Gardeners give land a sabbatical, as composting (and other activities) continue

Shmitta, a year of rest for earth, arrived with Jewish New Year, along with opportunities for learning about planet Earth, say permaculturists

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Permaculture and shmitta expert and teacher Talia Schneider (far left) with some students in the garden, before the earth's sabbatical began on Rosh Hashanah 2021. (Courtesy: Talia Schneider)
Permaculture and shmitta expert and teacher Talia Schneider (far left) with some students in the garden, before the earth's sabbatical began on Rosh Hashanah 2021. (Courtesy: Talia Schneider)

Shmitta, the sabbatical for the land that comes around every seven years, officially began on Rosh Hashanah, on September 6, at the start of the High Holiday period.

It’s the seventh year of the seven-year agricultural cycle mandated in the Torah, when most Israeli farmland is left to lie fallow. All agricultural activity, including plowing, planting, pruning and harvesting, whether on a farm or in a private backyard garden, is forbidden, according to Jewish law.

This seventh year is really a law of nature, said Talia Schneider, who writes and teaches digital courses about permaculture and shmitta from her home garden in the ultra-Orthodox town of Telz Stone, outside Jerusalem.

“It’s not just for gardeners, it’s for everyone,” said Schneider, who is ultra-Orthodox, having returned to religion some 14 years ago. “There are religiously observant people who keep it with regard to the food they buy this year and there are secular Jews who keep it because they’re gardeners and it makes sense to them.”

For those who are strict about Jewish law and observance, the year of shmitta adds an entire roster of rules and strictures revolving around which fruits and vegetables can be eaten, on where and how they could be grown, as well as how to dispose of them once a meal is over.

Yet this year of the land’s sabbatical is a process that also adds new opportunities during the six years prior, said Schneider, whose courses and books are available through her Yaar Books website.

This current shmitta year is Schneider’s third since first observing it according to Jewish law, and she closely keeps the practice of protecting seeds and earth, in order to reach the concept of shefa, or “abundance,” every seven years.

Schneider has a few suggestions about how to keep shmitta, beginning with methods for preparing a garden in the six years prior to shmitta, creating growth that is allowed to be picked and consumed during the sabbatical year.

Composting is another way of paying attention to the concept of shmitta, she said, offering a way of properly disposing of the produce during this sabbatical year, while creating a natural fertilizer that can be used next year, when shmitta is over.

In one of her online videos about composting, Schneider talks about her community composter, which includes refuse from her own house, that of ten other families and the study hall in her community.

“The Gemara says that garbage is a blessing for the world,” said Schneider.

She also recommends only buying produce from farmers in certain Israeli regions where shmitta doesn’t have to be observed, according to some of the complex loopholes of Jewish law. Schneider is organizing her own cooperative of shmitta-observant farmers and recommends others do the same.

A gardener by training, Schneider has been teaching permaculture, the philosophy of working with, rather than against nature, for the last 25 years. She discovered the strong connection between permaculture and Jewish agricultural practices, and ultimately became religiously observant some 14 years ago, while continuing to teach and practice permaculture.

“It’s all one thing, that’s being Jewish for me,” said Schneider.

For others, like forager, gardener and illustrator Ilana Stein, this seven-year stretch is a time to let the land rest, without interfering in its processes.

“The way I look at it, shmitta is a time when I give the land a rest, and I let nature enter the house,” said Stein, the illustrator of A Year in the Garden, her series of calendars about the growing cycle.

Forager, gardener and illustrator Ilana Stein (second from left) with her partner and daughters, will be growing house plants as one of her shmitta year projects. (Courtesy: Ilana Stein)

This year, Stein, no stranger to drying her own fruits and herbs that she usually forages outside her Ein Kerem house in Jerusalem, is experimenting with different kinds of growing solutions, including hydroponic plants on water, or vegetables and flowers that can be grown in pots and containers — another loophole in the shmitta set of laws.

“It’s unusual for us to have plants in the house, and ones that aren’t used for food but just for making us happy,” said Stein, who’s focusing on stable plants like cacti and succulents this year.

She’s also growing leafy greens that grow quickly in just a few weeks from seed to leaves, such as arugula and bok choy, and parsley as well.

“For me, there are two processes, the plants that grow in the earth and are there, every year, like trees, and I look at them more during shmitta, that’s a different approach,” said Stein, who seeded her garden before shmitta but is just leaving the sprouts where they are, letting nature “do what it does.”

Her other shmitta adjustment is growing those house plants, something she’s never done before.

“I figured I needed to try that out,” said Stein. “It’s a little easier and closer, like a baby that you raise and worry about their entire environment. It’s very protected and right under your eye, you can see if it needs anything.”

Shmitta activist Einat Kramer thinks of the seventh sabbatical year as a time for people to dedicate themselves to society and community. (Courtesy: Einat Kramer)

There’s another approach to shmitta taken by social entrepreneur Einat Kramer, whose organization, Israeli Shmitta, is a conglomerate of 100 non-profits, educators and groups who are working toward a societal sabbatical of sorts, hoping to make a difference in the Israeli community.

This is the second official shmitta for Kramer, who founded Israeli Shmitta seven years ago, with the idea of encouraging people to take off some time during this enforced seventh year in order to dedicate themselves to communal projects and ideas.

“I saw it as a time to do less running around, to stop and talk about things that are important,” said Kramer.

During the last shmitta, Kramer set up a tent one week each month in a different location around the country, where she picked fruit and vegetables and gave them away in a kind of ad-hoc barter system.

It’s a project that others are now doing this year, creating local lending banks that share professional skills.

“You can bake a cake for someone one week, or fix bikes one hour a week,” she said. “You have to remember why you’re doing something.”

The last year and a half of the coronavirus pandemic changed some of Kramer’s ideas about a societal shmitta, as the lockdowns forced people into a different train of thought about their lives and the “utopia we thought we were living in,” she said. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, however.

“One element of shmitta is that it’s a kind of crisis, a time when you’re supposed to figure out what to do when there’s less to go around,” said Kramer.

Israeli Shmitta is starting this year’s natural sabbatical with a conference at Jerusalem’s Botanical Gardens on October 13, looking at the challenges of these times in Israel and the world. The day-long conference is open to the public.

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