Worth a trek: Searching Moroccan mountains for etrogs

We had to cross the gorge, and the only way was to walk single file on a narrow concrete gutter, maybe a foot wide, that bridged the two cliffs. Below us was a long, perilous drop onto the rocky depths.

I was traveling deep into the rural communities of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, and so I’d expected to get a little dusty. But no one readied me for this afternoon trek in the desert sun. I was wearing a button-down shirt, slacks and dress shoes, and I was carrying my iPad, computer, camera and passport. But I wasn’t entirely unprepared: I had 1.5 liters (about 6 cups) of water slung across my shoulder.

It was hot and sandy, and the sun shone down on us from a clear sky. Sweat was drenching my back. My translator, the only person in the group whom I could talk to, was several steps ahead of me. I was in the sandy middle of nowhere, feeling exhausted and, since I was standing on the precipice of a cliff in an unfamiliar place, a little scared. I started walking and didn’t look down.

But I was a man with a mission. In between audible whispers of “holy shit,” I had this thought: There had better be some etrogs at the end of this trail.

When I told people I was going to Morocco one week before Rosh Hashanah to write about the country’s insular, centuries-old etrog industry, they told me I was either crazy (it was hard to infiltrate), too late (etrog season was ending) or both. But Berbers who spend their summers growing fruit in a Muslim country for a Jewish holiday felt like too good a story to miss, so I eagerly booked my flight.

Today, almost no Jews live in Morocco, though a few dozen Jewish merchants still support the industry, sending etrogs — known as citrons in English — to Jews around the world to use on Sukkot. Because 5775 was a “shmita,” or sabbatical year, when Jewish law prohibits agricultural activity in Israel, demand for Moroccan etrogs has been especially high there this season, even though the countries don’t have formal relations. I was determined to find out just how Moroccan etrogs are grown and brought to the Israeli market.

Organizing the trip, however, ended up being far more complicated than making a couple of calls. My one contact in the Moroccan etrog business said the merchants feared journalists and wouldn’t talk to me. An Israeli professor looked at me like a concerned parent after I asked for help visiting Berber citrus farmers in the Atlas Mountains. He wrote me an email hours later saying he was “somewhat worried” about me. It was too short notice, he felt, to plan the trip properly.

Running out of leads, I used British phone-directory websites to track down a London rabbi who literally wrote the book on Moroccan etrogs. But he told me he’d just returned from Morocco, was worn out from the flight and couldn’t talk.

“Go to a town called Assads,” he advised me. “When you get there, ask for Jawad. Tell Jawad to take you to the place he took Yashar. Shanah tovah.”

Then he hung up on me. My flight was in two days.

Assads, it turned out, was a small mountain village hours away from the nearest city and barely accessible by car. To get there I’d need someone to take me. And to speak to etrog growers, I’d need to connect with someone from the town who could introduce me and guide me to the etrogs. This was not exactly an agricultural tourism hot spot.

By the time I reached the Tel Aviv airport for my flight, I’d managed to make some tentative plans. A Moroccan citrus expert, Mohamed El-Otmani, arranged someone to drive me to Assads, along with a fixer who would show me the area.

The next morning, I was shaking hands with a burly man named Mohammed who would be my driver. Mohammed, I discovered, did not speak English. Neither did the fixer. I didn’t risk asking whether either of them spoke Hebrew.

“Don’t you speak Arabic?” El-Otmani asked me. I do not. So he found me an off-duty English teacher to translate, and the four of us — driver, translator, fixer and me — set off.

Our beat-up Mercedes drove from paved road to gravel path as the cosmopolitan beach city of Agadir, where I was staying, gave way to smaller, drearier towns. French disappeared from shop signs, replaced by Arabic. Unlike Agadir, where many people wore jeans, almost all the women walked with their heads covered, while the men wore beards and caftans. Then the towns faded away, until we had to stop on the dusty road to let a herd of goats pass by.

An hour into the journey, my translator asked if I was “good at walking.” It seemed like a bizarre question, and honestly, the answer was no. Born with mild cerebral palsy, I’ve always limped on my right side and had trouble balancing.

