Monday, November 23, 2009


"[Yaakov] said to [the shepherds], 'Do you know Lavan the son of Nachor?' They replied, 'We know him.' And he said to them, 'Is it well with him?' and they replied, 'It is, and behold, Rochel his daughter is coming with the flock.' [...] While he was still speaking with them, Rochel came with the flock which belonged to her father because she was a shepherdess." (Gen. 29:5-9)

This post is dedicated to the first explicit mention of a woman farmer in the Torah, namely, our third matriarch Rochel. In her honor, I will spotlight a modern, Jewish, woman-owned and operated farm called Jacob's Ladder Farm, which is coincidentally named after Rochel's husband, Yaakov (or Jacob).

I have to be honest, I don't know that much about this farm, but they have consistently appeared in Google searches over the years, and I've read enough on their website to be very impressed. It is a traveling farm with the primary purpose of connecting children and adults with traditional knowledge and appreciation of Hashem's world, and in particular, to do it in a holistic way. In their own words,
"To see our precious new generation caring for Hashem's creatures with breathtaking sureness is to re-encounter the process through which our Jewish leaders--Yaakov, Moshe, Shaul, David--developed their compassionate shepherding of flocks and so were chosen, later, for compassionate shepherding of Bnai Yisrael. So, too, is ecological training at the child level-in a Torah context--a worthy start for future Jewish leaders."

I love their compassionate approach to teaching about animal husbandry. For instance, they offer a class on "How the Animal World provides us with 'gifts,' and how we harvest those gifts without hurting the animals we care for. Activities may include: milk a goat, shear a sheep, feel the down on a duck, learn how to hypnotize a goose for down- gathering, pluck a molting Angora bunny, balance a peacock feather, and (in season) put baby birds down for a nap!"

It is interesting to point out that, despite their impressive goals and programming and being a women-run business, I can't find the above reference to Rochel on their website, e.g.
"[The] Jewish nation began as shepherds and animal owners: Just about anybody you can think of in the Torah had flocks--Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, 12 brothers, Bnai Yisrael in Egypt, Moshe, Shaul, David. Very early on we see our Avot being kind to animals: Rivkah includes the camels when she gives Eliezer water; Jacob builds Sukkot to shelter his flocks; Jacob and David fight off predators to save sheep; Jewish leaders are chosen based on their mercy developed as shepherds (Moshe, David)."
The farm is based out of Maryland, so if you're ever in the area, think about showing them some support. This is really an amazing and necessary endeavor, and I hope they will be successful and that many more similar farms will develop in Jewish communities across the US. Their point is very well taken, and it is the same point that inspired me to start this blog. Dai l'meivin.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Kosher Kombucha Culture

I'm happy to announce that I have kombucha cultures available that I synthesized from a certified kosher source, namely GT Dave's Organic Raw Kombucha, which is certified kosher-pareve by Rabbi Eli Frankel at the Kosher Certification Service of Los Angeles (see Kosherquest for more information). I'm happy to mail them out for free, as long you pay shipping costs. And please only contact me if you're a person who keeps kosher and wants to secure a culture from a certified kosher source.

Despite the fantastic rise in popularity of kombucha in recent years, I have seen nary a peep about it in kosher and Jewish forums, neither online nor in print, and believe me, I searched. I even sent a request to the people at Kosher Blog quite a while back asking them to address kombucha, in particular because it is becoming quite common for people to brew kombucha at home (and it's so expensive to buy), and as long as Kosher Blog is covering pickling, canning, home stock-making, home salami-making, and home cheese-making, I thought home kombucha-making would be quite relevant. Obviously I was a little disappointed that they didn't cover it.

So, I did my own research. I spoke with three different halachic authorities about kombucha, two of them being representatives of their respective kosher certifying agencies, namely the KSA and the KCS (previously mentioned). I understood from my conversations with these three authorities that a kombucha culture is kosher and pareve by nature. Halacha's conception of it is more similar to beer or bread yeast, than to, for instance, wine yeast or bacterial cultures for cheese (yeast (other than wine yeast) doesn't need kosher certification according to Rabbi Eidlitz at KosherQuest, see here, although the Star-K takes a more machmir stance and requires kosher supervision; although, based on the fact that all major kosher certifying agencies don't require kosher supervision for domestically brewed beers, and all beers use yeast, the logical conclusion is that yeast doesn't require kosher supervision either).

