A new Jerusalem landmark

Visitors can learn how the Botanical Gardens observe ‘shmita,’ as well as the values of the sabbatical year at the Year of the Land Park.

Rabbi Eli Taragin near the Tree of Good Deeds in the Botanical Gardens of Jerusalem. (photo credit: BATSHEVA POMERANTZ)
Rabbi Eli Taragin near the Tree of Good Deeds in the Botanical Gardens of Jerusalem.
(photo credit: BATSHEVA POMERANTZ)
Technology and nature combine in a fun way to transmit the values of shmita (the sabbatical year) in the Year of the Land Park, inaugurated in December at Jerusalem’s Botanical Gardens.
Participants first view a five minute film (with English subtitles) to introduce the concept of shmita. Young Yoni sees a stranger in his father’s vineyard, taking grapes, and suspects he’s a thief. His father later explains to Yoni that during shmita, the vineyard’s produce does not belong to him.
The stranger comes every shmita year to pick grapes to give the poor. Yoni learns about the land deserving a rest, and about helping others; he then invites the viewers to participate in an interactive game.
“The emphasis here isn’t on Halacha, but values,” says Rabbi Eli Taragin, director of the Halacha Education Center, which initiated the program.
“Visitors learn in the Year of the Land about the values of the shmita year, such as rest, giving of oneself and caring for the environment.” The program is suitable for both adults and children from first grade onward, observant and secular.
Using smartphones or tablets (provided by the botanical gardens), a map and a booklet, participants download an application in Hebrew or English that has them going on a treasure hunt of seven stations – looking for specific trees or plants throughout the park, with each station offering a different task. For example, after locating the Tree of Good Deeds, with its plastic “fruit” balls hanging from branches, participants read that according to the Torah, landowners release their fields in the shmita year, declaring their produce ownerless, with everyone welcome to enjoy his neighbor’s fruits. In the spirit of giving and receiving during shmita, participants choose a good deed, write it on paper, insert it in one of the “fruit” on the tree – and hopefully, they’ll transform their plan to reality.
At the tranquil lake near the botanical gardens’ entrance, participants are asked to remain silent and disconnect for seven minutes, to pause and devote time to themselves. “They learn here that in addition to the land resting, people also deserve to have a break and reflect in silence without distractions,” explains Taragin.
“Environmentalism is addressed by locating the tree that saves on water consumption.”
“The botanical gardens show the diversity of the plant world,” says Dr. Ori Fragman- Sapir, head scientist at the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens.
“The message of the gardens is that our surroundings are connected to plants, including clothing and food; plants also connect to culture, religions and people. Many regular visitors here are religious and will enjoy participating in the game.
“In addition, we view the values connected to shmita as important, and have adopted some of them.” Among these values, Fragman-Sapir lists environmental sustainability and consumer habits – to buy only what’s necessary.
The laws of shmita are observed at the botanical gardens, so its horticulturists have less gardening work and can recharge their batteries.
Fragman-Sapir explains: “They are taking courses to upgrade their skills and to plan the gardens for next year. Many people are always putting out fires without a break, but this year, it’s different for the horticulturists.”
The interactive game starts and ends at the Shnat Ha’adama Garden. In addition to meaning “Year of the Land,” “shnat” indicates sleep or rest, and “ha’adama” includes “adam” – a person, alluding to a central value of the shmita year.
The route of the game takes over an hour to complete. In the Shnat Ha’adama Garden, a guide summarizes the activity. For religious visitors, it’s a 20-minute discussion, incorporating halachic details. Among nonreligious visitors, the briefer summary focuses on values of shmita.
“Visitors are impressed when they see the plants thriving during the shmita year – all planted and taken care of according to the laws of shmita,” points out Taragin.
Participants can expect to see a small hothouse with hydroponic plants (without soil) – one of the recommended methods for growing produce; fertilizing, pruning branches, and trimming ornamental trees and potted plants according to various methods are presented.
Taragin’s Halacha Education Center, founded by Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon (see box), has also developed a shmita calendar.
The user-friendly calendar includes brief summaries of shmita laws relevant to that month or season, highlighting the spiritual and social merits of observing shmita.
The practical part of shmita observance is presented with photographs of fruits and vegetables on the specific day when kedushat shvi’it (sanctity of shmita produce) applies to the specific item; suggestions are given for the family to experience shmita.
Photographs of the rich agricultural enterprise that existed in Gush Katif enhance the calendar, which also marks holidays and Shabbat.