But I wasn’t going to back down. Yeah, sure I was good at walking, I said. How bad could it be?

Four hours later, after my driver had asked several children on a deserted highway for directions, we finally reached Assads and the end of the road. And Jawad, the rabbi’s contact, was nowhere to be found. There were many people named Jawad in Assads, locals said. And anyway, none of them were around.

My only hope was to follow our fixer, on foot, and pray I found an etrog tree. The four of us set off.

At first, the path was flat and narrow, with a cliffside on my left. Then it got narrower and rougher. Then a concrete gutter appeared to our right, with us balancing in between  — me trying to compensate for my unwieldy bag.

I jumped in the gutter and soon there was nothing on either side. All four of us were crossing the gorge.

During the hour that followed, we climbed over boulders, along steep drops and through rocky valleys where there was no path at all. When I slipped and caught myself, watching rocks trickle down the mountainside and disappear, I kept walking. It was my only option.

Here I was in the remote reaches of Morocco, carrying valuable equipment, with four men I didn’t know who were speaking a language I didn’t understand. My safety — let alone my story — was riding on their trust.

But then, as we got to flatter terrain, my fixer stopped and grinned at me. He raised his fists in triumph and motioned at me to take a photo. Down the path, as we passed by a river, he pulled a cluster of grapes off a vine; we all shared the snack. I allowed myself to exhale. I looked back at the sandy brown mountainscape we’d just traversed, freckled with palm trees and set against a bright blue sky. Maybe this would all work out, I thought.

A couple hundred feet later, a man stood in front of us wearing a caftan and snow hat with what looked like a bush to our left. The fixer shook his hand. My translator pointed at the bush.

There it was, hanging just inches above the ground: a bright green etrog.

I soon saw others camouflaged among wide green leaves and weeds. The bush was, in fact, part of a grove. It looked less like the orchard I expected and more like a bramble — as if the fruit just happened to naturally grow there. I followed the branches down a rocky, uneven slope, dodging errant etrog vines and trying, once again, not to lose my balance.

The man in the caftan was Mohammed Douch, whose family had been growing etrogs here for at least three generations. He wasn’t much for description — when I asked him, three times, what his favorite part of the work was, he just said it was his tradition. But he was dedicated. He’s 67 and a retired restaurant worker, his face worn by deep wrinkles, but he treks out here for a couple of months every year to grow etrogs, he said, because the town “is a part of our body.”

Behind him, across a narrow path, was a two-story structure made of bricks and dirt with a canopy of branches for a roof. Usually, Douch explained, he lives in the city. But each summer he comes here to reside in nature.

He repeated most of what he said to compensate for the language gulf that separated us, even with a translator. It’s an experience I had throughout my trip to Morocco. Usually the failure to communicate made me feel helpless, like I was missing a large part of a country I wanted to learn about.

But in the middle of the Moroccan mountains, amid a group of people I could barely talk to, I felt a sense of belonging. Moving to a hut with a roof of branches to tend to etrogs and connect to tradition? That’s something I could understand.

Shmita points to the Torah’s Author

From the medieval Kuzari to Lawrence Kelemen’s Permission to Receive to Aish HaTorah’s “Discovery Seminar,” Orthodox Jews have promoted many arguments to support the idea of the Divine origin of the Torah. Many focus on the impossibility of a Revelatory event witnessed by millions simply being invented later. Others have made the intriguing point that no human-created document would pay so much attention to the failings of its own people and leadership.

Then there’s the Torah Codes nonsense (dissed even by its own promoters) that “equidistant letter sequences” reveal hidden messages that could only have been inserted by a Divine Being.

While I find those approaches interesting, the most compelling argument to me arises from a phenomenon related to this year’s calendar: shmita. The Torah commands us to let our land lie fallow every seventh year; and 5775 is one such year. All agricultural activity is forbidden, and detailed rules govern the consumption and sale of shmita produce.

