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Shmita-vore

Last night I attended an event called "Eating Local in Brooklyn," hosted by the uber-foodie non-profit, Slow Food NYC.  Despite a recent tongue-in-cheek article in New York Magazine and an op-ed in the NY Times that both hate on localvores, the … Read More

By / October 9, 2007

Last night I attended an event called "Eating Local in Brooklyn," hosted by the uber-foodie non-profit, Slow Food NYC

Despite a recent tongue-in-cheek article in New York Magazine and an op-ed in the NY Times that both hate on localvores, the notion of eating locally is still on an upswing.  But as I sat at the event -sipping the Brooklyn-brewed beers and nibbling on the hyper-local tasting menu (pickled eggplant grown in Red Hook and pork from upstate – don't worry Rabbi, lookee no touchee! – with just-picked apple chutney) I couldn't help but think about Israel.

Yesterday, the New York Times published a fascinating article about shmita – which requires farmers in Israel to let the land lie fallow every seven years (i.e. no planting or harvesting on "Jewish soil"), and supposedly also clears people of all debts.  

I'm not going to comment here on the myriad of religious, practical, economic, and political challenges that shmita poses on contemporary Israel (to get that story, click here).  What fascinated me last night, was the notion that – for an entire year – modern Israeli's are required NOT to plant locally – and not because they want to sample mangoes from South America, but because, at least in theory, shmita says the land should have a chance rest. 

Of course, Jews are experts at finding complicated loopholes around the law -through heter mechira, Israel's chief Rabbis now allow land to be farmed in Israel if the land is "temporarily sold" to non-Jews (think selling your chametz on Pesach). 

But from an local foods standpoint, the original idea of shmita is truly complicated.  On the one hand, it one-ups localvore-ism, by actually letting the soil have some much needed down time (like people, soil tends to burn out when it is overworked).  On the flipside, even back in the day, it's hard to imagine that every Israelite existed off of gleaned or stored food for an entire year.  So, Heter mechira aside, shmita more-or-less forces Jews in Israel to import their food from other places.   

Jewishly speaking, religious Jews in Israel follow shmitta, even if they have to pay three times the price for imported fruits and veggies. But ecologically speaking, which is better: locally-grown food all the time, or a year of relaxation for the soil that requires more food to be flown in to the country?

The question left my head spinning (though, it could have also been all that Brooklyn beer). What do you think?

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