Shabbat: By Farmers, About Farmers, Hard for Farmers

As farmers and as Jews, we can be considered returning. Like many young farmers, my husband and I did not grow up on farms. While we interned on various farms we are mostly self-taught "book farmers" as longtime farmers call us. As Jews, we are following a parallel path. We both grew up in nearly secular families and not unlike many of our peers are inching back toward tradition and observance. I once heard someone say that the definition of ba'al teshuva is keeping a higher level of observance than your parents and by this broad definition we fit the bill.

We have separate dishes for meat and dairy, light Shabbat candles and have a small business that connects us to Israel. There are not one but two Aleph-Bet posters on our dining room wall. I can make challah without checking the recipe now and our children know so much more than we did at their ages. Our 3-year-old can sing the Aleph-Bet and we have already taught our 5-year-old all of our Hebrew words, which is not nearly enough. So, while we are far from Orthodox, I thought we were doing ok with our slow return to tradition. I recently turned to Google and searched "activities prohibited on Shabbat" to see how we are doing. The list of Shabbat prohibitions, which appeared between "activities prohibited on airplanes" and "activities prohibited on eBay" set me back on my heels.

A quick glance at the list from the Talmud written around 200 C.E. told me we are not doing well and it is probably time to get a lot less smug about my challah prowess. I am not sure if they are listed in the order of importance, but the list of prohibitions starts with planting, plowing and harvesting before naming many other farm activities. I knew work was prohibited, but I did not expect so many types of farm work to be named. It turns out we can easily violate a half dozen of the 39 prohibited creative activities just by fitting in a couple of hours of farm work before the sun sets on Saturday. And truth be told, sometimes my husband has to put in very long days.

On a farm, rain can split tomatoes in two, and once the vines are wet you should not even touch the plants until they are dry or you risk spreading plant diseases. There is often a need to act now or risk wasting lots of food. Sometimes a frost is predicted and if we do not run out and cover sensitive plants with fabric immediately, the losses can be huge. And it turns out both tearing and tying are both on the list. This is much harder than keeping laptops shut, not switching lights on or staying away from your Twitter feed.

It's no accident that Shabbat was created by farmers. Farm work just does not stop but farmers need to rest. I plan to tape copies of the list to our fridge, the packing shed door and the tractor dashboard, so we can aim to do better in the upcoming season. With the list close at hand, perhaps we can work harder on Fridays, rally when the moon is out on Saturday night, accept more lost tomatoes, and inch closer to a true Shabbat.

Jewish Farming