Leviticus 25:20-22 reassures the Israelites that agricultural rest every seventh year will not cause them to go hungry. In fact, it says, they will enjoy eight years’ worth of crops for every seven calendar years, despite the apparent handicap of periodic forced cessation of agricultural activity.

For centuries, the “bonus crops” idea has been considered a miracle; even today, most traditional Jews interpret it supernaturally, as a sign of God’s benevolence toward those who obey Him. 

But the reward for shmita is not supernatural. It’s completely natural.

As any agronomist will confirm, land planted with the same crop year after year starts to yield ever-smaller harvests. It’s a basic fact of botany that every crop removes specific nutrients from the land, which can only be replenished by planting different crops sometimes, or by periodically letting the land lie fallow altogether.

Other than shmita, the first documented use of fallow land to benefit farming was in ancient Greece in the 5th century BCE. (The Chinese adopted the practice 400 years later.)

But traditional Jews believe God gave us the Torah in the 14th century BCE – nearly a millennium before anyone else was letting their land lie fallow. Shmita adherents attributed the seemingly miraculous bounty of their land to their Torah observance, as none of them knew anything about the interaction of crops with nutrients in the soil.

Of course, many people contend that the Torah is a much more recent document written by human beings. But even that theory supports my argument. There’s a consensus among Biblical critics that the rules of shmita formed part of the “Holiness Code,” which was completed by the 7th century BCE, with some verses significantly older.

So even those who deny the Divinity of the Torah assign the commandment of shmita a date two centuries or more before any similar farming method arose anywhere.

Since the Torah treats shmita as a Heavenly command, with detailed rules about a seven-year cycle and who can eat produce that grows anyway, it seems to be more than a farming tip.

I allow that it’s possible that the Hebrews were just the cleverest farmers around in ancient times, but if the Torah is just a human document, how could any person convince an entire pre-modern agricultural society to start resting their fields every seven years? Why would anybody believe something so counter-intuitive. Of course, once the system got going and people saw the additional yields, they may have continued it, but shmita had to start somewhere. 

It’s not complete proof that the Torah is divine, but it does raise questions that even the most hardened atheist would have to think about. 

And for people who are looking to explore religious ideas, shmita can be powerful evidence that the Torah is much more than a set of human-authored laws and stories. 

After all, regarding shmita, the Torah tells us that God said, “Do X and you’ll be rewarded.” And our ancestors did X and were rewarded – long before anyone understood why.

That’s evidence enough for me. 

Follow David Benkof on Facebook or Twitter (@DavidBenkof); or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.

Letters to the editor: Young Americans in Israel, embracing our elders and shmita

Young Yisra’el?

I recently read Rob Eshman’s article about the younger generation and their views of Israel in light of the summer’s violent events (“Young Americans and Israel,” Sept. 5). I applaud the Journal’s courage in presenting the fact that there is a range of views within the American-Jewish community — not all Jewish print media have the chuztpah to acknowledge this.

What is drawing so many people to Jewish Voice for Peace is the realization that we have become the oppressor, and we do not want and cannot support a Jewish state that commits atrocities so resonant with events in our own lifetime’s experience. 

I am the child of two Holocaust survivors, and my parents taught me with deep conviction that all people are equal and deserve to live with dignity and in peace. 

Deborah Mia Shelton via email

Minds Shouldn’t Retire

As an elder in my 90th year, I have a somewhat different perspective on this stage in the life cycle than the one David Suissa expressed in “Embracing our Elders” (Sept. 26).

He asked, “What’s going through the minds of people who are, say, 90 years old? When they look back on the past year, are they thinking about their mistakes, or about their ailments? When they look to the coming year are they thinking about spiritual refinements or are they simply hoping to make it through another year?”

Suissa implies that elders in this stage of life should offer themselves to their community by sharing their lifetime of stories. They should be respected and made to feel they still can offer some gifts from the experiences of their long lives. This is all worthwhile, but for many of us it is not enough. It implies a passivity, a retirement from continuing to learn. 

