Next week, in honor of the Jewish sabbatical year, most Jewish municipalities will stop planting trees, shrubs and flowers. The Jewish National Fund, the army, infrastructure companies and public institutions will also stop planting.
Over the years, rabbis have found various solutions to the problems that the sabbatical year, shmita in Hebrew, creates for agriculture. The best known is the heter mechira, or permission to sell, which enables agricultural produce to keep being sold if the land is symbolically sold to a non-Jew. But there is no solution for ornamental trees in cities and towns. Gardeners suspend all planting and wait for next year.
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This dictate is being imposed in ultra-Orthodox, religious Zionist and secular communities alike with no public discussion and no doubts. Haaretz found that even cities that do intend to continue planting, like Tel Aviv, are afraid to admit this publicly.
This is religious coercion devoid of any logic. At a time of climate crisis, when trees are our first line of defense against global warming and the most effective means of absorbing greenhouse gases, this is a reckless decision.
Originally, shmita was meant to serve environmental and social values – giving both the land and human beings time to rest and recover. Nowadays, it has become another coercive rule that undermines the social and environmental values of adapting cities to human life in the modern era.
Trees inside cities aren’t superfluous, nor are they mere ornamentation. They are a vital and inseparable part of the infrastructure. They provide shade and thereby make streets tolerable for pedestrians and cyclists, alleviate urban heat islands, filter pollution from the air, preserve biological diversity, enable water to seep into the ground, prevent floods and more. Many Israeli cities have realized how important trees are to urban life and announced ongoing tree-planting campaigns.
Stopping for a year would halt this trend for no logical reason. Shmita could also lead to trees that would be relocated in a normal year being cut down instead, so as to avoid replanting them, something that’s also forbidden during shmita. Agriculture Minister Oded Forer and Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg must demand that the chief rabbis find a halakhic solution to enable planting to continue. In addition, mayors must come to their senses and announce that they intend to keep planting.
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The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.