Six Years Until the Next Shmittah

Do you remember what a farm was like in your childhood imagination? Mine was the idyll. I had all kinds of romantic notions since I grew up in suburbia, where the strip mall met the farmland. Summer Sundays meant a trip to Baughers to pick peaches, even though the rest of our fruit came to our table in supermarket plastic. We’d pile in the brown station wagon and within minutes be in the lull of the “broccoli trees,” a cruciferous border of white oak that protected the placid stretches of unbroken, rolling fields from humanity’s urban sprawl. I might have thought the view was pasted on the car window, such was its unrelenting sameness, punctuated only by the occasional red silo. We drove down Taneytown Pike, passing exits to Finksburg, Pleasant Valley, Dundalk. When we got to the exit for Boring, MD (I’m not kidding, look it up), we’d have already been immersed in the motley medley that made up our excursion soundtrack: John Phillips Sousa, Uncle Moishy, WBAL talk radio. Farms were in reach, but known only in the vaguest, most sanitized sense, as occasional destinations where we could feel even more wholesome than the already pretty wholesome lazy Sundays of Orthodox Jewish Baltimore in the 80s. The reality is you had to pass Boring in order to get pretty much anywhere, and as kids, that suited us fine. 

This was the pre-Trader Joe’s era. Sure, there was plenty of produce and natural bounty to hunt and gather from store shelves, even for the kosher consumer, but limiting the sum total of our sustenance to what the supermarket offered felt very…economical, efficient. Sterile. Now there’s a profusion of options that bring the farm directly to your grocery shelves, but back then we’d slap on dungarees and head out for a pick-your-own afternoon. It was an opportunity to reconnect to sun and dirt. It was a chance to see nothing but orchards for miles around, and that somehow felt really good to everyone.

We would head to one of three local farms open to the public. We would pick fruit, buy apple butter, drink cider, sit on picnic blankets, pet goats. As a child, the line between Old MacDonald and reality was vague. It certainly seemed that the book drawings of Wilbur the pig prancing towards the County Fair after a good buttermilk bath, or the enchanting scenes scripted by James Herriot, were true to life. These regular outings were a twine-and-burlap thread winding throughout an ordinary parochial childhood. All of the bale mazes, pumpkin sculptures and 4-H contests scattered throughout my formative years reinforced my sense that farming life must be the sweetest, most straightforward life of all. 

Torah study from a young age fortified that mythos. So many of the scenes in the Torah involve the outdoors, the fields and animals. So many of the mitzvot are linked to harvesting crops, tending to fruiting trees, preparing grain, and caring for and properly slaughtering animals. Our holiest day, Shabbat, is described as a day where we abstain from work, first and foremost fieldwork and animal husbandry. Our holidays are all intimately linked to the harvest cycle.

I grew up in my oxford-and-plaid three-piece religious school uniform believing along with my classmates that were we ever to have some land in Israel, then we would keep a corner of our fields available for the needy to harvest (peah). We’d make sure not to go back to collect any sheaves of grain that had been forgotten (shiche’cha) or had inadvertently fallen from our baskets (leket), and of course we would redeem our firstborn donkeys with a lamb or goat! (The donkey would have to be redeemed even if we were farming outside of Israel, but I’m not sure that we third graders sensed that distinction.) It went without saying that we’d time sabbaticals to coincide with shmittah, the final year of a seven-year cycle, where it is forbidden to plant, harvest, prepare or improve the land of Israel. Not only would the land rest, but we would observe that cycle along with her.

Well, here I am, briskly walking toward middle age, getting deeper and deeper into the realities of modern farming in the Holy Land. Unsurprisingly, there really is quite a lot of pastoral serenity and romance in the farming life, very much in line with those childhood memories (minus the red silos and 4-H contests, though my neighbor does show her purebreds in national competitions). We have quite an extensive poultry population. I can’t quite say “production,” because at this time we’re still only consuming the eggs and the birds per our own family’s need, and haven’t branched out to a broader market. There’s the regular egg collection, the feeding and daily care of the chicken, turkey and quail, the in-house slaughter and processing that defines our lives as real-deal farm-to-table. There’s the upkeep of the olive grove, and soon we’ll be starting on the aquaponics greenhouse to grow vegetables and farm fish. 

Where the haze of romance dissipates into a more rooted, mature and real love is in contending with the reality of 21st century farming, especially for a Jew in Eretz Israel. We do not practically observe the mitzvot of peah, leket and sh’checha – not because we’ve opted out, but because they are no longer relevant. The poor do not gather in the fields, scythes and baskets in hand, waiting for landowners to grant them access. Shmittah, too, has many work-arounds, including otzar bet din and heter mechira, both mechanisms that I won’t get into here but which pose halachically acceptable options for farmers to keep planting and harvesting as if it wasn’t a shmittah year. Once we have the aquaponics greenhouse up and running, shmittah won’t be relevant to the large bulk of our enterprise, since the strictures of shmittah don’t apply to vegetables raised on grow beds. 

