Kale Torah


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.

Good shabbos.

-Avi Garelick


Just for the love of it

During dinner today, I noticed something ruffling around under my feet. Unsurprisingly it was Ruby, Erin’s dog, digging into the ground. When I asked Erin why Ruby (or dogs in general) do that, she said, “Just for the love of it!” That sums Ruby up pretty well. Watching her, playing by herself, with the other dog Joey, or with one of us, is an amazing exercise in “.. the love of it!” There’s a certain… eagerness, not just playfulness, and 100% engagement that is a joy to behold and something I want to learn from.

When in our adult lives do we get to play? And when do we get to play like that? Perhaps when we play with animals or little kids? Perhaps, in a different way, in our intimate relationships and making love? Where do you get to play?

– Moshe Givental

Facing the darkness

Yesterday was the 17th of Tammuz, a fast day in the Jewish calendar, which marks the beginning of the “three weeks” a period of mourning for the destruction of the first and second temples and the exile of the Jewish people from the land of Israel, which culminates in the fast of the 9th of Av,
known as the saddest day in the Jewish calendar.

Though it’s hard for many Jews today to connect with an authentic feeling of sadness at the destruction wrought so long ago, after all many of us are either pretty comfortable in our diaspora existences, and many have returned to the land of Israel, thank God. Nonetheless observant Jews follow mourning customs during this time, refraining from celebratory activities like drinking wine or playing music, or even getting haircuts. Ideally I imagine these customs are a vehicle for expressing sadness and a sort of retrospective solidarity with our ancestors who suffered and died during this season. Many of us, though, simply follow them because that’s what observant Jews do. We’d like to find them meaningful but we don’t.

Unlike Passover, when the experience we are asked to relive is one of liberation during the three weeks we do not relive any kind of redemption, only devastating loss. I imagine it is not merely the remoteness of the historical events that make it difficult to connect to this period of commemoration. After all, passover is even more historically remote. It’s just that on the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, we are asked to remember the worst that can happen to a people, war, starvation, exile and more. It would be much more pleasant not to grapple with those experiences, but I think as individuals and as a people we owe it to ourselves to come to terms with them.

We live in a world where every day is probably the 9th of Av for someone. By giving ourselves permission to face the darkness for these three weeks, to mourn it, rage against it, accept it but in any case to truly face it, then perhaps we can emerge with renewed strength to fight the darkness and sow seeds of light, a deepened capacity for compassion.

–Garth Silberstein

Getting Rid of the Bitter

Food is not wasted at the farm. It’s not just because the people here value recycling, it’s also because they’re 1) smarter than I am, and 2) have a farm! The little odds and ends I cut off of vegetables before I cook with them are used to make stock for soup. Other parts of the vegetables, like the greens from beets or radishes, or just grass looking things that I can’t identify get mixed into a stir fry. Left overs go to the compost, the chickens, goats, or the dog. It’s a great big family.

Now those strange greens that I can’t identify don’t exactly taste “good.” Sometimes they do, but often they’re quite bitter. On the other hand, I’m quite hungry after a long day of work, and I don’t want to be rude so I generally take a taste. It wasn’t until an off-hand remark by Elan Margulies a few days ago about modern society cutting out the bitter from our diet and that much of what grows around us and we just think of as grass and weeds is edible that I paused to think about it. The reason for this phenomenon is not hard to imagine. Bitter is an acquired taste to say the least. A few people at the Pushing the Envelope Farm suggested that, evolutionarily, it likely signified toxicity and therefore danger. However, there was something about Elan’s statement that ate at me, it rang true and problematic on a deeper level and reminded me of Yehuda Amichai’s poem “From the Book of Esther I Filtered the Sediment”

From the Book of Esther I filtered the sediment
of vulgar joy, and from the Book of Jeremiah
the howl of pain in the guts. And from
the Song of Songs, the endless
search for love. And from the Book of Genesis,
the dreams and Cain. And from Ecclesiastes,
the despair, and from the Book of Job: Job.
And with what was left, I pasted myself a new Bible.
Now I live censored and pasted and limited and in peace.
A woman asked me last night on the dark street
how another woman was
who’d already died. Before her time – and not
in anyone else’s time either.
Out of a great weariness I answered:
She’s fine, she’s fine.

How often do we all try to filter the sediment out of our lives, thinking that cutting it from our awareness will actually increase happiness in and of itself? And what are the costs? What are the costs to ourselves, and what are the costs to our relationships (when we can’t even grieve the loss of a friend with another)? 

