My interest
in the agricultural laws of Judaism
took a turn for the better
when I started reading a book on Shemita,

the Sabbatical year
that is kept in Israel
every seven years.

The introduction starts
with Maimonides’ commentary.

According to him
the obligation to keep the commandment blessing
of Shemita
is based on two principles:

The first is to promote the well-being of all men
by ensuring that the poor ‘may eat’;
the second is to allow the land to rest
that it may regain its productive strength.

The rest of the book I skimmed through
and step by little step
began to get a glimmer of why
these laws are to be kept in Israel alone…

Wherever Jewish people live
in the diaspora
these laws do not apply.

My primary reason
for wanting to study them
was so as to abide by them
in my natural agroforestry planting

There are only two laws
that apply to Jewish gardeners
and farmers living outside
of Israel:

Ensuring that vineyards
are kept free of other plants;

Ensuring that the rootstock used for grafting
is of the same kind as the scion
that will grow from it.

I was surprised to learn somewhere
that grafting branches from hybrid trees
is not a problem,
provided that the hybrid does not cross species –

There is a seemingly strange rule
that it is kosher to eat the fruit of any tree,
including GMO fruit –

I had not been able to get my head around
the latter
until I began to perceive that if this was forbidden
it would be impossible to declare fruit kosher

unless you grew it yourself
or knew the farmer personally.

Yet this is not the reason for the rule.

Rather it is based on the Torah text
which says that a Jewish person may not plant trees
that break the mixing of species rules

It does not say
that one may not eat of the fruit
of trees
where these rules have been broken.

Still, in an article I read
some rabbis say that since strictly speaking
fruit from mixed species is not kosher
one should not say the Shehecheyanu blessing
for new fruit over it…

How observant you wish to be
is a personal choice;

it seems that in the same way
that Judaism forbids proselytizing
so, it leaves degrees of observance
to the individual conscience.

At least I thought this was so;

and it is
unless one belongs to a specific community
where stricter observance is expected –
here one’s rabbi is to be consulted.

In fact,
this seems to be true across the tradition –
when in doubt
consult your rabbi…

The traditions
or customs of one’s own family
are important.

I have noticed this in the Sephardic prayerbook as well
for every so often a note is made
that the Moroccan tradition includes a particular prayer
while others exclude it.

My resistance to Maimonides
was thus misguided;
as a revert to the Judaism of my forebears
Rambam is part of my heritage –

And I may not follow another’s tradition.

I suppose what I was baulking at
was the loss of freedom that this implied.
As a free spirit I find it challenging
to be ‘obedient’.

Like a butterfly I have been
flitting from one flower to another
for they are all interesting;

An observer I have been –
a reporter of travels
both external
and internal

as my way ‘home’ I have sought;

Yet my ancestral faith
calls for commitment
to the tradition of my fathers.

This too is interesting
for while one’s claim to Jewish identity
comes from the maternal line

the practice of Judaism
comes from the father’s side;

For example,
an Ashkenazi Jewess
marrying a Sephardic Jew
takes on his family’s customs…

This applies to strictness
or leniency
in keeping kosher
and all other mitzvot;

A video I watched
explained that because Sephardic Pesach customs
are considered lenient by Ashkenazi standards
Ashkenazi Jewish people
may invite Sephardim to celebrate with them

Ashkenazim, however, may not accept an invitation
from Sephardic Jewish people
to celebrate Pesach with them –

and out of respect for Ashkenazim
Sephardim would not extend such an invitation
for respect for own’s own customs
breeds respect for the customs of others?

Including others
that are part
of us?

All this can be bewildering
if you are seeking to convert
or to revert to Judaism.

At least at first glance.

Fortunately for me,
I have been spending much time
on appreciating biodiversity.

I have deepened my understanding
of the integrity
that comes from protecting the particular,
the local

the habitat
the ecosystem
the biome

making these seeming idiosyncrasies
within Judaism
a practice of respecting oneself

while simultaneously respecting the ‘other’

for the ‘other’
is simultaneously
‘One of us’ –

just from a different tribe,
or custom,
or tradition,
if you prefer.

And every Jewish person knows
that the twelve tribes are related
making up one nation.

They are most powerful
when they remain authentic,
true to their specific purpose
within the nation of Israel

by owning their specific gifts
and task
they provide maximum benefit
to the whole nation –

And thus, to the whole world as well.

Yet Kabbalah teaches
that when we adhere rigidly
to one definition of self
get stuck in one of the sephirot
on the tree of life
it leads to destruction

for the sap that runs through the tree of life
feeds all its branches;
and to grow spiritually
requires that one receive from another

that one remain a whole vessel
filling up
and overflowing
into another…

That I am of the tribe of Benjamin,
that I am Portuguese Sephardic
through my more recent forebears,
is part of my external identity

it defines the identifiable ‘stuff’
that my vessel,
my body,
is made of.

