Ein Gedi Botanic Garden

Ein Gedi Botanic Garden
Seek the serenity of a Judean Desert sky in Autumn at the Ein Gedi Botanic Garden

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Song of the Shemitta Year

The commandment to allow the Land to lie fallow once every seven years is one that is observed only in Israel, and not everywhere in the country at that. Eilat is not considered the Land of Israel, nor is most of the Arava.

For new immigrants, however, the advent of the Shemitta year in September 2007 was an exercise in study, scrutiny and steadfast resolve to resist the temptations of the Borochov nursery in Arad.

"You can't plant anything for a year." That was the flat statement that sparked my first interrogation of any Jewish legal authority I could corner.

"What about potted plants? Can I plant something in a pot?" I asked.
"What about transferring a plant from one pot to another?"
"How about taking a cutting and putting it in water to sprout roots?"
"Can I buy a potted plant at the nursery?"
"It's better not to."
"What about plant food?"

Now here is where Israeli ingenuity comes in. Because regular plant food is out for the year, Israeli scientists came up with a unique solution: time-release plant food. It's a little like slow-release medication, only it lasts for an entire year. The little yucky-looking pellets are spread around the garden and mixed into the soil just as you would any other plant food – and then they gradually melt away over the 12-month period. Amazing.

No pruning. No harvesting – unless you have first put out a shingle that informs the world they can come into your yard and pick whatever fruit or herbs they please. It's called "hefker" and it means that any edible plant in the yard becomes public property.

No landscaping, if it involves activity that will encourage growth of the plants in any way. Landscaping in order to keep the garden from becoming a jungle is permitted, I was told. I didn't find that out until six months later because I didn't think to ask. It was when I saw the Chief Rabbi's yard, looking relatively neat, that it occurred to me there must be a way to get this done. Thank G-d it was just in time for spring, when all the winter rain persuades Israel's greenery to flourish with enthusiastic vigor. Yes, you can water the plants, grass, etc ------- but only enough just to keep them alive. This is a year in which water rationing will not even be an issue, I believe.

But the real killer comes when you have to shop for produce. Not every store in Israel bothers to observe this special commandment, and they buy their produce from kibbutzim that ignore the dilemma.

The supermarket was packed the last week of the old year, before Rosh Hashana.

I wheeled the shopping cart frantically around the store, searching for root vegetables that I knew would last at least a month or two if properly stored. It felt like Pesach all over again. Ten bags of potatoes, ten bags of onions, six bags of carrots, I cannot remember how many beets, butternut and acorn squash, calabasa (dala'at in Hebrew) – even pumpkins, a new product here in the Middle East.

Not a word from the cashier. She already knew. One of the rabbis of the community was also making last-minute purchases, and I asked him all the questions I had no answers to.

"Carrots are planted before the new year. Can I keep buying them?"

"It's probably okay for the next week or so – but after Simchas Torah, not a chance." Anticipating the next question, he added, "Not potatoes, onions or anything else either. It's just better not to take a chance. But ask a posek." This from a rabbi known to be a Torah scholar. Go ask somebody else.

Five bags of different peppers, two large bags of Kirby cukes, 3 dozen oranges, 3 dozen clementines (the kids finished those up in two days, of course) and huge bags of various other fruit.

It wasn't until later that I learned I could probably keep buying fruit without concern for Shemitta until Tu B'Shevat, the new year for trees. The issue comes up in relation to when the tree began to bring forth its flowers heralding the birth of new fruit.

The refrigerator was crammed with produce. No room for dairy products, meat or anything else, but who cared? We would not have to worry about finding the right place to buy produce for at least a couple of weeks, I figured.

It wasn't until Friday afternoon the week after Simchas Torah that I realized my error; shopping for herbs, zucchini, tomatoes and eggplant was out, at least until I found an approved grocer.

That first Shabbos was a real meat-and-potatoes event, the first I have served in a very, very long time.

The "Heter Mechira" crowd, which accepts a Torah loophole that allows farmers to continue growing and selling produce by transferring ownership of the fields to a gentile (generally the local Arab neighbor), has a much wider selection of products to choose from.

People who are more stringent in their observance purchase their nuts, herbs, fruit and vegetables from special providers who obtain products offered by gentile farmers and those who have stored up produce from the pre-Shemitta season, through the Otzar Beis Din – the Treasury of the Torah court system.

It turns out that the person who coordinated this effort in Arad is Sion, a Torah student at a yeshiva for Jews who did not start out observant but ended up that way. He is dealing with many different sources for the produce he brings -- but the quality is better than what is found in any regular store in the city. The price is a little higher; I would pay even more, for the wonderful produce Sion brings. He calls every Monday to take my order, helps me remember what I need by going down the list of what is available and brings it to my doorstep (actually into my kitchen) on Wednesday evenings. At least raw produce is available even in Arad.

Suddenly, I discovered I could buy take-out salads and dips for Shabbos from only one particular company. The supermarket offered products from only two additional companies, both of which used ingredients certified through Heter Mechira.

Canned fruits and vegetables were available with the reliable hechsher (kosher supervision), but I hadn't had to check out that issue in years. It reminded me of New York.

But the issue was viscerally brought home to our family unexpectedly on our first foray into the local pizza shop a month after the holidays.

"Wait!" I shouted. "The tomatoes! We can't have the tomatoes on the pie!" The kosher pizza place used products from Heter Mechira, which we don't use. Olives were okay. Onions were okay. Corn was okay. Tomatoes? No way.

When my husband took me out for dinner at the new Noodle Bar in Be'er Sheva a month later, we searched the menu for items that would not involve transgression of this commandment – and came up almost empty. We finally had to tell the waitress to "hold the vegetables," including herbs. Have you ever tried to order Chinese food without the vegetables?

But the most painful cut of all was the ban on buying plants at the Borodovsky nursery, one of my favorite haunts in Arad. As with the supermarket, Borodovsky's was packed in that final week.

It's a wonderful place. Amid the lush greenery there is a little petting zoo, a playground, an outdoor tent complete with water cooler, table and chairs, porch swing and a futon couch. Inside, next to the counter is another water cooler, a complete tea and coffee-making section, powdered hot chocolate mix, fruit juice and pastries that arrive fresh from the bakery daily, and rarely last beyond 10:00 a.m.

People who work in the industrial area, where Borodovsky's is located generally stop in for lunch, just to enjoy the serenity and scent of all the flowers.

Could I really give up this simple pleasure? Perish the thought.

I returned for last-minute plant purchases at least four times. Each trip cost me hundreds of shekels and I returned laden with pots, plants, potting soil and flower bulbs.

But I still ached at the thought of what was to come.

Finally I consulted with Itzik, who knows me well. He and his brothers now own the place, carrying on from his father, of blessed memory, who started the business 20 years ago. "Don't worry," he consoled me. "You can still have coffee and Danish here. And everyone finds something they can buy, no matter how small."

He was right, of course. I had forgotten that Borodovsky's also sells linens, pillows, odd lot socks and underwear, even little glass boxes, toys and fridge magnets.

And I can still get towels there sold by the pound. I'll survive.

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