by Leiba Chaya David
“Said Rabbi Yose ben Rabbi Bun: It is forbidden to live in a town in which there is no greenery (vegetable garden).”
– Talmud Yerushalmi, Kiddushin 4:12
Rapid, poorly planned urban development has led to the disappearance of green, open spaces in many modern cities. Healthy, well-planned cities, on the other hand, create and preserve open spaces, which provide vital habitats for plants and animals, help to curb pollution, and protect the integrity of the natural landscape.
In addition to their ecological benefits, open spaces contribute to the physical, mental, and spiritual health of city residents. Noted naturalist and lepidopterist (expert in study of butterfies, moths, and similar species) Robert Michael Pyle writes of the “extinction of experience” which accompanies the destruction of open spaces in cities, explaining that losing green spaces in cities is not just about losing personal benefits but removing citizens from personal contact with nature, decreasing awareness and appreciation. This breeds apathy toward environmental concerns and, inevitably, further degradation of the common habitat.
Community gardens can help to mitigate the “cycle of disaffection” mentioned by Pyle. By preserving and revitalizing open spaces, gardens offer a much-needed context for experience and appreciation of the natural world.
What is a Community Garden?
Community gardens are small plots of land allocated to groups of people by an organization that holds title or lease to the land, sometimes for rent, sometimes simply as a grant of land. Community gardens are often democratically self-governed in association with a non-profit organization. Some exist under the auspices of a city’s recreation or parks department, a school or university. Community groups frequently reclaim abandoned or condemned plots of land for their gardens.
Community gardening improves the quality of life of urban residents in a variety of ways. Gardens are often a catalyst for neighborhood and community development and beautification. They encourage social interaction and a sense of interdependence. Community gardens can also serve to produce nutritious food, reduce family food budgets, conserve local resources and create opportunities for recreation, exercise, therapy and education.
A community garden typically embodies several basic environmental values. First, the garden requires conservation and equal distribution of resources. Second, establishment of a garden involves the reclamation or preservation of open spaces. A green open space is significant ecologically (for clean air, biodiversity within the city, habitat protection); spiritually (to experience awe and wonder, to play, to relax); and economically (making a city more attractive to residents and investors). Finally, working in a garden can help urban residents develop a “sense of place,” which can lead to a sense of environmental responsibility both locally and globally.
What is Jewish about a community garden?
A Jewish garden gives us the opportunity to emulate Hashem by planting. As the Midrash states:
‘Follow none but the Lord Your G-d’ (Deuteronomy 13.5). How do we accomplish this? In truth, the Blessed Holy One, from the very start of the creation of the world, was occupied before all else with planting: ‘And first of all the Lord G-d planted a garden in Eden’ (Genesis 2:8).
Therefore, when you are in the Land of Israel, occupy yourselves first and foremost with planting. Hence it is written, ‘When you come into the land, you shall plant’ (Leviticus 19:23).
-Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 25.3
Two thousand years of exile from the Land of Israel have caused a profound disconnect between culture and place. As Jews have become increasingly urbanized, we have become alienated from the natural world. Gardening provides an opportunity to reconnect to nature in general, and to the significance of nature and agriculture in Jewish tradition in particular.
The farming experience itself is distinctly Jewish. Digging into the soil, planting seeds, watching the growth process, and harvesting produce all have the potential to evoke faith in the Creator and a sense of our unique partnership in Creation. Gardening can be placed in a Jewish framework by consciously connecting it to relevant texts, the Jewish calendar, and specific laws and customs. Particularly in Eretz Yisrael, counting during the Omer period, tithing produce, deciding which species to plant where – all are tied to the Jewish calendar cycle and the details of Jewish law. A garden can also develop a Jewish flavor by introducing Jewish themes, such as a Havdalah Spice Garden; A Tzedakah Garden (where all or some produce is given to the needy); a Biblical Species Garden; or an Eretz Yisrael Garden.
Rabbi Eleazar said, “A human who owns no land is no human; as the Bible says, the heavens are the Lord’s heavens, while the earth was given to human beings (Psalms 115:16) – Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 63a
Ownership of even the smallest plot in a community garden gives a person or family an opportunity to be fully human and, as the Midrash explains, is an ideal way to follow G-d
Responsibility for Creation
Ecological community gardening provides the opportunity not only to work the land, but also to protect the land.
“And G-d took the man, and put him into the Garden of Eden to work (till) it and to keep (protect) it.”
The role of human beings in Creation, determined in the very nature of the way we were created, involves the ongoing cultivation and maintenance of the natural world. This mandate includes various Jewish ecological and justice principles, many of which can be fulfilled in the garden.
“Isur Bal Tashchit (Prohibition of Wanton Destruction): composting, water recycling, seed saving, building with natural or recycled materials
“Tzedek Svivati and Hevrati” (ed. note: Israeli terms for Environmental and Social Justice): Equal distribution of resources such as water and soil, distribution of harvest to the poor through tithes
“Kayamut” (ed. note: Israeli term for Sustainability): Long-term planning, planting indigenous species
“Kilayim” (Preserving Biodiversity): Not planting diverse species close together
“L’minehu” (Each after its own kind): Organic pest control, habitat preservation
A shared sense of place can help to strengthen the bonds of community, which in turn empowers community members to participate in the public process in order to protect the places they love. The increasing prevalence of community gardens reflects a shift to what Naomi Tsur, director of the Sustainable Jerusalem Coalition, calls “an age of social and civic responsibility, in which the individual can no longer remain isolated from and oblivious to the urban system he/she inhabits.” This social and civic responsibility also reflects a Jewish responsibility to build strong communities which work toward the common good.
“‘The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree” (Psalms 92:13).
As no part of the date palm is wasted – its dates being eaten, its young branches used for ritual blessing, its fronds for covering a sukkah, its fibers for ropes, its leaves for sieves its planed trunks for roof rafters – so are there none worthless in Israel: some are versed in Bible; others know Mishnah; some are masters of aggadah; others do good deeds; still others promote social equity…”
-Midrash Numbers Rabbah 3.1
Of course, Judaism places great emphasis on the integrity of the community. Jewish life is difficult, if not impossible, outside the context of community. A minyan is required for purposes of prayer and the fulfillment of various mitzvoth; movement in public spaces on Shabbat is dictated by a community-maintained eruv; and the support structure of chesed and tzedaka is shaped by a coherent group of Jews acting on behalf of each other’s well-being. Well-organized, active Jewish communities keep Jewish tradition alive.
Strong Jewish communities can also provide an alternative to the individualistic, consumer-oriented culture that has contributed to the environmental crisis, as the deterioration of community values and the phenomenon of environmental degradation are linked.
Planning for the Future
The following is a text frequently cited during the Tu B’Shvat season:
Once, Honi the Circle-maker was walking on the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi said, “You know that a carob tree takes 70 years to bear its fruit; are you so sure that you will live 70 years so as to eat from it?” “I found this world provided with carob trees,” the man replied, and as my forebears planted them for me, so will I plant for my offspring.”
A Jewish ecological community garden is a gift that can be passed down to future generations: literally, by using sustainable methods of planting and maintenance, and figuratively, by creating strong communities based on shared environmental ethics.
Leiba Chaya David develops Jewish environmental programs for the Jerusalem branch of the Society for the Protection of Nature (SPNI) in Israel.
For Further Reference