Smitten With Shmitta


18 Iyar 5768
Lag b'Omer
May 23, 2008

Dear Friends and Family,

One never knows what the day will hold around here. Just before the official Pesach holiday season ended, we joined our friends the Millers on a spontaneous trip to the North. Up Highway 90 to the western shore of the Kineret, we picnicked by the water's edge then wound our way into mountainous vistas and past Tsefat. The drive itself was stunning but our destination was to a beautiful tzimmer near the kever of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

A tzimmer, Yiddish for "room," is actually a 1-2 room cabin with kitchenette and always, always, a jacuzzi (sometimes in the living room!). They dot the country on moshavim and farms where each usually provides a unique amenity. These particular tzimmerim are nestled on the side of a hill on a family farm with a wonderful view of the valleys below. Originally owned by a real Israeli pioneer and bequeathed to his four sons, the farm is flourishing with orchards, vineyards, cattle and a new winery. Each brother contributes his own area of expertise in the running of the farm.

The four tzimmerim are run by Hillel, the only son we've met, and his wife, Elana. Hillel's brother built them, and the furniture, inside with interestingly hewn wood. A talented ironworker, too, he appointed the doors with hand forged handles, framed the mirrors, and fashioned iron furniture. Another brother is the vintner and yet another cares for the cattle. Hillel oversees the orchards.

Besides vineyards for their winery, they have pear, apple, nectarine, apricot, olive and cherry trees. The morning of our visit, the cherries were anxious to be picked. That day in the orchard overlooking a valley of trees still promising fruit, I discovered what the color "cherry red" really is. Bright jewels hanging on branch after branch, tree after tree, their leaves whispered in the warm breeze, enticing us. Hillel encouraged us to pick as many as we wanted. And so we did.

But first, we tasted: We said the bracha with so much more awareness than usual, "pri ha etz" —yes, right off an etz in Israel! And the Shechechiyanu that encapsulated more than our gratitude to taste a season's new fruit: this new experience, fruit of the Land eaten on the Land, fruit with kedusha. This was shmitta fruit; it has an inherent holiness. We had to treat the entire cherry properly according to the halacha. But oops, after relishing a half a dozen warm sweet cherries, what where we supposed to do with the stems and little pits collecting in our hands?

Back in Elul, tshuva was in the air but shmitta was on everyone's tongue. Tshuva is a private process, but shmitta…well, once in seven years many experts arise, qualified or not, invited or not, to answer our questions. And provoke more questions. Restaurants, caterers, florists and gardeners make their stand on observance known to their customers. Classes abounded, books and articles circulated and were discussed. I learned many new terms such as kedusha sh'vis and sefichim. I was told how the Bais Yosef and the Chazon Ish rule on buying fruit of arab owned land within the borders of Israel, and what the minhag in Jerusalem is. Do we buy Otzar Beis Din? Heter Mechira? Nochri?

What I really wanted to know was, could I continue to nurture my baby houseplant, bought in July just to liven up the place a bit? (yes) And can I water the large outdoor potted plants and pick David's peppers growing in the courtyard? (yes and yes, with rules) Besides that, just tell me where to shop and I'll be fine. But it was not so simple. After being here four months, I was finally forced to become fluent in the various Hechsherim-a daunting task.

Produce planted and cultivated in Israel on land belonging to a Jew during the seventh year is not kosher. And produce not cultivated on the Land during the shmitta year, but harvested according to halacha, has kedusha. Not only did I have to figure out where and what to buy, but I had to figure out what could have its peel and core discarded in the trash and what I needed to dispose organically. Once I figured out which shops in the shuk I could patronize, the bananas came in season and threw me for a loop.

During the shmitta year, the landowner lets his fields lie fallow. He also unlocks his gates and allows anyone to enter, relinquishing his ownership to the One Above who really owns everything we "have." Those of us who are not farmers can also observe this long-desired mitzvah. Many of us have flowers, fruit trees and peppers that we cannot fertilize or prune to encourage growth; we post signs allowing entry to our property for anyone to come and pick (but we can specify hours and ban anyone who abuses the system). It seems like we are loosing, but truly, we gain so much.

It's awe-inspiring to be living here in a shmitta year. So many people: farmers, restaurateurs and vegetable stand owners simply volunteer to take a potential financial loss to observe this Sabbath for the Land. Consumers, too. Our selection is limited, food costs more and the quality is markedly diminished. Among those intent on observing shmitta properly, there is a shared sense of sacrifice for this mitzvah. A shared love of Torah, a shared surrender to Hashem.

Especially for the farmers. Stories of Shmitta miracles abound. One banana farmer had fields, adjacent to non-shmitta observing banana farms, which were the only ones in the area undamaged after a hard freeze last January. While 80% of this year's potato crop was wiped out due to the freeze, most shmitta farmers, who planted their potatoes earlier than usual in order to get them in before Rosh Hashanna, had heartier, more mature plants that were able to survive the cold. Another farmer observes shmitta for the first time this year after his crop was wiped out with a rare disease 7 years ago, when he refused to refrain from planting. But the farmers do not do this counting on miracles.

They walk away from export contracts, pay their released workers a stipend, and honor their debts on farming equipment. This is huge. For farmers like Hillel, profit margins are small. Their work is fixed in time: sow and plant, pray and irrigate, spray and cultivate. Harvest. Shmitta. As connected as Hillel is to his father's land, he is connected first to the Borei Olam. You see it in his very countenance, in his intelligent and humble smile. Farming his Land is how he serves Hashem. Not observing Shmitta is no more of an option for him than not observing Shabbat.

The holiness of Shmitta, like the holiness of Shabbat, is fixed in time whether we tap into it or not.

I read this majestic thought from the 16th century Torah sage Rabbi Moshe Alshich, who said that Shmitta is a time when "holiness is reflected like a light from Above and settles in the ground. It is the strength of this holiness that produces the fruit and not the natural energy of the ground. Therefore you are not the owner of the fruit. It belongs to all of Israel, since they all share equally this Heavenly Holiness."

This is our home. And the Jew is its fruit.

We brought those precious cherries home with us and served them at our Shabbos table for dessert. They became a source of extra brachos and fed a lively discussion. Having food with kedusha shviis for Shabbos added to the kedusha of the table.

Several months ago, I harvested David's peppers and stashed them in the freezer, too awed with the responsibility of their kedusha to make zchug as I would usually have. Now that I feel initiated, I'm excited about the prospect.

So, once again I am off to the shuk to get some cilantro and garlic for zchug along with the rest of the vegetables for Shabbos. It's a beautiful morning, who knows what will happen.

Come home soon,
Renee and David

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