For over 40 years each Yom Kippur morning, I write of my year, of what I did right and where I erred. Of what I want to continue to do and what I want to change. Do I often enough tell my wife, Lois, and my sons that I love them? Do I give enough of myself and my resources to those causes in which I believe? As I review my writings of previous years, I see the saga of my life unfold, where dreams were fulfilled and where visions failed, and from this process I learn. As my age progressively limits my movements, what new and revised activities can I learn? For example, in recent years I have become a mentor to several most wonderful young people and find this activity contributing and satisfying. I attend classes in subjects that interest me through UCLA and elsewhere. I continue to stay connected and help where possible. 

So I add to Suissa’s writing that in my 90th year, I hope to continue to stay active. The path is not always clear, but to me, staying alive means continuing to seek new experiences, even though they lack the drama of previous years. 

But life is a continual adventure, and I agree with Suissa that I am grateful to still be in the game.

Richard Gunther via email

Shmita: Sustainable Sustenance

This is great (“A New Look in Israel for Shmita, the Year of Rest,” Sept. 26). I love it. What an amazing way to live life, for all people. Words cannot express how much I love this idea and concept. God Bless Israel!

Thomas Czech via jewishjournal.com

’Tis the Season

We would like to thank the Jewish Journal for the inspiration to take action to address suffering in Gaza. Jonathan Zasloff’s column (“Responsibility Without Fault in Gaza,” Aug. 14) pointed to “devastating” damage as a direct result of this summer’s military conflict; “tens of thousands are homeless [and] more go without medical care.” He encouraged Jews to raise funds for humanitarian relief not as concerned citizens of the world, but precisely because, as Jews, it is our responsibility to care for our enemies (Shemot 23:4).

Zasloff recommended that one place to start would be raising funds for American Near Eastern Refugee Aid (ANERA), an organization with a good track record for getting help to families in need. Leading up to this season of reflection and repentance, we gathered with 18 other Jews on the evening of Sept. 20 and together raised a $2,500 donation for ANERA. We call other Jews in Los Angeles to join us in working toward humanitarian relief in Gaza. We would love to hear from any Journal readers who are interested in joining in this effort.

Leah Boustan, Ra’anan Boustan, Jessica Marglin via email


In an article about Rabbi Harold “Hershy” Ten (“Bikur Cholim Head’s Role Revealed in Annuities Scheme, Sept. 26), attorney G. Scott Sobel is quoted as saying that Michael Horowitz was the person responsible for obtaining the signature of Jane Doe 1 to documents. 

In fact, according to Sobel, Jane Doe 1 did not sign the documents. Her husband, John Doe 1, signed them and Ten — not Horowitz — was responsible for obtaining his signatures.

A new look in Israel for Shmita, the year of rest

More than 2,000 years ago, when ancient Israel was an agrarian society, the shmita year was a huge national happening. Commencing with Rosh Hashanah, the people of Israel would gather in the fields to partake of the produce left “ownerless” by farmers who, heeding the biblical commandment, would allow their fields to lie fallow during the seventh year of the agriculture cycle. In addition, all debts were forgiven, enabling the people of Israel to start fresh.  

In today’s Israel, farmers make up only about 2 percent of the population. Computer mice and keyboards have replaced plows, while corporate offices and nonprofit workplaces have become today’s “fields.” 

So how can Israelis observe shmita in the Startup Nation?

Jewish educators and Israeli leaders from across the religious spectrum are coming up with answers, hoping to pave the way for a country whose spiritual strength can match its economic strength.

On Oct. 30, at the residence of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, Knesset Member Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid) will unveil the Shmita Fund, a private fund to help Israeli families get out of debt and achieve financial freedom. Making shmita a practice among all sectors of Israeli society has been a dream of hers since she led Israel’s secular Jewish renewal movement before turning to politics.

“It’s really a renaissance of the term ‘shmita.’ It brings the concept of forgiveness of debt in a way that the Jewish people haven’t thought of,” Calderon said in a telephone interview. “I feel in awe towards the biblical idea of ‘debt forgiveness.’ It’s such a radical, amazing social concept, and it’s a vision and dream that we’re actually able to fulfill, because there is a Jewish state.”

