By mid-summer, weeds had taken over my community garden plot in Northwest Washington, D.C. Two sides of my fence had come down.
Callaloo had grown wild on its own. I cooked up some of it and wondered if the food pantry downtown would accept a bag of it. Other plants were diminished to nubs, the work of hungry deer.
I looked over at my neighbor Joe’s plot next door, planted in neat, verdant rows. He and another neighbor should have reimbursed me for getting their soil tested earlier in the spring, but I hadn’t collected.
While this may sound chaotic, it all aligned gracefully with the shmita year, an agricultural sabbatical observed every seven years in Israel. During the year 5775 (which ended September 13), I was a small part of a movement that has recently taken hold in the American Jewish community: For the past year, individuals and organizations in this country have observed shmita—Hebrew for “release”—and been transformed in deep and surprising ways.
In Exodus, God instructs: “For six years you are to sow your land and to gather in its produce, but in the seventh, you are to let it go.” (25:10) The passage continues: “The needy of your people may eat, and what remains, the wildlife of the field shall eat.” (25:11) Later passages in Leviticus and Deuteronomy specify that one can eat whatever happens to grow on the land that year and eat food saved from the previous year—which the Lord assured would be a bumper crop—and that any loans should be released. In the Mishnah, Rambam added that one should not block access to the field by locking or fencing it. (Hilchot Shmita v’Yovel, 4.24)
The commandment to observe shmita only applies in the land of Israel. That observance continues there today, with some agricultural operations practicing it the way the Torah describes it, and others finding work-arounds. In the United States, following shmita principles is not a commandment, but for some it is a way of applying Jewish values to one’s life. I see parallels to the idea of tikkun olam, healing the world, which is interpreted in many ways—such as doing community service and supporting social justice causes.
It wasn’t until 2007, when I was in my twenties, that I learned about the shmita year. It started at the Hazon Jewish Food Conference. There, during Hanukkah, at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut, outdoor educator Nati Passow—co-founder and executive director of the Jewish Farm School—talked about shmita in a keynote. (I didn’t actually attend that session, but I read that speech later.) Passow described shmita as a time when “all land is allowed to rest, all debt is forgiven, all slaves are freed, a year in which there is no private property and resources are shared by all members of the community, rich and poor.” He suggested that this practice, although halachically required only in Israel, could hold relevance for Jews everywhere. He called it “a completely radical idea,” and it caught fire among the conference goers. They weren’t the first ones to think of it; that very year, 2007, was a shmita year, Passow pointed out, and people were already talking about how to observe it in this country.
To get on board for the next one, Passow said, you could start planning now to transform your life by fall of 2014—which seemed a lifetime away. It sounded rather abstract, theoretical at that point.
Hazon founder and president Nigel Savage also talked about this idea during the conference, and it became clear that he was committed to bringing this ancient idea to the surface. Hazon soon announced the Shmita Project, which aimed to raise awareness about the sabbatical year and to make its values relevant and beneficial to today’s Jewish communities.
The practical concept posed an even greater conundrum than the abstract. I thought about the eco-entrepreneurs I met at the conference, who were producing food Jewishly and justly. Would their fledgling businesses survive a year without growing? What about people who didn’t farm for a living? What could it mean for me, living in D.C.?
Still, there was something in the notion that resonated with me. My community, congregation, and family encouraged creative thought and individual expression. Though I didn’t observe a traditional Shabbat every week, I had experienced the flurry of preparation followed by intentional relaxation. I could imagine that on a 12-month scale. A radical release.
Years after Passow’s keynote, Jewish leaders I spoke to still remember it. Inspired by the idea, they had folded it into their lives and work.
Around the time of that Hazon conference, I inherited a community garden plot from a friend. It was a 20-by-60-foot expanse in the patchwork of the largest community garden in the city.
Friends and I shared the responsibilities, kicking off the season with rototilling and planting peas, seedlings, lettuce. Then came excitement and trepidation as the small plants grew. And finally the harvesting, weeding, preparing food, preserving or giving away the excess. When my co-gardeners moved on, I downsized to a half plot and found my solo rhythm. Every summer week had a Weeding Monday and Harvest Wednesday. I experimented with peanuts and anise hyssop, huckleberry and tomatillos. One year, I built a sukkah on my plot and invited friends to visit.
The years varied. One summer, I had so much basil I made pesto every week. Other years, the herbs didn’t fare so well, but I gave away bags of bell peppers and squash.
Even though I was a full-time writer, agriculture—particularly the sustainable kind—became entwined with my identity. I took a side gig reporting on farmers markets. I found myself on seed-catalog mailing lists and an email group for garden geeks. I joined the board of the D.C. State Fair and organized its annual seedling swap. Friends inquired about my garden the way one asks after a child or a new job. When I went out of town, I found garden sitters.
My Jewish knowledge and place in the community also grew. In 2010, my friend Laura and I helped to launch a new Jewish environmental group in D.C. I organized Tu B’Shevat Seders and a Hillel Shabbat focused on local foods.
