The Human Spirit: Jewish fun

That will be twice as much fun.

Rabbis begin planting new vegetation marking the end of the shmita year (photo credit: BARBARA SOFER)
Rabbis begin planting new vegetation marking the end of the shmita year
(photo credit: BARBARA SOFER)
 On the day after Rosh Hashana, I’m sitting high up in a tractor in the Tov v’Hameitiv Foundation fields in Rehovot, having fun.
The sabbatical year cycle has ended, and this is the first day of the Hebrew calendar year of 5776 when, according to biblical doctrine, it’s permissible to turn over the dry sods of earth and begin anew the cycle of planting.
We Jews in Israel count and observe seven-year agricultural cycles. The seventh year is the original “sabbatical year,” and I wonder how many academics know their years off relate to our quaint biblical customs. The year is called shmita, from the Hebrew word “to release,” in which the land isn’t farmed and farmers get a break from back-breaking field work.
Considering the millennia of our exile, you might think we’d lose count.
But no, we’re great counters. We know that the Hebrew year 3829, which corresponded to 68-69 of the Common Era, was a sabbatical year. Count by sevens and, voilà, you get to 5775, the year that just ended.
AS IT happens, I am driving from Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem to Rehovot after being present at an early birth. The mother is a young friend who fought and won a battle against cancer 15 years ago. Before she began chemotherapy, her ovary was removed and deep frozen. A decade and a half later, slivers of the ovary were re-implanted. The chances were low that she could get pregnant, but the thawed life-potential came back and at 38 she gave birth to a boisterous, beautiful boy.
Riding in the tractor on the dry earth feels analogous. Once again, this field will produce lots of food. Four black-hatted rabbis are already placing cabbage plants in the ground.
Cabbage and cauliflower will go in first, my sabra driver tells me. He’s a young man from an agricultural village nearby. In the short time we’re in the tractor’s cab, I learn that his wife is expecting a child and that she’s converting to Judaism. Life stories are swapped without inhibitions in this country, with its strong feeling of family.
You might also think that this sentimental concern for the ancient injunctions about farming might be counterintuitive in a country famous for its hi-tech prowess and reputation for innovation. But our love and respect for the land abides, even as we invent firewalls and drones. We come home from a hundred different lands and we recognize that our origins were here in this patch of sacred soil the size of New Jersey.
Pious scholars do, of course, differ on how to interpret the biblical command of the sabbatical year. There are serious authorities in Jewish law who have decided the land should be “sold” for a year, and farming continued, while other experts believe that Israeli land defined by biblical borders must not be farmed at all costs. The subject is complicated enough to warrant entire courses on the rules (fruit, for instance, is just beginning its sabbatical year). My tractor driver’s wife will have to learn this material as part of her Israel conversion program.
But even if you’re not passing a test or aren’t a particularly religious person, you’re likely to have a consciousness of shmita if you live in Israel. Signs along the highway declare “This field is left fallow because of shmita.” Lots of private persons postpone planting their gardens, or even refreshing their house plants, during shmita. Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund halts its “plant a tree in Israel” programs. On a recent tour of the Meir Shfeya Youth Village in the wine country near Zichron Ya’acov, the manager surprised me by saying there were no grapes available for the student winery this year because of shmita – and the wine made at Shfeya isn’t even considered kosher because the teen vintners aren’t all Orthodox Jews, or even Jews. Still, shmita is upheld.
The Tov v’Hameitiv Foundation fields follow the system of leaving the land fallow. Although most farmers who take a year off from agriculture suffer a financial loss, in the case of these fields there is no financial loss. That’s because they never made a profit in the first place.
One hundred percent of the 100 tons of produce harvested each week is given away.
Another biblical concept, the commandment to leave a corner of every field for the poor, is often unacknowledged, as is our out-of-proportion tendency to give to the needy. (To quote just one study, the 2013 Connected to Give survey found that 76% of American Jews reported a charitable contribution in 2012, compared to 63% among non-Jewish Americans. The median annual giving rate among Jews was $1,200, double that of non-Jews.) In the Tov v’Hameitiv Foundation fields, not just a corner, but the entire field, is designated for the hungry.
And – forgive me for being so didactic – a final Jewish concept: Hatov v’hameitiv is a blessing praising God for being good and for doing good. It’s recited on hearing good news, something like the better-known Sheheheyanu prayer, but specifically when more than one person enjoys the same good fortune.
FOR AS long as I have known them, sharing their enjoyment – having fun – is what the folks behind the Tov v’Hameitiv Foundation say about growing food.
The foundation was started by my friends Sanford “Sandy” Colb and Paula Resnick Colb, whom I first met when we were teen undergraduates and social activists at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. They had green thumbs even back in the Old Country, but their zucchini and tomatoes grew bigger and better in Rehovot, where Sandy’s work as a patent attorney was harnessing the energy of Israeli innovation and intellectual property.
As the law firm prospered, the garden grew. The “victory garden” plots that abutted home and office produced buckets of their bounty to give away. That was fun, but Sandy wanted more. So he bought more land and leased other fields. Being the son of Holocaust survivors might have something to do with it.
Today, the foundation is up to about 100 hectares, or 250 acres. And because picking is also part of the fun, tens of thousands of volunteers come through Leket, the national food bank, and other volunteer organizations that encourage Israelis and tourists to have a hands-on experience gathering onions and green peppers.
One of Paula and Sandy’s four children, David Colb, a lawyer in the firm, helps run the non-profit foundation, which today employs more than 50 workers, many of them older Ethiopian immigrants and some of them challenged persons. Nearly all of the employees were kept on the payroll during the sabbatical year.
David Colb sounds like his parents in describing all the fun they’re having: the fun of planting, the fun of growing, the fun of giving back.
“We used the sabbatical year to paint and mend fences, to streamline logistics,” he says. “We’re using more effective farming techniques and better management, and we’re hoping to double our production so we can give away twice as much.”
That will be twice as much fun. 
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.