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Rooting For Shemittah

z3By Judah S. Harris

If you’re involved with your local synagogue—and especially if you like fruit—ask that it sponsor an orchard in Israel. That’s 100 trees, maybe more.

There’s an initiative right now to plant thousands upon thousands of trees. Jewish farmers are standing by and ready to do the work, and they just need trees to be purchased for them. But August 11 is the deadline for the farmers to plant.

Why August 11? This coming year of Shemittah, when the land “rests” or is “released,” begins on Rosh Hashanah. The planting of trees must be 45 days prior (by the 15th of Av) to allow the roots to take hold before the onset of the Shemittah year. During the year, trees can be maintained, but not improved. Drip-irrigation techniques work fine in this regard, and the trees grow in a healthy manner.

When your shul members come to Israel, they will be able to visit the actual orchard they sponsored. Eating the fruit only happens in the fourth year (in keeping with the laws of orlah, which apply differently to different varieties of fruit trees, some bearing fruit earlier than others, some being categorized as shrubs), so don’t expect to partake immediately.

Orlah applies outside of Israel too, but if there is a safek (doubt) whether or not a certain fruit is orlah, we’re allowed to eat it. The origins of most fruit in the commercial marketplace would not be known to us. In Israel, though, the doubt doesn’t absolve a person, so questionable orlah is not permitted. Again, not all fruits are regulated by orlah. Many are not, so one needs to inquire about a given variety (lists are easy to come by).

Back to the trees. If your synagogue sponsors an orchard, it will receive a photo of the orchard for display at the synagogue and visual recognition at the orchard site itself. Those congregations that participate will receive a certificate and be considered partners in the mitzvah of Shemittah. The cost is $3,000 for the orchard. Trees can also be purchased in smaller numbers, from $45 for a single tree, though it is a nice endeavor for a shul to sponsor a full orchard collectively—certainly a more public and visible activity in the community. More information is available at

The current campaign is about planting in time for the Shemittah year, but it’s also about planting in memory of those who were recently cut down, lives that were lost, taken. The planting is a rebirth, a response.

The Shemittah year, a Biblical commandment (parashas Behar), is not just sound agricultural advice (similar to rotating your crops), but intended as a year of strengthening the Jewish people’s connection with the Creator, by way of instilling increased faith. The nation is dependent solely on G‑d for its sustenance and now has time to devote to more spiritual matters, activities that are harder to accomplish in tandem with the mundane, though necessary, routines of daily life. An agricultural respite offers an opportunity for revival.

The number seven in Judaism—Shemittah being the seventh year in the cycle of seven years—has meaning. It represents completion and wholeness. The six years that precede the Shemittah period, just like the six days of the week that precede the Sabbath, are times of struggle, work, labor, the norm. The seventh day arrives as a day of rest, when all has been completed—a time of unity; everything has come together. During the Shemittah year, the unity of the people is renewed. No one has ownership over the land. The focus is not on private enterprise, but the communal experience and communal relationship. The Shemittah year is a full return to that which existed at Sinai, when Jewish unity was a prerequisite for the receiving of G‑d’s Law (Ksav Sofer), the Torah being an inheritance that would further unite the Jewish generations in a common mission, a shared destiny. ϖ

Judah S. Harris is a photographer, filmmaker, speaker, and writer. You can see more of his work at

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Posted by on July 31, 2014. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.