Yael Greenberg has been living and working on a farm in Washington state for the past few months. Here is her first reflection
I’ve had so many revelatory and exciting moments in the field over the last few months. God-encounters with radishes, a newly complicated relationship with Shabbos, lightbulb moments about the prohibitions surrounding the consumption of legumes on Passover. Actually, that’s a good one to share:
Why not eat beans on Passover? Or corn, or peanuts? Seems kind of silly and outdated, right? Let’s talk some agriculture. In order to make the best use of the soil, a farmer will plant a cover crop after his harvest. That allows the intake of sunlight energy through the plants, and some of the resulting material can be turned under for compost. One good method of cover-cropping is to plant a mixed crop of grain and legume, which means planting the two together in the same field. I’m not entirely sure what how the grain piece of it works, but the legume is a nitrogen-fixer: it takes nitrogen from the air and transfers it to the soil in a usable form, effectively creating fertilizer for the next planting. Mixed cover-cropping has been happening for millennia just about everywhere in the world where humans grow food.
And what in the world does that have to do with Passover? Well, pretty much everything. During the first few weeks of my farm-stay, we took in the mixed crop they had planted of barley (grain) and Austrian field peas (legume). We did our best to separate them out, but it’s just about impossible to keep them totally apart. It was pretty much inevitable that we would end up with some peas in our barley, and some barley in our peas. Some barley in our peas!? That wouldn’t fly on Passover! Not at all! And all of a sudden the pieces fell into place. Mixed cover-cropping is ancient wisdom, so it was certainly going on throughout the codification of Jewish law. Legumes were disallowed on Passover because they were planted with grains, and grains were sure to show up along with the legume. There was just no avoiding it. One of the arguments against maintaining the tradition today is that modern food production systems render it obsolete. Of course: we favor mono-crops for efficiency, so we plant huge fields with only one crop variety and hardly have to worry about other things sneaking in. But mixed cover crops are a mainstay in small-farm territory because they work well for the land and for the people.
I would love to eat beans and peanuts on Passover, especially since I have a hard time finding meat that I’ll put in my body. But what would I be supporting if I rallied for a change in the tradition? I’d kind of be reinforcing the culture that demands convenience and uniformity rather than the one that cares that mono-crops are an enormous detriment to our ecosystems. Where do Jewish values weigh in that consideration? Understanding the technicalities has lent new depth to my Judaism, new understanding of how interconnected things really are. Who ever would have thought that a little thorn in the side of Ashkenazi Jewish veggie-philes is tied to one of today’s most charged ecological issues?