Reading Braiding Sweetgrass in a shmita year

At the start of 5782, my hevruta study partner and I decided to begin a course through the education platform ProjectZug on shmita laws. The laws ask us to take only what we need and let the land and animals rest to preserve agriculture. As Jews, we are told to follow these obscure agricultural and economic laws every seven years. 

I’m a fairly environmentally conscious Jew (I follow a vegan diet, compost, and have led some environmental activities at my synagogue), and I wanted to know more about shmita’s traditions and guidelines. Shmita is largely overlooked by North American Jewish culture and I assumed it was because it is difficult for people in an industrialized society to care about a tradition that tells you to rest your field and livestock when you live in a major city and buy your vegetables at the grocery store. Interestingly, however, what kept coming up the most during our studies was the emphasis on dignity, justice, and equity. Shmita may be about pausing agricultural work, but it’s far more than that. The laws involve giving animals, the poor, and anyone in the community open access to food and debt relief. And while I was surprised by this discovery, I was just as unprepared to find those same themes echoed many times over in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, which is an exploration of Indigenous practices and how they interact with science and ecology

Kimmerer is a member of the Indigenous Potawatomi Nation and a botanist and plant ecologist teaching at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. In Braiding Sweetgrass, she weaves together her knowledge of plants and Indigenous practices, calling for our society to recognize the interdependence between humans and nature, and move towards a system of mutual gratitude towards the earth. 

Even though Indigenous and Jewish communities were worlds apart when their respective traditions formed, they speak of similar values. Kimmerer writes, “Reciprocity is a matter of keeping the gift in motion through self-perpetuating cycles of giving and receiving.” The Torah tells us, “Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and your vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land” (Leviticus 26:5). Both paint cycles of giving and receiving, planting and sowing, with the goal of living in peace and prosperity. Isn’t this what we all want, at our core?

The reasons behind the creation of shmita are lost to history, but I believe they were given to us for the same reason Kimmerer’s elders taught their descendents that reciprocity and balance is the key to survival. As she says, “These laws are the product of hard experience, of past mistakes.” It is not hard to believe shmita is born from the same mistakes, resulting in the same plea to undo them. This entailed ancient agricultural people telling their descendents to take only what they need and to let the land and animals rest every few years, because they knew the inherent dangers of taking too much.

In the book, one of Kimmerer’s students believed sweetgrass—a sacred plant for many Indigenous communities who require it for ceremonies— would grow stronger if it was harvested instead of left unattended. When the student shared this with the academic committee of experienced and scholarly scientists, they scoffed, believing this to be impossible. However, at the end of the summer, Kimmerer’s student proved to be correct. The harvested and cared for  sweetgrass plots were growing strongly. The unattended plots used as controls in the experiment were choked with dead stems. Demonstrating that experienced and thoughtful care of nature can lead to equally beneficial outcomes for humans and plants. 

In the Mishnah Sheviit, rabbis outline detailed rules regarding shmita, including how long you can plow or irrigate the fields. You can still water plants in a shmita year, but only the foliage, not the roots. And, according to Rabbi Shimon, “one may also remove leaves from a grape cluster even in the seventh year itself.” Wine is so important to Jewish culture that even grape clusters can be cleaned to ensure they receive enough light during a year in which no other such work is permitted; the same way that sacred sweetgrass truly thrives only when humans harvest it. These parallels suggest that rabbis and Indigenous farmers had the same theories of agricultural caretaking, even oceans and continents apart. The commonalities emphasize how important our role as environmental stewards are in the face of a changing climate.

It is impossible to divorce this discussion from climate change, especially in a shmita year that has already been full of winter wildfires, record strength hurricanes, volcanic ash covering the island of Tonga, and so much more. Kimmerer’s book is not suggesting a solution to climate change as a whole, but a rethinking of our relationship with earth. This is precisely what Hashem calls on Jews to do during shmita; this land is not ours, it belongs to Hashem. “Throughout the land that you hold, you must provide for the redemption of the land,” we are told (Leviticus 25:24). As this year continues, we as Jews need to remember this, and seek a connection with the land we are borrowing. This might involve working with an organization like Tikkun HaYam, which leads Reverse Tashlich waterway trash pickups each Rosh Hashanah. It might mean getting involved with a local farming group or joining a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) organization where you can experience the joy of watching food grow from the ground. An experience that will give you an appreciation for what Kimmerer calls the Honourable Harvest, a system of gratitude and reciprocity between humanity and the earth. Or it could mean working with your synagogue to take care of trees or landscaping, and maybe making suggestions on how to grow more sustainable and native plants for your local ecosystem. 

We cannot return to a pre-industrialized society, that much is true. But I am a Jew who believes we have a responsibility to repair the world, to uphold the laws we were given, and to listen to the cautionary tales of the sages who came before us. Unfortunately, even if every Jew tries to live the message of shmita, of justice and reciprocity, of balance and fairness, the climate crisis requires changes beyond the Jewish community’s capabilities. Yet, “all of our flourishing is mutual,” as Kimmerer writes, and working together to honour our ancient traditions with the hope of a more just world is a worthy goal. 


Header image design by Orly Zebak.


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