Meanwhile, Nigel Savage’s newsletter messages about shmita filled my inbox. Hazon published a Shmita Sourcebook, coauthored by Savage, Anna Hanau, and Yigal Deutcher. But I didn’t pay much attention.
Then, in the summer of 2014, Laura (now a rabbinical student) shared a post on Facebook about a shmita ’zine she had put together. I couldn’t resist that throwback to my ’90s teen-hood. I ordered a hard copy. It arrived in all its hand-drawn, black-and-white glory, and I started to read and deliberate. There were lovely ideas about sharing and slowing down in everyday life. But then again, I wondered, if I stop growing food, will my garden community think I was a poseur? Will I feel like I’ve lost an arm?
Somewhere in those photocopied pages, I made a decision. The most significant way I could observe the year would be to release my garden.
My community garden board agreed to my oddball request, as long as I kept my pathways trimmed and paid the annual fee.
Last fall wasn’t too difficult. By now, I had a full-time faculty job, so the kickoff to the academic year kept my mind off garlic-planting season. That winter, I still attended the annual urban gardening conference in D.C., albeit without the urgency to go right home and start seedlings.
By this spring, I felt less like I’d lost an arm and more like I’d shed an albatross. In other years, as soon as I handed in my semester grades, I felt guilty about the garden. Was I neglecting it? Doing enough? With shmita, that guilt lifted. I couldn’t work the garden even if I wanted to! True, at times I missed the daily bike ride out to my plot, the feel of weeds pulling clean from the earth and the flowery-citrus scent of tomato plants. And of course I missed the fresh produce, abundant and surprising.
But other possibilities bloomed in that garden season. I took on more writing projects and supported a fledgling CSA, spent more time with friends, and worked toward a new professional certification.
It wasn’t until later in the year that I would notice how well my shmita aligned with the principles laid out in the Torah and Mishnah: wild beasts, downed fences, debts forgiven. And later still, I saw how broad the larger shmita movement had grown over the past year.
At Pearlstone Center, an agency of the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore located in Reisterstown, Maryland, executive director Jakir Manela embarked on what he calls “a multi-year learning and planning process.” He told me that he remembered Passow’s 2007 talk and went on to make plans for the shmita year at Pearlstone. He attended a Shmita Summit in London in 2014 and hosted another summit and a shmita-themed shabbaton at the center. Over the shmita year that just ended, Pearlstone did an extensive reboot of its on-site farm, including a rest for the fields and selling many of the animals. The staff also reimagined the farm operation, resulting in new positions and shifting its produce away from CSA shares and into the dining hall. Employees also took shmita days—paid leave when they could volunteer with organizations they wanted to support.
At Urban Adamah in Berkeley, California, the agriculture fellows and staff left a sukkah standing after Sukkot last year to represent the sanctuary of the shmita year. The organization hosted a shmita skill share that emphasized food-preservation techniques like fermentation and canning. Director Adam Berman spoke on a number of panels about shmita values and how they apply in contemporary times.
At Wilderness Torah, the outdoor education focus turned to the shmita year and water issues at its annual Sukkot gathering last fall. Founding director Zelig Golden took a sabbatical from his post, leaving Berkeley, spending part of the year in Israel, and “connecting to the land, unplugging from the organization.” Before he left, though, he and his staff discussed how they might incorporate shmita principles into a “year-round culture.” Personally, Golden decided to sell his house and moved to a more rural area of California.
In conversations I had with Jewish sustainable-agriculture leaders, Passow’s name often came up. So, I checked in with him to see how he had observed the shmita year. The Jewish Farm School “happened to be a particularly good place to slow down and reflect,” Passow told me from his home in Philadelphia. The organization had just released operations of its farm at Eden Village Camp in New York when the shmita year started, so the leaders used this time to figure out “what it meant for our organizational land to lie fallow.” That meant slowing the pace of institutional growth and focusing on the local community in Philadelphia. His personal commitment to shmita, he told me, meant not buying new clothes and reducing the number of new purchases for his family. He posited that shmita could also mean releasing psychological debts, like resentment toward others.
A shmita community had emerged. Everyone mentioned the Shmita Project or the Shmita Sourcebook. They also spoke of Yigal Deutcher’s 7 Seeds: A Shmita Manifesto—a lush, poetic argument for shmita spirit and practice. There’s a whole reading list on the topic. Anyone interested could learn and think about this for the whole shmita year, if not the next six years.
Last month, in the home stretch of the shmita year, I went to my community garden and gasped. The weeds had shot up to waist height—not just within the remaining fence, but also in my pathways. I’d waited too long since my last trimming. It was only by some miracle that the garden board hadn’t slapped me with a warning.
Then I greeted my garden neighbors, a husband and wife who keep a beautiful, tidy plot.
“What happened to you?” the wife asked, as if she’d expected me to show up scarred by a terrible accident.
I explained that I didn’t plant this season, something about religious reasons. I watched her face, wondering if I’d made any sense. I had gardened next to these people for years but didn’t know their stance on crop rotation or other agricultural philosophy.
“It’s going to be … ” she began. She motioned toward my garden soil as she searched for the right word. “ … rich.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “I think so.”
Rhea Yablon Kennedy is a faculty member at Gallaudet University.