Shmittah has come and gone, and there was no need to take a sabbatical, since the type of farming that we do doesn’t involve planting or harvesting annuals. True, we were limited in tree care, and the suckers and weeds surrounding the olive trees just about engulfed them. That was an exercise in restraint, since there were so many gorgeous days that begged us to get to work and tame the growth. But other than that, our shmittah observance was passive. I barely felt the limitations of shmittah any more than other Israeli Jews. 

This is because for the non-”traditional” farmer, meaning those of us who no longer grow fruit and vegetables straight from the ground, shmittah has gone the way of many other old-world practices. Most of the mitzvot of shmittah are “thou shalt nots,” the לאווין that govern industry involving encouraging plant growth or harvesting annuals or perennials. But for the non-traditional farmer, which is the route more and more new farmers are choosing throughout the world, these strictures aren’t the ethos that guide a more conceptual shmittah observance. For them (and for us), the positive command to “have the land rest” evokes all kinds of creative ideas as to how we might actively observe the cessation of working the land. 

(While all of those לאווין constitute a prohibition of עבודת הגברה, meaning that we are prohibited from certain agricultural-related work, the positive mitzvah of shmittah is an imperative that Eretz Yisrael – at least those areas that are under Jewish ownership –  itself rest. And lest we think that the mitzvah is a call for us to sensitize ourselves to what it means for humans to work the earth, and how we must honor its living biome, keep in mind that shmittah doesn’t apply outside of the Land of Israel. The Chazon Ish even rules that it is prohibited for a Jew to observe the shmittah strictures on land outside of Israel.) 

Back to Baughers, and Wilbur and 4-H ribbons. Now that I know a bit more about farming – now that Ira knows a lot more about farming – are we any wiser, or more jaded, about the mythos of the pastoral? Is farming just like I remembered it? 

Well, it is, and it isn’t. It is different from my recollections because we’re actually in it. We’re invested, in pretty much every way possible, in educating ourselves about all sorts of methods, and putting in a great deal of time and resources into keeping the animals thriving and seeing through this “barn-raising” of sorts. It’s not the spectator sport of my youth. 

And yet, the type of farming we’re embarking on and already involved in maintains much of the romance that enticed me as a child. Since the organizing principle of the farm is to observe how animals, earth, plants, fish and insects might work in harmony to produce food that we can consume, with minimal input but masterful oversight – like a conductor coaxing out the very best from his talented orchestra – there’s a notable emphasis on simplicity, on nature’s processes, on happy animals and healthy dirt. The quiet of my daily routine is like the quiet of Baughers’ orchards. I no longer have the wonder and thrill of a kid in a petting zoo, but I can take as much time as I need to think about the marvelous complexities of briyah which exists as totally separate from humanity.1 (I spend many hours around books or out learning about the human impact in this region since the most ancient times, but precious little of my time involves the natural world, sans people.) Sure, there are charts and timers and feeding schedules and chores that pull us into the conductor’s box at all hours; it is busy, but a serene kind of busy. The simple, peaceful and happy rhythms do remind me of my childhood Sundays. 

“God blessed mankind and said: Multiply, and fill the earth, and conquer it.” Unusual word choice here – “and He blessed them.” Is the blessing for the traditional sense of conquest, implying power, control and dominion? I think here it might mean “mastery.” Evolve to the point where you can master the land, God blesses us, and live in harmony with all of life. Nurture your holy curiosity. Watch how the black soldier fly larvae will feed the chickens and the fish, and how these animals will in turn feed us, and how the most nutritious food that we are providing them – the larvae – is in turn fed by all of our kitchen scraps. Understand the ways of the world, and then: conduct this great symphony with mastery, and conquer the myriad mysteries of briyah, God blesses us. 

Maybe shmittah is an opportunity for all to pivot away from tired routines that dull us to the possibilities surrounding us. Just like Shabbat can give me pause to think in new ways, Shmittah calls us to explore how we might let this miracle land rest a bit from our toil. Give some headspace to thinking about your food sources. Go out for a stroll and focus in on the cacophony of sounds that are constantly present, but rarely appreciated. Maybe start a compost pile. Maybe learn a piece of Torah related to the holiness of Eretz Israel.  

But for those who are trying to coax something out of the land, the abstinence from interference during the shmittah year gave the space to get creative. It provided even more of a push to learn what we could of natural order, of the dynamic interplay of different elements of briyah, and figure out our role as the head of it all. I know this sounds highly conceptual, but it’s really just down-to-earth curiosity and problem-solving. Just like we bring all we gain from Shabbat into our workweek, here’s hoping that the opportunities and lessons provided by the positive mitzvah of shmittah – to figure out our role in the existential rest granted to Eretz Yisrael once every seven years – carry forth into this cycle, and that next shmittah will allow us to look back with satisfaction at years of gorgeous harmonies that we had a hand in overseeing. 

1 What is “Briyah?” It is the entirety of the potential of creation. Once that potential has been completely realized, then Briyah is complete – that’s what is known as the “ketz hayamin,” or the “end times.” It’s a challenge anticipating the end of it all when you are so enraptured with the process of creation – maybe that difficulty is worth discussing, but in another post.  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *