This Week in Jewish Farming: Sustainable Shabbat

Thirsty seedlings in the greenhouse.

Thirsty seedlings in the greenhouse.

I’m not the most strictly religious Jew in the world, but I grew up keeping Shabbat and, well, some habits die hard. As I got older, Saturday became my favorite day of the week. Eating and sleeping are two of my favorite activities (the New York Times Sunday crossword, which devotees know is delivered on Saturday in the New York area, is a third) and something about that Friday afternoon cooking rush, followed by a meal, followed by falling asleep in a house with a packed refrigerator and no alarm set for the morning — really, I can’t think of anything more cozy.

Once I started farming, a day of mandatory rest came to feel like nothing less than a godsend. When Friday afternoon would roll around, I was physically finished in a way I never was working a desk job. Which seemed appropriate, given that a large portion of the 39 activities traditionally prohibited on Shabbat are agricultural. From sunset Friday till nightfall Saturday, there would be no winnowing, no threshing and no reaping.

But what’s good for me is a challenge for the farm. Saturday is typically a major market day. And even if it weren’t, the plants aren’t taking the day off just because the farmer is. Jewish groups these days love to celebrate the rich tradition of Jewish agricultural law, but what do the rabbis have to say about watering the greenhouse on Saturdays?

Until now, this has never been an issue. The first farm I worked on in southern Vermont was run by a sweet Jewish family that hosted epic Shabbat dinners on Friday nights and declared Saturday the farm’s weekly day off. Then I got spoiled working on a student farm in Santa Cruz, Calif., that was strictly Monday-Friday. And when I told my most recent boss I wouldn’t work on Saturdays for religious reasons, she nearly leaped with excitement. That farm sold at three markets on Saturdays; it was by far its biggest revenue day of the week. But she thought the notion of a sabbath was so cool that she’d urge me to get going if I stayed too late on Fridays.

Now, it’s an issue. Not because I’m doing a Saturday market; the Coventry Regional Farmers Market — widely considered the finest farmers market in Connecticut, conveniently located five minutes from the farm, and which to my great surprise accepted my farm as a full-time vendor — is held, mercifully, on Sundays. But in the heat of summer (it’s going to arrive eventually, I assume), those thirsty little greenhouse seedlings with their developing root systems just aren’t going to make it a full 24 hours without a drink.

My solution to this problem is Fred, my sole employee and the farm’s official Shabbos goy. But even Fred has his limits, and a few weeks ago we hit one: he had a commitment on a Saturday. I thought we could fudge it. With this unseasonably cool weather and a heavy Friday dousing, sometimes we can skip a day. But when Saturday dawned bright and sunny, I knew the temperature in the greenhouse was soaring and I delivered an urgent SOS by text.

In the days before greenhouses and commercial farming, such problems never arose, and it was relatively easy to abide by centuries-old standards of prohibited Shabbat activities. With the large-scale return of Jews to farming following the establishment of the State of Israel, largely technological solutions were found to the watering problem and others, like milking dairy cows on Saturdays. Certainly, timer-operated sprinkler systems offer a solution, but that’s beyond the reach of a beginning operation like mine.

Part of the appeal of the farming lifestyle has always been the apparent harmony between my work and my values. But the Shabbat thing is a constant reminder that blanket solutions rarely exist and compromises often need to be found.

Veteran JTA journalist Ben Harris is chronicling his new life as a Connecticut farmer. Read more of his weekly dispatches here.

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From the annals of Jewish farming: A new law recommended to the Knesset by the Israeli cabinet in 1966 aimed to strengthen Shabbat observance in the country, but specifically exempted kibbutzim, allowing them to perform chores “necessary for the upkeep of the farm.”

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