Getting closer to Judaism through farming the land

Exploring the connection between Judaism and organic practices, and how to can enhance the quality of our relationship with G-d by enjoying the novelty and simplicity of nature.

Shlomit Ovadia

Judaism Farmers (file)
Farmers (file)

No one gets a free pass: we are all rushing to meet deadlines, fulfill obligations to family and friends, victims to the consumption of energy that work, errands, technologies, and social obligations demand of us.

The fast-paced nature of our lives may cause us to feel far removed from such ideas about the world as seen through the lenses of nature and spirituality. However, I personally have found that by taking a moment here and there to slow down, reconnect with nature, appreciate simple things, and live more modestly, it becomes easier to plug into your essence and feel close to G-d, by admiring the beauty of the world around you.


A few years ago, I spent some time working on an organic farm in Whitefish, Montana, where I spent 12-hour days growing produce, caring for the animals, and basically living Home-on-the-Prairie-style.  Much of my days were spent doing activities a little short of nauseating, but nonetheless memorable, like clearing out layers of compacted, feces-laden straw inside the goat barn, while waving our rakes around and dancing to Israeli folk songs, Yerushalaim Shel Zahav and Hevenu Shalom Alechem in the summer heat.

Judaism and farming; they are both ancient practices that have shared a sort of symbiotic relationship since biblical times- and this connection is such an essential part of ancient Jewish law.
I learned a lot during those months, like how to slaughter, skin, and degut an animal, shear a sheep in one go without breaking the coat, fortify the soil using crushed eggshells, work with the finicky temperament of tomatoes, use rhubarb in home-cooking, and take a chicken’s eggs without getting pecked. However, the most worthwhile lesson I took away was how Judaism managed to find its way into all of my work.


Judaism and farming; they are both ancient practices that have shared a sort of symbiotic relationship since biblical times- and this connection is such an essential part of ancient Jewish law. The treatment of animals, specifically, assumes a rather dominant role in G-d’s judgment of people’s character, as it says in Proverbs (12:10), "the righteous person regards the life of his beast." Moses, for instance, was chosen because of his skill in caring for his animals. G-d says to him, “since you are merciful to the flock…you shall be the shepherd of My flock, Israel.” (Ex. 31) Another example is Rebecca, who was chosen as a wife for Isaac because of her kindness to Eleazar’s camels (Gen 24).


Judaism’s relationship to animals extends far beyond biblical comparisons, however. There is a cluster of Jewish laws called “Tza’ar Baalei Chaim”, which translates to "suffering of living creatures". These rules, as explicitly stated in the Talmud, cover all areas of animal treatment, including physical and psychological suffering. For example, it is forbidden to plow a field using two different species of animals that naturally carry themselves at different paces, so as to not cause the slower one distress, or to force them to carry a heavy load after eating due to discomfort. Another example is the law forbidding the mixing of meat and dairy, so as to avoid the possibility of a kid goat being cooked in its mother’s milk.

Some laws we derive from biblical stories, such as how Noah’s altercation with the lion in the ark, the order in the Shema prayer - they teach us to always feed your animals before eating yourself. Other laws we are taught based on their practicality, such as the cleanliness of kosher slaughtering using salting and discarding of diseased organs, and prevention of pain during the actual slaughtering process by using a specific sharp knife and cutting a particular vein (depending on the animal).  


During my time spent working in Montana, I learned how there are many environmentally sustainable organic farming methods that coincide with those described in the Torah. These practices allow you to feel more connected to, and appreciative of, the land from which you are taking— for example, allowing an animal to roam freely as he pleases, enjoy his/her life in a natural manner, and eat quality, non-medicated foods.


Maintaining the Jewish laws that prohibit the overworking of animals and afflicting of unnecessary discomfort solidifies their spiritual value as sentient beings of G-d. Overall, the Jewish laws of feeding animals before eating yourself, and remaining aware of their needs on an emotional level, make you more empathetic towards other beings and their ways of living, and this can be applied to all aspects of life.


Animal rights aside, there are other Jewish farming laws worth mentioning. For example, the Jewish law of waiting three years after planting a tree to reap the benefits of its fruits reminds you to have patience and give time for things to blossom to their potential before taking for yourself. The Torah law of pe’ah, which requires farmers not to harvest from the corners of their fields so that passing beggars have access to food, as well as the commandments of shikha and leket, teach us about our moral obligation to help those in poverty (Lev 23:22). The commandments concerning farming that apply only in Israel such as the laws of the seventh year of Shmita,  as well as tithes, are meant to keep the land fertile and to build a society that cares for those who did not get land of their own.


On a more basic level, remaining reliant on land and weather conditions to secure your living reminds you to have faith in G-d and how many things remain outside of human control. We are powerless without G-d giving us rain and sun, and our size and importance in relation to the vastness of the universe can be seen through this.


The slow processes of seeding, planting, watering, constantly weeding in lieu of chemical sprays, and other monotonous, tedious tasks concomitant with organic farming, remind you of the value of hard work, therefore allowing you to feel more appreciative of your food and less likely to waste. In organic farming, every ounce of food serves a purpose, whether it is used for fertilizer, animal feed, or fossil fuels. 


So as you rush off to your next work meeting or evening rendezvous, try to take a moment to appreciate all of the little miracles in your life, and how Judaism provides a guideline for us to live meaningful and excellent lives. Regardless of your connection to farming, or relationship with Judaism, I believe that everyone can benefit from these lessons.

Taking a moment to appreciate the novelty of simple things can greatly enhance the quality of anyone’s life.