My Sabbath Garden

Reader Contribution by Nan K. Chase
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Do you give yourself a break from the garden every week? Do you give the garden a break? Or has garden work taken over your life, as it used to do mine.

The way I see it, there’s a law against that kind of overzealous gardening: ancient Jewish law, as it turns out, which forbids any kind of garden or farm activity one day a week, every week. For me, for other Jewish gardeners, that day is Saturday, but any gardener, no matter where and no matter what persuasion (or none at all), might give this amazing and unexpectedly rich experience a try.

One day a week of no gardening, just being…being…in the garden, with the garden, and among the living creatures and the plants.

What happens when you’re not allowed to pull a weed or deadhead a spent blossom, not allowed to mow the lawn or prune the shrubs or spread compost, not allowed to cut a flower stem or harvest a peach one whole day a week? I’ll tell you: you start to see more and more in the garden that you miss in the everyday rush of “getting it done,” things like individual grains of pollen, or droplets of dew just before they evaporate. Colors become more intense. Raindrops become shimmering pools of beauty and not a nuisance.

You start to hear more, too, tiny sounds like insect wings beating or the soft splash of water as a bird bathes and preens. You start to smell the smallest quivers of aroma, inch by inch in the yard; now mint, now chamomile, now a rose, now moist earth or the strange, peaty perfume of leaf mold.

By giving up one day a week of gardening there’s so much to gain.

Why this law? Why shouldn’t I be able to garden every day, and especially on a nice long Saturday when there’s so much to be done?

The answer involves the meaning of the Sabbath, or “Shabbat” in the Jewish version, which lasts from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. The word has connections to the terms for “cease” or “sit.” Not simply resting, but ceasing from the everyday work of the other six days, a reflection of Genesis. The sages of old listed 39 prohibited Shabbat tasks relating to ordinary work, and many of them take place on the land: no reaping, no sowing, no plowing, no tying or sifting or grinding or tearing, no winnowing or building, and no binding of sheaves.

In short, here’s a day when all creatures and growing things continue their usual work of animal survival, but humans sit apart, able to reflect. The day is set aside for spiritual enrichment, a gift to humans that worms or moles don’t share. Suddenly, on Shabbat, the garden changes from a place of chores, of sweating, of cuts and stings and sore muscles, into a paradise where every leaf and blossom, every bug and bird (so many kinds!), every flower takes on a palpable sense of wonder and interconnectedness.

I get to see everything differently … and tremendously enhanced. When else during the week does one sit in the shade of a young fruit tree and really savor coolness on the arm? Sit, listen, look, breathe deeply, and drink in the world that is so, so much larger than oneself.

It shouldn’t have surprised me that once I embraced a garden Sabbath, a day of not working in the yard, the maintenance work on other days took on tremendous focus. Now I work more contentedly and much more efficiently, doing a little bit, even if only for a few minutes, all the other days, to make Saturday, Shabbat, that much more harmonious. To make it pleasant to simply sit within my small piece of urban land.

There are a few other important Shabbat prohibitions and they also affect how I approach my no-work days in the garden: no kindling a fire, no baking, and no kneading. In other words, no cooking. For that reason observant Jews cook an extra day’s meals ahead of time for Friday night and Saturday.

That’s the approach I take now with my gardening; making sure that by Friday afternoon everything is as tidy as possible, the birdbath cleaned and filled, and all the vegetables and flowers harvested for the weekend. Ah, such ease.

Will you try it too? Try to discover, to honor, your own Sabbath garden and see what wonders grow for you.

Nan K. Chase is the author of EatYour Yard! Edible trees, shrubs, vines, herbs and flowers for your landscape.  She has written about religious topics since the 1980s.

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