This is important
for it links me to those who came before me
of whom I am a part,
a manifestation of their embodiment on earth;

there is a link between me and them –
a cellular link
between parent and child;

and in Judaism it seems
that this link is to be honoured
much as one is commanded
to honour one’s father and mother.

Or am I reading more into this
than is correct?
Am I reading more into this
than is healthy?

Does this not potentially make me
a slave to my ancestors’ whims?
Does this not potentially make me
a slave to the past?

These questions arose
after a conversation
in which I was reminded
that revivalisms are often distorted

for we are not our ancestors
and cannot live as they did;
contexts change
as do customs…

To hanker for the past
and to replicate it
does not serve the present
does not serve the future…

A timely observation shared
for I find that in my search
for an authentic personal Jewish practice
I have taken on customs that don’t align
with my soul identity and purpose.

Seeking self-mastery
therefore, seems to require

that I be conscious of balancing
respect and honour to my forebears
and my teachers

with my own truth

For this Maimonides is most helpful
for he was a philosopher
who looked into the meanings
behind halachic practice.

I find his two principles
as the basis for Judaism’s agricultural laws
helpful in guiding my search
for Truth.

With this information
I made peace with Maimonides,
also known as the Rambam,
for what I perceived as his errors.

Where did this judgemental attitude come from?

While I think it might come from a love of truth
it clearly is a distorted expectation on my side
explaining a propensity to intense self-judgement
which is unhealthy

Therefore, on the road to healthy self-love
I have placed myself on…

Yesterday I went back to ‘my’ allotment
and planted some pole beans
for I had read that watering during the Shemita year
is actually allowed
as are other interventions
that save trees from dying;

(This was to correct myself
for I had unilaterally decided
that I wanted to leave my land to lie fallow
as though in Israel it was
when clearly, it’s not.

It’s in South Africa!

Since watering is allowed
I hadn’t corrected myself.
Planting the beans
was the correction.)

The complexity
of the Sabbatical Year
enjoined only on Jewish people
living in the land of Israel
seemed like a maze
I could not find my way through;

I was glad to have noted that
Choose Life
the basic orientation of Mosaic Judaism
as the foundational principle
I can trust.

Doing all this reflective
and self-corrective work
made me wonder about
my true relationship with Israel –

In Judaism
Israel denotes three possibilities:

the new name that G-d gave Jacob
after he wrestled with an angel
so that Israel and Jacob
refer the last Patriarch of the Jewish people;

Israel is also
the nation made up of a diversity of Jewish people
regardless of where they live in the world;

As most people know,
Israel is also the secular Jewish state in the Middle East –
the land G-d bequeathed to Abraham
through Isaac
and Jacob.

I find it strange that I have no memory
of ever wanting to visit it
let alone settle there.

Yet given my recent actions,
which might be classified as ‘rebellious’
suggests that deep within my soul
I had a desire to be there
this year –

I had a desire for experiencing this Shemita year;

Given that I live in the diaspora
I thought I could obtain a little taste of it
through ‘my’ allotment.

Yet all that happened
was a backlash
from my ancestors

for it is forbidden for a Jewish soul
to pretend
that any land can replace
the Promised Land;

It is forbidden by rabbinical Judaism
to undertake actions
that contradict the written
and oral tradition.

At least this is how I have interpreted
my intense experiences since the beginning
of Elul –

Strapped to a rollercoaster
that made me dizzy
to the point of nausea

until yesterday,
supported by a tzaddik,

to slow down
to calm down
to correct my mistake at the allotment

and in the little patch of soil at home
where I intended to carry out
the same practice;

I therefore cut some branches off a plant
because it was blocking an entrance
thinking that this was my self-correcting action.

Yet it was not,
for this too is allowed.

Sinking some sweet potato vines
into the soil
was my real my correction.

Taken aback as I was
by the angst that I experienced
as a consequence of ignorance
I have learnt a basic lesson –

in Torah law
and simultaneously
in biodiversity;

On this one earth
there exists a variety of regional climates
that give rise to a multiplicity of biomes
that give rise to a diversity of cultures

and Israel –

the Patriarch
the People
the Promised land

hold the memory
of G-d revealed

as Creator
as Sustainer of the earth;

as Owner of the land

entrusted to a people
who would do their best to
follow the revealed blueprint

that they may be empowered
and grateful co-creative stewards
of this specific piece of earth

and in the process
learn resilience
in the face of challenges?

While making agriculture
for future generations?

Shared for the sake of Truth seeking.
Shared for authentic conversations having.
Shared for blessing.

(©Archaela 5782 Kislev 18, 19)

Sources and Resources
Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon: Shemita: Halacha Mimekorah – From the Sources to Practical Halacha
Sara Evian: Thursday Shiurim

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