R. JOSHUA SAYS THE SFICHIM OF HARDAL ARE PERMITTED, BECAUSE TRANSGRESSORS ARE NOT SUSPECTED WITH REGARDS TO THEM
R. SIMEON SAYS ALL OF THE SFICHIM ARE PERMITTED EXCEPT FOR THOSE OF KERUV, BECAUSE THEIR IS NOTHING LIKE THEM IN THE VEGETABLES OF THE FIELD
THE SAGES SAY THEY ARE ALL FORBIDDEN
If the Torah forbids you to sow your fields every seventh year, you are not left with empty fields. The earth, even earth very carefully tilled and cultivated, has a wild propensity for growth, and crops that you’ve planted in the past will often show up in the future of their own accord. We know this firsthand from clearing Erin’s potato patch of insistent tomatillos. Is that growth, known in English as volunteer growth and in Hebrew as sfiach, permitted to us on shemita? According to Maimonides the answer is no. Anything sprouting from the earth on the seventh year is forbidden for use (tree-fruits are still permitted, as well as wild edibles, if you’re wondering). But the legal history of this prohibition, its origins, scope, and motivations, is extremely murky. The mishna includes several sections which imply that they are permitted under the restrictions of shemita-holiness, several sections which imply that they are forbidden, and, most enigmatically, some which suggest they are reserved for the poor. The implications are significant (the common image of people sustaining themselves from ownerless fields seems to be at stake), and yet the mishna quoted above contains their only explicit mention.
Allow me to explain.
HARDAL is mustard, in mishnaic and modern Hebrew alike. Farmers would never plant a field of mustard. They would fill out the borders of their gardens with it, and when it was harvested it would drop a good deal of seed and grow back easily in abundance. So everyone had a lot of it, and frankly didn’t even really want that much of it, because it’s mustard and mustard is pretty bitter. R. Joshua thinks that it escapes the general prohibition on sfiach, presumably because it is almost a weed (who are the transgressors who are not suspected? Those who would plant it? Those who would sell it? Not so clear).
KERUV is commonly translated as cabbage. I was perplexed by R. Simeon’s position for a long time. What is so special about cabbage, that makes it the sole vegetable upon which the sfiach prohibition rests? There is nothing like it amongst the other vegetables, he says, mysteriously. Well it turns out, according to the botanical researches of Prof. Yehuda Feliks, that the KERUV of the mishna is a variety of cabbage that we know today as KALE. That’s right, our adored superfood actually grew in Israel in the times of the mishna. There are a couple of important things we need to know about kale. Firstly, it is a biennial plant. That means it continues to grow leaves for an entire year and into the next spring without going to seed. We do not know of this in wintry climates because winter kills everything (“I don’t know what happens to kale…I’ve never seen it go to seed”, says Erin, our resident expert), but in Israel, they could rely on their kale plants making new leaves for a pretty long time, longer than most vegetables. You can pick leaves from the bottom, and the top of the plant continues to produce. Then, in the second year, it sprouts a flowering seedy stalk (called imahot, mothers), and the leaves quickly wither away. There is no wild variety of brassica that grows with that relentless vitality.
So, imagine you grew kale last year. You leave the plant in the ground during shemita, because why not, and it sprouts mothers. You might be tempted to maintain your crop by collecting seeds from the mother and planting them on shemita, then letting them grow as if on their own. Ergo, R. Simeon’s prohibition. All volunteer growths, except the magnificent kale, are permitted to you.
For added insight into the exalted place held by kale in the rabbinic imagination, note the following parable from Bamidbar Rabbah:
The verse at issue is the curse in Isaiah 17:11. “On that day your planting will grow, on the morning your seed will flower—your harvest will wither on a day of mortal pain.”
On the morning your seed will flower. To what can this be compared? To a king who has a garden full of kale, praised and beautiful. He walks amongst them in the evening, gazes upon them and says, “How wonderful you are! In the morning I will sell you to the merchants and fill my purse with gold.” In the morning he comes to the garden and finds that they have all flowered! “What ruin!” says he. “In the evening you were wonderful but in the morning you have flowered.” So says the Lord of his people Israel.
Just as we are cursed like kale, so we might be blessed like kale. Our wither and ruin is secretly a mother of our regrowth.