A word on the kombucha making process: Kombucha brewing is an artisanal process. The utensils and ingredients must be very clean and pure or else the scoby will be likely to get moldy. The culture is never exposed to hot temperatures, as that would kill it as well. When a batch of kombucha is starting out, the scoby, a saucer-like symbiosis of bacteria and yeast is placed in a room-temperature mixture of water, tea, and sugar (none of which require kosher certification on their own), and is left to ferment for about a week. That being said, because of the dearth of information about the kosher status of kombucha in general, I decided to provide a secure source for people seeking kosher peace of mind.

I personally started brewing kombucha over a year ago. These days, the only liquids I drink on a regular basis are water and kombucha. Why? Besides for the fact that I feel kombucha generally boosts my immune system and gives me energy (I have never been sick as long as I have consumed kombucha regularly, keineina harah) it also coincided with the sudden retreat of a virus I was experiencing prior to when I started brewing kombucha. It was nothing serious, but the virus completely subsided within two months of drinking kombucha on a daily basis.

If anyone has anything at all to add here, or if anyone feels that I was misinformed about anything, please don't hesitate to let me know. And if you want a kombucha culture that was synthesized from a certified kosher source, I'm here for you.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Men of Tents, Men of the Field

"And the youths grew up, and Eisav was a man who understood hunting, a man of the field, whereas Yaakov was an innocent man, dwelling in tents." (Gen. 25:27)

And so the story goes that Eisav became evil and murderous, and Yaakov was a good yeshiva bochur, his head in the books all day. But I thought it was a virtue to be "a man of the field"? Afterall, didn't Moshe Rabeinu and King David spend significant time in the field tending their herds before their fated rise to leadership? Also, many of the mitzvahs assume we will be farmers and regulate how and what can do in our fields--how we sow our crops, when we can harvest certain crops, what we are to do with the harvested crops, etc. So what gives? Are we meant to be "of the field" or in the books?

There are two points that I want to make here. Firstly, we have to define "man of the field" in context and distinguish it. Something is lost in translation when we simply say "man of the field." The implication for Eisav was that he was a shark, he had street smarts from the very fact that he was out in the field (or as we would say today, out on the streets), not that he was 'one with nature' as the phrase connotes in English. He was not a farmer nor a shepherd. Rather, he was a hunter and a con-artist (see Rashi there).

On the other hand, Yitzchak was a farmer, as the Torah says,
"Yitzchak sowed in that land, and in that year he reaped a hundredfold; thus had Hashem blessed him." (Gen. 26:12). The midrash refers to him as an "olah temimah" ("blemish-free offering") (Rashi on Gen. 26:2) who was so holy that Hashem didn't want him to leave Eretz Cana'an. Yitzchak was holy and a farmer at the same time. So that sufficiently establishes that we can be men of the field and men of the book at the same time. But is there an argument that we should only be men of the book?

There seems to be a genuine disagreement among the sages on whether we are meant to farm (what I would colloquially call "of the field") or learn 24-7 (be "tent-dwellers"). For instance, in Perek Shishi of Brachos, the Gemora records:
The Rabbis taught: "And you shall gather your grain..." (Dev. 11:14) Why does the Torah say that? Because it says elsewhere, "Do not remove this book, the Torah, from your mouth." (Joshua 1:8) Is that meant to be taken literally, as it is written? The Torah comes along and says "And you shall gather your grain" to show that one who follows the words of Torah has an occupation (derech eretz); these are the words of R' Yishmael.

R' Shimon ben Yochai says, is it possible that a man would plow at the time of plowing, and sow at the time of sowing, and harvest at the time of harvesting, and thresh at the time of threshing, and winnow at the time of the winds... What would become of his Torah study? Rather, understand it this way: At the time that the Yidden are doing the will of Hashem, their labor is done by others, as it says, "Foreigners will stand up and herd your flocks" (Isaiah 61:5). At the time that the Yidden are not fulfilling Hashem's will, their labor is done by themselves, as it says "and you shall gather your grain." (Dev. 11:14) And moreover, at such a time they also have to work for non-Jews as it says "and you shall serve your enemy" (Dev. 28:48). (translation my own) (Brochos 35b)
That's the discussion, and the Gemara rounds off that sugya by saying the proof is in the pudding, namely that many who followed the way set forth by R' Yishmael succeeded, and many who followed the way set forth by R' Shimon did not succeed. And so this seems like good proof that we are not meant to have our heads in the books all day; not only is farming, generally speaking, the right thing to do, but it's required of us by the Torah. We are meant to be both in the books and in the field!

