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Shemittah and Me

Our garden here in Eretz Yisrael may be considerably smaller, but we relish the opportunity of growing a garden on sacred soil

It’s our first shemittah and I’m filled with awe that we’re  here, in Eretz Yisrael, able to fulfill this mitzvah with our pocket garden. But there’s also a void in my heart that won’t be filled until shemittah is over.

Growing things has been part of our lives since we married. In England, we had a huge garden with an apple tree and large flower beds on either side of the lawn. I’d grow huge broadleaved courgette plants between a rainbow of rose bushes, tall aromatic tomato plants rubbing shoulders with peppers. During a drought — yes, there are droughts in England — I’d cart buckets of bath water down two flights of stairs to water my plants, my toddlers waddling behind on bandy legs to help.

One year we planted asparagus. Asparagus requires time and patience, and it would be a year before we reaped the fruits of our hard work. Meanwhile, it grew into a huge unruly fern dominating the flower bed. One day, a man showed up at our door looking for work. He was wearing a dirty tattered coat, the odor wafting along the freshly mown grass.

Bill asked if we needed a gardener, assuring us he would do a “good job, Missus!” For a modest wage, a strong cup of tea with three sugars, and a plate full of biscuits, he set to work, tackling our unruly paradise with vigor. He did a good job cleaning up all the weeds — including our asparagus. We didn’t have the heart to tell him.

Before Rosh Hashanah we’d mobilize the whole family to help pick apples. Wielding the long-armed apple picker, the older ones would endeavor to reach the topmost branches, while the younger members of the team would either brandish brooms to dislodge the fruit or gather the apples that had fallen beneath the tree. I’d examine each apple for bruises, carefully wrapping those that passed muster in newspaper, to be stowed away in the garage and used, sometimes months later, for the apple crumble that always ended our Shabbos meals.

As our boys grew, and the lawn became a soccer field, I took to using the asphalt drive in front of the house for the garden. With pots of every shape and size, I created a cornucopia of flowers and vegetables, a splash of color that made all the passersby smile.

Our garden here in Eretz Yisrael may be considerably smaller, but we relish the opportunity of growing a garden on sacred soil. While we were confined during Covid, we began to experiment. My husband is an expert on avocados, growing them from pits. One avocado has pushed itself out of its pot and rooted in the soil. It’s now over six feet high and still going strong.

I tried growing any seed that I found. I’d gather the seeds of peppers, tomatoes, butternut squash, melons. Then I’d dry them, plant them, and wait to see what would happen. Some grew and some languished in the soil, but I kept at it. I grew pineapple tops and now have a tiny pineapple.

It’s rather like a compulsion — see a seed, try to grow it! I even found a sweet potato with roots and a tiny shoot and put it in the garden just to see what happened. So far it looks very happy, with beautiful heart-shaped leaves.

But now, deep into shemittah, my garden lies forsaken. We feel privileged to have the opportunity to keep this mitzvah for the first time, but it isn’t easy. We can maintain the existing plants and tame the grass, and we’re even permitted to pick the produce for our own use. But I need to ignore the inner voice that calls to me each time I see a seed that seems interesting, which happens often! So far, I’ve eschewed lychee seeds and peach pits, melon seeds and plum stones.

This year, instead of plucking errant grass and the weeds that spring up between and inside the pots, I leave them to take over my vegetable patch. I invite our neighbors to share in the bounty of the vine that grows wild and unfettered, its branches reaching beyond the confines of the garden and high into the neighboring trees. I scrutinize every fruit and vegetable I buy with awe, lest I make a mistake.

This year, I thank Hashem that we’re here in Eretz Yisrael, privileged to keep this special mitzvah.

This year, I have a heightened appreciation for the heroic farmers, who watch their land lie fallow.

This year, I step back and leave my precious garden to Hashem.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 778)

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