Hello! Welcome to my new shmittah column! Two years ago, I moved to Israel from the UK with my husband and three children, along with a pile of suitcases and a limited Hebrew vocabulary. Moving to the Holy Land has impacted the way we live our lives in so many ways. Entering the shmittah year is yet another new way in which life here is different from life in the Diaspora—a new, exciting challenge that brings a lot of previously unthought-of dilemmas (unthought-of by me, anyway), a whole new level of holiness and a new awareness of how we treat food, its significance, and its specialness.
This is my first shmittah year living in Israel, and I’m really excited to share with you some of the unique experiences of shmittah 5775. Shmittah is for the Land of Israel what Shabbos is for the Jewish people. For one year out of every seven we may not work the land at all, beyond what is needed to keep plants and trees from dying. This means that you can’t water your garden any more than necessary to keep it alive, or prune your trees, or spray your roses to keep off the aphids (if, indeed, that’s what those insects are).* All produce that grows during the shmittah year is termed kedushas shvi’is and must be treated with respect. You can’t throw it straight in the garbage; you have to dispose of it by wrapping it carefully or put it in a special receptacle until it rots. We’re also adjured to eat and enjoy the holy produce, and to take care not to waste it.
NOTE: If you are a farmer, shmittah has much bigger ramifications, but I’m sticking to domestic shmittah observance in this column. I’m also not going to answer any halachic questions or give any halachic rulings, beyond some background information.
Please note too that there are different opinions for almost every aspect of shmittah, so don’t be concerned if your friend in Israel tells you something different from what you read here. Before Rosh Hashanah, I thought that shmittah would mostly affect me in the kitchen. Since shmittah produce is holy, you are not allowed to do anything to make even the leftovers and peels disgusting. Instead, you have to leave holy shmittah produce to rot separately before throwing it out. One afternoon my kids painted an old cracker box and wrote “Shmittah” on it. We lined it with a plastic bag, and—voilà! Our own special shmittah can for holy leftovers and peelings that can’t be thrown in the regular garbage. Actually, we made two. If you put your fresh peelings in with your two-day-old, partially rotted peelings, then you are making the fresh peelings disgusting. So fresh peelings must go into a different can. I was totally ready (or so I thought) for shmittah in the kitchen. But I didn’t realize how much shmittah would affect me outside the kitchen.
THE BATTLE OF THE BOUGAINVILLEA
We did know that we had to prepare our garden before shmittah began. Mainly, this meant cutting all our trees and plants right back, because you’re not allowed to prune them during the shmittah year unless they might die (it turns out that having your gate blocked by a rose bush is not a good enough reason to prune your roses during shmittah). But even though the whole country knew that shmittah was coming, we all still ended up doing it at the last minute. Every gardener in my neighborhood was booked solid for the two weeks before Rosh Hashanah. Even a couple of days before Rosh Hashanah, there was still a flurry of pruning and tidying going on. It was like that last halfhour before Shabbos. Our biggest problem was our bougainvillea.
When we moved into our house a year ago, it came with a massive bougainvillea plant that blocked the sunlight and threatened to bar entrance to the garden. (A bougainvillea is a tough plant with beautiful pink flowers and three-inch-long killer thorns.) We decided to have it removed; it took four men almost four hours to cut it down and drag it down the steps outside our building. We brushed off our hands, enjoyed the new experience of seeing the sunlight finally penetrating our garden, and thought that was the end of it. Oh, how wrong we were. It turns out that bougainvillea is almost impossible to kill. After a couple of months, my husband realized that the green shoots coming up on the other side of the garden were actually young bougainvillea suckers sent out by the poisoned bougainvillea stump. It was the beginning of a war of attrition.
Every time we thought it was eradicated, it sprang up in a different part of the garden. A few days before Rosh Hashanah, we realized that if we just resigned from our bougainvillea war, by the end of shmittah we wouldn’t be able to get out the front door. My husband worked hard to destroy every bougainvillea sucker before Rosh Hashanah, and poisoned the stump yet again. But despite our efforts, the first baby bougainvillea shoots were popping up again before Yom Kippur. Cue the first of many shmittah questions that we asked our rav. Thankfully, he told us that we were allowed to destroy the bougainvillea during the shmittah year if leaving it alone for 12 months would cause us significant damage.
Next: I went to turn on the washing machine and realized that it drains directly into our garden (no, I do not know why). Cue phone call number two to the rabbi: Was it a problem that our washing machine was watering the garden during shmittah since one is not permitted to water plants beyond what is needed to keep them alive? (His answer: Put a stone or tile beneath the stream of water so that it doesn’t run directly into the ground.) And the next day, my son discovered that his pet cockatiel had died during the night. He was very upset, and the only thing that would console him was to give the cockatiel a full burial in the garden. We put the bird in a small cardboard box and got ready to dig a grave. But then— “It’s shmittah! We can’t bury anything during shmittah!” said my daughter. Hmm. I suppose that when the cockatiel decomposes, it will fertilize the ground. Perhaps that is a shmittah issue.
Phone call number three brought permission to bury the bird, as long as it was clear that we weren’t digging for agricultural purposes. I wonder what’s going to come up next. To be continued… *Any halachic rulings or opinions mentioned in this column are only my own understanding of the halachos of shmittah, or else they are specific rulings given by our rabbi for our particular case and should not be extrapolated as general rulings. Please refer to your own competent halachic authority or a reliable and reputable shmittah guide for the halachos of shmittah.