Working with other nonprofits, the Shmita Fund will take up to 5,000 debt-ridden families and work with banks and creditors to restructure loans and provide debt relief, so that those families can eventually live in the “green.” The fund will train families to manage their finances and achieve independence, with private philanthropies worldwide chipping in to pay off the difficult debt. 

“For people abroad, it is their chance to do a ‘mitzvah,’ even though they don’t have land in Israel, and shmita is usually connected to land,” Calderon said.

Some Israelis’ new outlook on shmita allows it to extend beyond finance and agriculture. Students at Kolot, a progressive beit midrash (house of learning) in Jerusalem that applies Jewish sources to contemporary Israeli society, are exploring how the underlying principles can apply to other disciplines, such as law and health care. 

“We’re fighting for a country that lives according to values like shmita,” said Mordechai Bar Or, founding director of Kolot.  “Which in my understanding of shmita, is that every person can be seen in this world. That’s a value. That’s a Jewish value.” Bar Or, like Calderon, is among the pioneers in the movement to revive Jewish identity among secular Israelis.

“Kolot asks the question of the relevancy of Judaism and the Jewish people in the 21st century,” he said.

To set an example for modern applications of shmita, Kolot itself is turning its campus into an experimental shmita “field” by, for example, granting its employees a paid sabbatical for the seventh year of employment and offering free classes in Jewish studies to the public.

Until studying at Kolot, Merav Israeli-Amarant, a lawyer and entrepreneur, didn’t really consider Judaism relevant to her life. She grew up with a kosher kitchen and studied the Hebrew Bible at a secular public school, but she took for granted that living in the Jewish state, serving as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), then sending her own children to serve in the IDF, were her contribution to the Jewish dream. 

Last year, as she studied the laws and values of shmita at Kolot, she felt she had discovered Israel’s next best spiritual “startup.”

“We all live in the rat race, and people tell you that you always have to run,” Israeli-Amarant said during an interview at the Kolot campus. She also likened the notion of Shabbat, a weekly day of spirituality and rest, to a Jewish “startup” that eventually penetrated the Western world, culminating with the ideal of the sanctity of the non-working weekend.

“Shmita tells you to stop running — not for a day, but for a year — so that you could flourish.”

As a personal shmita, she’s splitting her time between her work at a biotech firm and at Kolot, leading Kolot’s Israel Shmita project for Kolot graduates to translate the ideals of shmita to their professional fields.

For example, Zipi David-Dolberger, an Israeli judge and lawyer, is working to regulate legislation concerning the statute of limitations for disciplinary offenses in which civil servants or professionals who serve the public are penalized for improprieties, such as a police officer who oversteps authority or a lawyer who commits malpractice. The statute of limitations in this area is not as developed as in criminal cases, but she believes that non-criminal offenses must also have a clear road to amnesty. 

“Shmita allows people to start with a clean slate,” she said. 

Yonit Levi, a nurse and researcher at the Edmond and Lilly Safra Children’s Hospital at Sheba Medical Center, is developing a psychological counseling program to give nurses emotional “rest.” After treating children with fatal diseases for many years, she experienced “compassion fatigue,” or an emotional burnout that comes from assisting others with trauma. Nurses, she found, had no built-in organizational mechanism to get help for it.

“During this year you have to leave something for others,” she said of her decision to develop the program.

On a more grass-roots level, Einat Kramer, founding director of Teva Ivri (Jewish Nature), is working to make creative observance of shmita a national trend every seven years.

“We have an opportunity to put ourselves on the side and focus on environmental, social and economic values, which are the values of sustainability,” Kramer said.

She founded Teva Ivri to fuse environmental activism with Zionist and Jewish values, and shmita is the ultimate vehicle for that. Teva Ivri’s Israeli Shmita Initiative works to raise national awareness of shmita through round-table discussions and workshops geared to social activists and people of influence. This year, she’ll be setting up a huge “shmita tent” at festivals, events and on campuses, where people can discover and discuss how shmita relates to their individual lives and society as a whole.

