pruned by the custodian of the synagogue where my father was the rabbi.
He also planted tomatoes for us, because he felt that the community leader shouldn’t have to suffice with the tasteless supermarket variety.
But when my husband and I moved into our own home in Jerusalem two years ago, I vowed to turn the ample, L-shaped yard into a Garden of Eden. In my dry little corner of the Middle East, I wanted an English-style cottage garden, with bushes of rosemary, clumps of thyme and colorful wildflowers. My husband dreamed of a small green patch where he could relax under the blue skies. And my stepdaughters debated for months which fruit trees to plant.
Two years later, we had our garden. My husband proudly beheld his green grass as well as a double hammock for napping; the girls had strawberries, passion fruit, lime and nectarine trees, and I happily weeded my herbs, ferns, vines, grasses and flowers.
And then came shmita. every seventh year, beginning on Rosh Hashana, Israelis face a sabbatical year when Jewish-owned land has to remain uncultivated.
Six years you may sow your field, and six years you may prune your vineyard, and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord, you shall not sow your field, or prune your vineyard (Leviticus 50: 3-4).
In our pious neck of the woods, the admonitions came thick and fast. You can’t water, fertilize or weed during shmita. Any work that’s intended to enhance the land, preparing it to produce vegetation, is forbidden. But—and here’s the loophole—if the purpose of the work is to protect what has already been planted and grown, then certain things are permitted. So I hurriedly tossed fertilizer into the ground before Rosh Hashana, hoping I wasn’t wrecking my tulip bulbs. New trees can’t be planted 44 days or less before Rosh Hashana of a shmita year. We just squeezed by that one. But I was able to drop some lettuce and zucchini seeds in the ground before 5768 and shmita began.
I discovered that more than one friend was taking this shmita thing very seriously. As a result, when we mowed the lawn, I was a little nervous that some neighbors might wonder why we were tending it during shmita. And I took care not to offer ripe strawberries to anyone who might take offense.
In general, I’m not the type of person who worries about others judging my level of observance. I keep kosher and go to shul every Shabbat. When a meat fork ends up in the dairy drawer, I don’t call my rabbi, but shmita is an area outside my field of knowledge.
It turned out that “experts” were everywhere. The gardener who installed our sprinkler system published the 31-page “The Layman’s Shmita Guide to Gardening.” There was a shmita group online on Facebook, Shmita 5768 (but most of the members are in Canada). So I headed to my local nursery, where Tomer, a traditional Yemenite and expert on all things green, agreed to be my shmita guide. I learned that, like many aspects of Jewish law, there are those who define shmita one way, and others who observe in 612 other directions.
First of all, it is absolutely permissible to eat the produce from your own garden; it just can’t be sold for profit. Hence the many loopholes created for Jewish farmers so they don’t lose all their profits during shmita.
Since the end of the 19th century, when there was a critical mass of religious Jewish farmers in Israel, some rabbis permitted a heter mekhira, permitted sale, of land. They would transfer the land to non-Jews, rendering it unholy and available to be worked for profit. This meant farmers wouldn’t go without income for an entire year and consumers could obtain fruits and vegetables. But there have always been more exacting interpretations of shmita. There is something called kedushat shevi’it, or the holiness of the seventh, which means that any leftovers from produce have to be disposed of properly. I learned that one when I was buying bananas at a local supermarket that caters to haredim, and a sign identified the fruit as “holy.” A fellow shopper told me to take all produce leftovers, wrap them in a plastic bag and then let them rot, at which point it can be thrown out. Sort of like composting, but not.
All this made me sweat over the technicalities of the situation, and I breathed a sigh of relief when the lettuce leaves began peeking through the soil and the zucchini flowers started blooming before Rosh Hashana, rendering them shmita-kosher. I was also happy to learn that the dead plants in my planters and window boxes can be replaced over the course of the year; it seems that shmita is a sabbatical for the actual earth, not potting soil. And when it comes to observing the laws of shmita waste, I am considering starting a compost heap, because that makes sense in the wider scheme of things.
From a spiritual and ecological perspective, I like the idea of shmita, of giving the land a rest every seven years, like the pause I take every Shabbat. It makes sense to let my garden—and the rest of Israel—rest, so it can produce healthy, viable growth.
Still, it is somewhat aggravating to wait an entire year before I can plant new cucumbers, tomatoes and any other fruit or vegetables. And I continue to have discussions with friends over whether one can weed the dandelions wreaking havoc in the flowerbeds. But rather than argue, I think I will contemplate that one while stretched out in the hammock.