Going into the Shmitta Year
Lawrence reflects on the meaning of the Sabbatical Year and SPNI's special activities
This Rosh Hashana saw the beginning of the shmitta or sabbatical year. According to Leviticus 25:1–7, every 7 years the Land of Israel is to be left fallow for a year, giving it a chance to rejuvenate. This commandment is one of the foundations of environmental and sustainable thought in Judaism. This means that from this Rosh Hashana until next Rosh Hashana (Sept 2014-Sept 2015) religiously observant Jews consider all fruits and vegetables grown in Israel as holy, creating several obstacles for agriculture and for SPNI in our Community Garden projects.
To ensure early Israeli agriculture did not collapse in the early years of the mass immigrations, Rabbis created the concept of ‘Heter Mehira’ where agricultural land could be temporarily sold to non-Jews for a year as a kind of legal loophole. Heter Mehira is still used today by farmers. In modern agriculture, hydroponics is also deemed a way around this problem as the plants are not being grown in the Land.
SPNI is a part of the “Shmitta Israelit” (Israeli Shmitta) coalition of national organizations under the auspices of Teva Ivri (Israeli Nature) to promote all the concepts of shmitta as a way of reflecting on Israel’s societal values. Even Israeli politicians are getting involved, with MK Ruth Calderon promoting a special fund to help families get out of debt, (another tenet of Shmitta).
Utilizing guidance from Machon HaTorah v’Haaretz (the Institute for Torah and the Land of Israel) SPNI has been helping our 100+ Community Gardens adapt to the laws of shmitta.
As previously mentioned it is forbidden to grow crops in the land of Israel during the year. SPNI is helping the Community Gardens prepare flower beds that are not ‘in’ the Land. These flower beds have been newly built with a layer of nylon at the bottom creating an impermeable layer between the flower beds and the soil. The flower beds also have walls and a roof to ensure their total separation from the Land. Over the summer, SPNI ran workshops in Beer Sheva, Haifa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to show any interested local gardeners how to make these special flower beds out of cheap and easily available materials. Over 150 people attended these workshops.
During shmitta, according to Jewish tradition, the land reverts to its original state without an owner. It follows that produce grown also has no owner. The Community Gardens have embraced this idea by advertising, in the community, specific times where anyone is welcome to pick produce and take it home with them, even if they have no other connection to the project. This sharing creates a positive community atmosphere, encourages more people to eat healthily and helps promote the Community Garden.
Disposing of Waste:
As fruits and vegetables grown in Israel are considered holy they can’t be thrown in the garbage with normal waste (this includes those which were grown last year and picked this year). To get around this problem most Israelis simply throw away their shmitta produce in either a separate garbage bag or use the ‘brown bin’ that is used for organic waste collections. SPNI’s Community Gardens are taking advantage of this need by advertising their composting services and gratefully accepting donations of organic waste from local families, which is then used to fertilize the soil. Most Israeli municipalities are moving towards separate garbage collections for organic waste and the shmitta year is the perfect chance to get more people to adopt this practice.
The shmitta year is also an opportunity to think about consumption. As all produce is considered holy it is natural that we think about how much of it we buy in our weekly shop and prepare for each meal so food doesn’t spoil or quantities of left overs aren't just thrown out. As part of our preparation for shmitta all the irrigation systems in SPNI’s Community Gardens were rechecked and recalibrated to make sure that just the right amount of water is being used for each plant, to reduce wastage.
The shmitta year has also given us a chance to think about new projects. As part of our partnership with Shmitta Israelit in SPNI’s Community Garden, we’ll be running study sessions in the Community Gardens and enabling people to grapple with religious and secular Israeli texts, about concepts such as environmentalism, consumerism and sustainability.
Inspired by a TED talk, SPNI will grow plants inside and plans to place dozens of plants in 50 kindergartens near Modi’in. According to research carried out in India, the plants will significantly improve the quality of air within the school by removing dust and other contaminants while increasing the amount of oxygen in the air. Our hypothesis is that the improved air quality will boost the children’s development while helping inspire the students to learn about nature.
Although shmitta is commonly thought of as being entwined with the Land of Israel, it is also an opportunity to think about our relationship with the planet, how much we consume and a chance to try new things. I hope you will join me in my new year’s resolution to use it.