But creative observance of shmita does not mean that traditional observance is or will be obsolete. Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon, founding director of the Halacha Education Center based in Alon Shvut and author of a primer on shmita in both Hebrew and English, believes traditional and creative observance can complement each other.   

“It’s a year when you have time to listen to your soul, to yourself, when you can be attached with your family — to be with them, to have time with them. A year to listen to nature, a year to understand the holiness of Eretz Yisrael,” said Rimon, who lectures widely on shmita and assists farmers with its observance.

The nature of halachic observance of shmita is a subject of debate within Orthodox circles, but there are two “kosher” workarounds. The more lenient solution is called “heter mechira,” which allows farmers to sell their land to a non-Jew for the year, and then continue to work it as usual. The more authentic, yet more challenging, solution is Otzar Beit Din, which gives a rabbinical court temporary stewardship over the farm and essentially turns it into a not-for-profit. 

Because halachic observance applies only to the farming minority, Rimon also believes in the power of shmita’s symbolic observance to unite and strengthen Israeli society. He is working on instituting a “shmita hour” of volunteer work each week in Israeli schools, as well as an “adopt-a-family” program to pair financially stable families with impoverished ones for peer-to-peer mentorship.

In a unique cooperation between a religious and secular institute, the Halacha Education Center will build a “shmita park” in conjunction with Hebrew University’s Botanical Gardens in Jerusalem to include exhibits about shmita, as well as a “shmita garden,” a makeshift agricultural field that demonstrates traditional observance.

Rimon teaches that while the Torah values prosperity, shmita reminds us that making money is not a value in and of itself. “To me it’s the idea that you understand the money is not yours. It belongs to God.” 

Understanding Shmita, Israel’s agricultural Shabbat

When Rosh Hashanah comes later this month, Israel’s Jewish farmers won’t just be celebrating the start of a new year. They’ll be marking a year in which they are prohibited from doing their jobs.

Called Shmita, the Torah-mandated, yearlong farming hiatus is felt across Israel, affecting its fields, supermarkets and, of course, its politics.

The genesis of Shmita is Exodus, which commands the Israelites, “Plant your land and gather its produce for six years. But on the seventh let it lie fallow and it will rest …” Other biblical mandates prohibit planting, trimming or harvesting crops during Shmita, amounting to a total prohibition on farming.

In advance of Shmita, which takes place every seventh year, here are seven things you should know about Israel’s sabbatical year.

What is Shmita?

According to the Torah mandates, the Shmita year is something like an agricultural Shabbat. Just like everyone is commanded to rest for a day at the end of every week, Shmita is a chance to let the land rest for a year after six years of work.

It’s easy to calculate when Shmita comes around: Start from year zero in the Jewish calendar — that would be 5,775 years ago — and count off every seven years; this is Israel’s 466th Shmita.

The concept of the sabbatical year has spread to academics and clergy, many of whom receive sabbaticals to travel and study. And the root of the word “shmita” has found contemporary usage in Hebrew. Israelis use the word “mishtamet” to refer to someone who dodged mandatory military conscription.

How was Shmita observed in the past?

Because the commandment applies only in the biblical land of Israel, it became largely theoretical once the Jews were exiled by the Roman Empire after the Bar Kochba revolt in 136 C.E. Generations of Jewish farmers in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere had no religious imperative to let the land rest.

But once Jews started returning to Palestine in the 1880s and founding kibbutzim, Shmita again became relevant — and problematic. At a time when Jewish farmers were struggling just to keep their farms viable, a year of no production would have been a deathblow.

To skirt that problem, rabbis in Israel created something called the “heter mechirah,” or sale permit — similar to the sale of leavened food before Passover. The permit allowed Jewish farmers to “sell” their land to local non-Jews for a token amount, then hire non-Jews to do the forbidden labor. That way, because it wasn’t “their” land, Jews could keep their farms going without sin.

How is Shmita observed in contemporary Israel?

