Jews and Farming

I wrote this for the Jewish World, our local Jewish paper, as part of the Capital District Board of Rabbis’ rotating responsibility for contributing to “The Rabbi’s Corner.” Then I sent it to the wrong email address (.com instead of .org) and it wasn’t received in time to be published, so I thought I’d share it with you here.

Worth mentioning that we just moved to a 200-year-old farm house on six and a quarter acres this summer and bought a tractor between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, so this is very much on my mind right now…

When your wealth is in your land, harvest is the most joyful season of the year. We are told to rejoice before God on all of our pilgrimage festivals, but only about Sukkot does Torah add “…and be really happy.” In fact, we’re instructed to have a party! Our Talmudic rabbis thought so highly of Sukkot that they sometimes called it “The Holiday,” needing no other name.

Sukkot celebrates the natural world more than any other of the major Jewish festivals. True, it is tied to the 40 years’ wandering in the desert, “so that your generations will know that I caused them to dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of the Land of Egypt” (Lev. 23:43). But Torah really emphasizes its status as a time of really joyful celebration. And that’s because if you’re a farmer, there’s no happier, wealthier, and more confident time of year than when the harvest is safely in.

Few Jews in the United States today have farmers among their immediate ancestors, but in upstate New York and the Capital Region there are relatively many. Baron Maurice de Hirsch established Jewish agricultural communities for eastern European Jews in places as far-flung as Saskatchewan and Argentina; but the one closest to us was right here in Nassau, and another was in Woodbine, New Jersey. German Jewish cattle dealers moved up from Binghamton and established farms along Route 12 all the way up to Norwich. There are still farmers (active or retired) in both Nassau and Norwich, and many children of those communities have moved to the Capital District, including belonging to my own congregation.

Why haven’t Jews been farmers? Economics professor Steven Landsburg of the University of Rochester (whose ancestors emigrated to Woodbine) wrote an interesting article a few years ago, postulating that it was the Jewish drive for literacy which took us “off the farm” and into higher-paying urban jobs. Education was expensive and not available to most people until recently, but since we were expected to learn to read (or at least Jewish men were), we had access to a world that was not available to most peasants.

Another reality of Jewish life over the past 2,000 years has been our physical displacement. When refugees are absorbed into an area which is already being farmed, there may not be many opportunities to acquire land (whether through purchase or rent). It may be easier to become a laborer, a peddler, a teacher or a craftsman than a farmer.

And refugees have to capitalize on what they can carry with them, and learning is the most portable merchandise. There’s a midrash about a rabbi whose ship was attacked by pirates. The travelling merchants arrived penniless at their destination, but the rabbi was able to enter into the study hall and immediately be received as an honored guest.

And yet at Sukkot we are all reminded of the basic connection we have with the land. Without sun and rain, without photosynthesis and decomposition, without people to plant and tend and harvest and bring to market, there would be no food. Im eyn kemach, eyn Torah: If there’s nothing to eat, then even Jewish learning must eventually come to a halt. This Sukkot, rejoice in the bounty of upstate New York, or wherever you live — celebrate with locally-produced food, and support the farmers who nourish us all.