I don’t have a pretty theology about the necessity of evil for the sake of appreciating the good, but I think that cutting it from awareness, from the small every day gestures of “how are you? I’m good, good” regardless of how we’re actually feeling, to holding back sharing a challenge because of not wanting to burden a friend, to numbing ourselves so much in trying to manage the pain of our suffering that we begin to be numb to the good as well… none of it works. It doesn’t work in our personal lives and it doesn’t work in our Sacred Texts. While there are parts of the Torah which make me angry or sometimes even embarrassed to be a Jew (or angry at G-d, depending on my theology that day), I treasure them because a pretty Sacred Text will not help to make our real lives pretty. The murder of Abel by Cain, the vulgar celebration over the genocide of our enemies in the Book of Esther, the the despair of Job… all of these things exist in our society today. The fact that they’re in our sacred texts should not embarrass us! It should motivate us to act to bring compassion and care to those who have been hurt, and fight to build a healthier world!

I do not know what the connection is between modern society cutting out the bitter from our physical diets to the unending search for happiness that is often accompanied by ignoring the emotional and spiritual bitterness. However, I asked Elan’s brother Ariel and he told me that in Chinese medicine bitter foods help jump start our digestion, improve the immune system, and strengthen the heart. Modern research seems to support that perspective, adding a possible protection from cancer to the list (http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/72/6/1424.full). During the Shemitta Year, in Ancient Israel, Jews would be forced by the restrictions of the Sabbatical to eat a lot more fruit, perennials, and crops that are not normally harvested by people (i.e. lots of those bitter things). How would our health change if, at least once every 7 years, we allowed ourselves to add a little bit more bitter to our diets? Would the practice of being able to digest the physical bitter help us digest the emotional and spiritual bitter in our lives? 
Whatever our responses to these larger questions, modern science seems to be clear that bitter foods are good for our physical health, and our ancient tradition and its resilience (full of those bitter, and sometimes even offensive stories) may testify that the ability to bring that emotional and spiritual bitter to awareness, helps us to digest, survive, and even thrive!

– Moshe Givental

A strange week for animals

Last week there were a number of incidents, some quite disturbing, involving animals around the farm, both domesticated and wild.  

On Wednesday, we had taken some chickens out to some raspberry vines we were working on, in the hopes that they would eat Japanese beetles and their larvae, helping to prevent a severe outbreak of the pests.  One of the chicken’s apparently had gotten through the portable fencing around the raspberries, because she wasn’t there when it was time to round them up and bring them home.  Though we combed the area around the berries that afternoon, and again over the next couple of days, calling the chicken and bringing food with us to tempt her, no one could even catch a glimpse of her. Eventually, we gave her up for lost.

Thursday morning, I saw no fewer than three weasels (!) hanging out in the tool shed.  The weasels seemed more curious than scared, taking turns peeking out at me from beneath the floor of the shed.  Later that same morning, I accidentally tore up a nest of baby mice in the field, while weeding with a wheel-hoe.  It was upsetting to realize I was responsible for the deaths of such cute creatures, and caused me to reflect that even farming simple vegetables, using sustainable, organic methods, can have its casualties.  

Earlier last week, the drake in Erin’s flock of ducks was mauled pretty badly by a neighbor dog but survived.  At first it looked like he was going to pull through, as his wound began to heal under Erin’s diligent care, but he took a turn for the worse (I’ll spare the gory details), and by Friday afternoon, it was clear he was not going to survive.  One of the last things I did Friday afternoon before showering and putting on my Shabbos clothes was to snap the poor drake’s neck to put him out of his misery, and then help bury him.  Although in the past I’ve participated in the slaughter of chickens and goats for meat, it felt terrible to take the life of a creature I knew personally, while he was in such a pitiful state.  The sheer stupid waste of life, and loss of a beautiful creature, could not be counterbalanced by any thoughts of this animal going to provide food for people.  It seemed just a pure waste.

Adding to our sadness over the death of the drake, someone found a pile of chicken feathers near the raspberry patch, which we took to be evidence that the runaway hen had been dispatched by some kind of predator, probably a coyote.  So imagine my surprise Shabbat morning, as I was about to open the door of the chicken coop to let them out, when out of nowhere, a somewhat damp hen, matching the description of the runaway wandered up to me, having somehow found her way back into the chicken run.  It had rained quite a bit the night before, and I imagined that after two days of frolicking, carefree, in the woods, the chicken experienced the inclement weather and decided it might be nice to rejoin her sisters in the coop. After a week of seeing pointless deaths of animals, both domesticated and wild, it felt like an incredible blessing to get our missing hen back.  The hen herself has been nicknamed Rambo for her bravery and ability to survive on her own in a dangerous world.


Rescuing a field

Today, once again we got the very satisfying experience of helping Erin of Pleasant Boundaries farm to rescue a field from the weeds that had taken it over.

This is what it looked like when we started:


After four hours of wheel hoes, machetes,
and hand weeding


…we got to see the tomatoes and the peppers that had been hidden from view.


We helped perform a similar rescue on a field of squash and melons last week. Here’s the before picture:


In process…

And after:



Listening to the birds and the insects sing… what if I could stay here longer, and just listen? What kind of music would I hear? How would it shape the rest of my hearing and listening? What did my ancestors, the ones who were shepherds, Moses and David, what did they hear?

–Moshe Giventhal