As Israel’s population and agricultural sector expanded, so too has the hand-wringing over Shmita. Here are some of the Jewish legal acrobatics they use to get around it.

The sale permit: Israel’s Chief Rabbinate allows every farm to register for a sale permit like those allowed in the 1880s, and the Rabbinate “sells” all the land to a non-Jew for about $5,000 total, according to Rabbi Haggai Bar Giora, who oversaw Shmita for Israel’s Chief Rabbinate seven years ago. At the end of the year, the Rabbinate buys back the land on the farmers’ behalf for a similar amount. Bar Giora chose a non-Jewish buyer who observes the seven Noahide laws — the Torah’s commandments for non-Jews.

Greenhouses: Shmita only applies if the crops are grown in the land itself. Therefore, growing vegetables on tables disconnected from the land steers clear of violating the commandment.

Religious courts: Farmers aren’t allowed to sell their crops, but if crops began growing before Shmita started, people are allowed to take them for free. So through another legal mechanism, a Jewish religious court will hire farmers to harvest the produce and the religious court will sell it. But you won’t be paying for the produce itself; you’re only paying for the farmer’s labor. You get the produce for “free.” Wink. Nudge.

Not observing Shmita: Most large-scale Israeli farmers use a sale permit in order to obtain rabbinic certification for their crops, Bar Giora says. But some small, nonreligious farmers who sell their produce independently ignore the sabbatical year completely and do not receive kosher certification.

What happens to fruits, vegetables and other plants that grow on their own during Shmita?

Just like Jewish environmentalists can connect to the idea of letting the land rest, social justice-minded Jews can appreciate that whatever grows on the land during Shmita is, in theory, supposed to be free for anyone, especially the poor.

When Shmita is first mentioned in Exodus, the Torah says the crops should be for “the poor of your nation, and the rest for wild animals.” But given that almost all farmers in Israel get around Shmita in one way or another, walking onto a farm looking for a free lunch is ill advised.

How does Shmita affect you if you’re not a farmer?

Because all kosher-certified produce cannot violate Shmita, Israelis shopping in major grocery stores and outdoor markets don’t have to worry about Shmita.

But religious Jews — and businesses — that don’t trust the legal loopholes just buy their produce from non-Jewish farmers in Israel. An organization called Otzar Haaretz, or Fruit of the Land, seeks to support Jewish farmers specifically and is organizing farmers who use religious courts and the greenhouse method to sell to supermarkets in Israel. Customers who wish to buy from Otzar Haaretz can pay a monthly fee to get a discount on its produce.

Shmita has an impact beyond the produce stands, too. Mickey Gitzin, founder of the religious pluralism organization Be Free Israel, says that while the “the idea that the land should rest” is a positive one, Shmita can have a negative effect on public parks. As public property, the parks cannot be sold to a non-Jew. And because they remain under Jewish ownership, some public community gardens don’t receive care during Shmita.

What does this mean for Jews outside of Israel?

Although they’re not obligated to observe Shmita, Jews outside of Israel have found ways of commemorating the year. At Hazon, a Jewish sustainability organization, the Shmita Project aims to engage in a study of the textual sources of Shmita and develop programs to mark the year without letting the land lie completely fallow.

Another group, the Shmitta Association, has purchased a grid of 4-square-foot plots of land in Israel that Jews abroad can purchase for $180 and then let lie idle, enabling them to observe Shmita without being an Israeli or a farmer.

What does this have to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Because they don’t want to buy from Jewish farmers during Shmita, some haredi Orthodox Jews buy from Palestinian West Bank farms. But during the past couple of Shmita cycles, there has been backlash against buying Palestinian-grown produce.

Jerusalem Post columnist David Weinberg urged Israelis last week to avoid supporting Palestinian farms.

“Primary reliance on Arab produce is neither realistic nor acceptable for health, nationalistic and religious reasons,” he wrote.

During the Shmita year that began in 2007, Israel’s health and agriculture ministries said there was no elevated risk to eating produce grown in the West Bank.