Shmittah, Sandstorms, Shoah


Book of Leviticus: “God spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai, telling him to speak to the Israelites and say to them: When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land must be given a rest period, a sabbath to God. For six years you may plant your fields, prune your vineyards, and harvest your crops, but the seventh year is a sabbath of sabbaths for the land. It is God’s sabbath during which you may not plant your fields, nor prune your vineyards. Do not harvest crops that grow on their own and do not gather the grapes on your unpruned vines, since it is a year of rest for the land. [What grows while] the land is resting may be eaten by you, by your male and female slaves, and by the employees and resident hands who live with you. All the crops shall be eaten by the domestic and wild animals that are in your land.” (Leviticus 25:1–7)

Now that title is a mouthful!!!! I landed in Israel during a Shmittah (shmee’-tah) year. Every seven years is an agricultural Sabbath, the land itself has a Divine decree to rest and “rejuvenate.” No plowing, sowing of seeds, weeding, trimming. This is great for me, as i have looked forward to getting my hands dirty; preparing all that wonderfully rich soil; planting my non-GMO, organic, heirloom seeds; and looked forward to harvest season. I had great plans to turn all that I harvest (and can buy locally) into my delicious jams, jellies, sauces, pickles, chutneys, and relishes. This was the beginning of my business!! Now what???

As to be expected,most people here in the land of living Bible, take this very seriously. Other, more secular types blow it off completely, and more than a few look for the loopholes – I haven’t yet decided into which camp I’ll follow, but it will most likely lie somewhere in the middle. I spent the first week clearing out all the weeds from our huge built-in planters that surround each balcony and run along each window. OOPS. Which leads to the first loophole: is a raised planter technically the earth? I’ve already asked so many people, and as to be expected here – ask three people the same question and you wind up with 15 different answers!

Shmittah also explains the slim pickings in grocery stores and produce stalls up here in the boonies (this is very different in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and at resort hotels which cater to tourists, so if you are planning a trip, no worries, you’ll be fine). It seems most grocery stores out here are fully experiencing the shmittah. Last year, when I visited, there was the most abundant and colorful variety of fresh fruits and veggies available countrywide.This year, it’s mostly root vegetables – carrots, turnips, potatoes, onions – and apples and citrus. That’s about it. There are some farmers who have rented out their fields to tenant farmers from Thailand and the Philippines for the year. This is limited, however, so the tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers are in very limited supply. Enough is picked for that day’s store purchase, and when it’s gone, the shopper is out of luck. Note to self: shop early morning for any selection whatsoever. So: loophole number two – can a Jewish Israeli hire out a non-Jew to work the fields? Is this technically ‘kosher’ or will it cause a huge act of Divine “You guys just couldn’t wait one year, could you??”  The other way round this: import produce not harvested from the fields in Israel at really exorbitant prices The week before Passover I saw imported strawberries, asparagus, and broccoli, but who could afford?

Loophole number three: what about aquaponics? We made friends a few weeks ago with a lovely couple from San Diego (neighbors!!) who are living on a tiny kibbutz a couple miles away. He’s into hydroponically producing tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and squashes in his many greenhouses. The veggie patients are all growing in raised “hospital beds” and are connected to these wild IVs delivering the proper doses of nutrient rich liquids at the appropriate times round the clock. It really is quite remarkable.


Anyway, as I was talking in a broken Hebrew to the owner of a brand new health food store (another Californian, naturally!!) about how I can do some planting during this earth Sabbath, I noticed the wind began to pick up quite a bit. Actually, I was almost getting used to this wildly atypical weather we’ve been having since I arrived. Rainstorms, thunder, lightning, freezing cold (OK, for this Southern Californian low 40s-low 60s is really cold), windstorms, hail, and even a most beautiful rainbow have marked most of our days here. So I noticed when the wind shifted again, this time really warm and dry from the Southeast. I looked up, and off in the distance a dirty reddish brown cloud seemed to be moving over the mountains towards us… not fast, but noticeable nonetheless. It wasn’t fog or smog – and I had heard about these ‘soofot khol’ – sandstorms!!! I asked the store owner what the heck was going on: we were just outside the storefront, and now that other people had seen the cloud, mad dashes were being made to bring wares in; to run to the car; to batten down the hatches and take cover. By the time I caught my bus, the sand cloud had obfuscated the white Arab village in the far distance. I couldn’t even make out the two minarets that stand out like lighthouses. I reached the drop-off point a block and a half from our house. My eyes were beginning to sting and I could feel a certain crunch in my mouth. Not good. Even though it was not quite 4 o’clock in the afternoon, the streetlights had come on, and all the houses had lowered their metal treeseem ( every window here comes equipped with metal shutters – and now I know one of the reasons why). I realized that we do live in or very near vast deserts with whipping sands. The wind continued to howl all night long, and you could actually hear the grit flinging itself against the walls, roof, windows, and patio.

I can't believe I'm out taking pics of the sand cloud!!

I can’t believe I’m out taking pics of the sand cloud!!


The sandstorm that blew two nights ago provided an eerie and somber background music for Erev Yom HaShoah, the night before Holocaust Remembrance Day, yet another of this country’s ongoing stream of spring ‘holidays.’ We decided not to walk to synagogue for services ( I don’t know how many people did brave the elements that night, and I totally feel for those poor Northern Israeli Defense Forces who were out on patrol). Instead, all three national stations televised the ceremony coming from Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in (cold, but windless) Jerusalem. It was the most moving two hours of music, testimonials, speeches, and prayers. The traditional “Eichah” chant, which is the most hauntingly beautiful melody I have ever heard!!, from the book of Lamentations, was rewritten with new lyrics for the occasion. Once again, my tears flowed freely…

I was totally prepared for the next day, but decided to keep much of it a secret as I wanted my husband and son to experience it first hand, and be moved by this day as I was a year ago. The wind had stopped, and all was completely still and quiet. The sun was out and shining in all its glory. About 1/3 of an inch of fine grained red terra cotta dirt covered the porch, the cars, the sidewalks – everything!!! But it was a dry, powdery dirt that could easily be swept away.

At 9:15, I had my guys outside for a morning jaunt – the children were out of school again (another khag/holiday) – and the neighbors were out cleaning up. Once we got to the main streets, the town was bustling with morning activity. People were walking; busses running their routes; construction workers busy at their sites… at exactly 10am sharp, the siren started to blow – loud and shrill. Everyone in cars stopped or pulled over to the side. Everyone got out of the cars, and marched quietly off the busses. People came out on their balconies. Construction work halted. Businessmen filed out of the municipality. For two minutes the alarm sounded. Everyone stood silently at attention in honor or the millions who were killed in the Holocaust – Jew, Handicapped, Gypsy, Black, Gay, and any others deemed undesirable by the German Reich. Prayers were offered up – for grandparents and parents, for friends, for the countless numbers. G-d, let it never happen again – anywhere – and may we never again be silent!!! I couldn’t help but weep again, this time with those around me joining in. It was one of the most moving and memorable events to witness – an entire country coming to a screeching halt in remembrance of the dead of the Shoah for two whole minutes. And those two minutes seemed like an eternity!

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