Care of the Forests Continues Even in a Sabbatical Year

Tuesday, September 09, 2014 12:44 PM

"After two thousand years of exile it is a privilege for us to observe the shmita year once more".

The New Year that starts on Rosh HaShana will be a sabbatical (shmita) year throughout the Land of Israel. Every seven years, the People of Israel are commanded to cease their agricultural activities and let the land lie fallow. Over the years KKL-JNF has adapted its activities to suit this custom. Accordingly, there will be no planting during the coming year, not even on Tu BiShvat. Accompanied by forester Hagay Yavlovich, we went out to see how the forests would be affected by the shmita year.

Forester Hagay Yavlovich in Eshtaol Forest. Photo: Yoav Devir

Forester Hagay Yavlovich, who is also the Director of KKL-JNF’s Seeds and Nurseries Division, explained to us what the approaching sabbatical year would mean for work in the forests: “We won’t be able to carry out tasks designed to improve the trees, only jobs intended to prevent their being damaged and ensure their continued existence,” he said. “Pruning and thinning of KKL-JNF forests will continue as normal, as these activities are intended to protect the trees against fires and pests. We can also gather seeds for germination the following year. We can’t prune the trees in order to improve their appearance, but as we are not gardeners or landscapers, this is not something we would normally do in any case.” 
Yavlovich reminded us that there is one exception to the prohibition against planting during a fallow year: the security plantings that are designed to conceal residents of the Gaza Periphery, its communities and its main highways from the eyes of those who fire rockets from within the Gaza Strip. As this type of planting is intended to save lives, special permission has been granted to continue with it even during the shmita year.

Hagay Yavlovich with the Judean Plains in the background. Photo: Yoav Devir

According to forester Yavlovich, the sabbatical year strengthens the connection between the people and their land. “Suspending work in the fields reminds us that the land is the personal property of no one, and that it is our duty to conserve it and respect nature,” he explained.
Can we prepare ourselves for the shmita year ahead of time?
“KKL-JNF foresters draw up their work plan in accordance with the limitations of the sabbatical year. Planting is carried out during the previous year or postponed until the next one, and this is the case here, too, with projects that require landscaping work. Bicycle paths, footpaths, playground equipment, scenic lookouts and a variety of other sites can all be maintained and developed as usual throughout the fallow year.”
As an observant Jew, do you regard the sabbatical year as being of religious and spiritual value?

Pine saplings growing detached from the soil. Photo: Yoav Devir

“After two thousand years of exile it is a privilege for us to observe the shmitah year once more. This commandment (mitzvah) is specific to the Land of Israel and it is observed only by Jews who live here. It constitutes recognition of the fact that God is Lord of all and it reminds us how good it is to live in the Holy Land.”
Does the shmita year help the farmers, or is it a hindrance?
“The sabbatical year has an important role in that it allows the land to rest and keeps it fertile. When land is worked without respite, yields decrease, the land’s fertility potential is damaged and pests multiply. In the agricultural society of the past, the fallow year also fulfilled an important social role in that it helped to bridge the economic divide: landowners were obliged to leave their harvests for the poor to enjoy, as they were not permitted to harvest and sell their produce.”
How is work in KKL-JNF nurseries carried out during the shmita year?

Shmitah guidelines shown: covered soil, raised seedbeds, dense nets and minimal watering controlled by computer. Photo: Yoav Devir

“Sowing and germination take place in enclosed spaces that are isolated from both earth and sky. The soil is covered with concrete or sheeting, and the sowing surfaces are raised. The plants are shaded with denser nets than usual and are moved in covered trolleys.
“Water is provided in moderation – enough to allow the plants to survive, but not so much as to encourage growth. Irrigation is monitored by computer to ensure that it does not exceed the designated quota. On occasions when hand-watering is necessary during a fallow year, we try to ensure that it is performed by non-Jewish members of staff.”
KKL-JNF forests contain a great many fruit trees– olive, pomegranate, fig and carob, as well as grape vines. Are there special rules for these trees?
 “As far as care of the orchards is concerned, we try not to prune them at all unless pruning is vital to the tree’s survival. In sabbatical years, we don’t plow up the soil to aerate it as we normally do, but just mow the grasses and weeds to prevent fires from breaking out. As for the fruit itself, anyone can come along and pick whatever he or she requires, but the produce must not be sold. This fruit is forfeit, that’s to say, it can be eaten by passers-by, but it must not be sold commercially.”

Tasting carobs growing in Eshtaol Forest. Photo: Yoav Devir

It is important to bear in mind that according to Jewish religious law the decisive point where fruit is concerned is when it begins to set, i.e., when the flower falls from the tree and the fruit starts to develop. Fruit that has set before Rosh HaShana is not affected by the approaching fallow year; the strictures apply only to fruit that sets once the fallow year has begun.
As a forester and an observant Jew, Hagay Yavlovich sees no contradiction between caring for the forest and observing the shmita year commandment: “This is an excellent combination of two values,” he says. “It offers an opportunity to suspend the planting cycle for a moment and think about how we want our forests and open spaces to look in the future. The fallow year also strengthens both the connection between God and Man and the link between humankind and the land, nature and the environment.”