I understand a counterargument would be that the Torah is speaking of labor in general, and most people happened to be farmers back in those days, and the real maskana is that a person needs to work (even as a doctor, or lawyer, or whatever) in addition to Torah study, and I agree with that. But I would add that there is something special about farming.

I think Rabbi Shmuel Simenowitz (the freilich farmer), who is also a gentleman maple syrup farmer in Vermont, hit the nail on the head when he spoke about some of the lessons that are essential to farming and how they relate to integrating the lessons in Yiddishkeit:
"And what you really see in a Jewish agrarian setting, and what I teach, is process. You know, where does maple syrup come from? It doesnt come from a jar. Somebody went out, cut a trail, tapped a tree, hung a bucket, and collected sap. And all things are connected, the seasons, the harvest, the holidays, how we treat the animals and use the land. So I use the process of making maple syrup as a metaphor for teaching Torah."(Wolfson, Paula. "Jewish Fathers: A Legacy of Love", pp. 59-60)
May Hashem bless our efforts like those of Yitzchak, that we should gather me'ah shearim (100x portions) b'gashmius u'b'ruchnius!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Roots of Eastern Religion

"Avraham gave all he had to Yitzchak. And to the children of the concubines of Avraham's, Avraham gave gifts, and he sent them away from Yitzchak his son, while he was still alive, eastward to the land of the east." Breishis, Parshas Chayei Sarah. (Gen. 25:5-6 in the Sapirstein Edition of Rashi: The Artscroll Series, pp. 266-7).

The question is asked, if Avraham just gave everything he owned to Yitzchak, then what did he give to his other children? Rashi addresses this by saying, "Our Rabbis explained, he gave over to them a name of an impurity. " (Id.) In other words, it was a spiritual gift. What was the nature of this spiritual gift?

The Gemara, in Sanhedrin 91a goes on to explain that it was "A name by whose pronunciation they would be able to perform sorcery. The 'gifts' here do not refer to property, for Avraham had already transferred ownership of all of his property to Yitzchak." (Id.)

To summarize: Avraham sent his children to the east with powerful spiritual gifts, and those children presumably became the progenitors of the spiritual traditions of the east that we have today.

I understand why American Jews are often dissatisfied with the experiences they've had in organized Jewish life growing up, and seek something more spiritually satisfying as adults. But I have wondered why these Jews are so attracted to Eastern religions specifically.

This source makes a good argument for why that is. Apparently, the root of those spiritual traditions is in Torah and in the acknowledgment of the One True G-d, however obscured those roots have become today. There is obviously still residual power from that original spiritual energy that Avraham sent, enough so to draw spiritual seekers to attempt to slake their thirst there.

Over the course of this week I'm going to see if I can find any further information on this subject.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Land of Milk

"[Avraham] took cream and milk and the calf which he had prepared, and placed these before [the visitors]; he stood over them beneath the tree and they ate." Breishis, Parshas Vayeira (Genesis 18:8).

This is the first time milk is mentioned in the Torah. It is interesting to note that here we are in the fourth parsha since the beginning of the creation of the world, and out of all the things that G-d wished to convey to us, G-d chose to enumerate the foods that Avraham served to his guests, the first of them being cream and milk.

Needless to say, this was raw, unpasteurized cream and milk. There were no refrigerators back then (obviously) so if you wanted milk, you went out and milked your cow (or goat, etc.). Additionally, as Rashi notes (id.), "As he prepared each food, he brought it near and presented it to them." Presumably, it takes less time to milk a cow than to slaughter a calf and cook it. This post will be the first in a series dedicated to milk.

First of all, raw, unpasteurized milk seems to be a tradition in Judaism, if only by default. It's what Avraham served, after all. "But isn't unpasteurized milk poisonous?" you ask.

Pasteurization is a modern process, discovered by Louis Pasteur in the 19th century. Before that era, all milk was consumed raw. The idea behind pasteurizing milk is that you heat up the milk above a specific temperature for a specific period of time in order to kill most micro-organisms, especially the ones that cause disease and make milk go bad, which is good, right? We don't want any dangerous bacteria in our milk. Well, then how come in Avraham's time (or even in our great-grandparent's time) they could drink raw milk without getting sick? What changed?

Pasteurization proved itself in bolstering the burgeoning food industry of the 19th century. It allowed for a more consistent taste and standard production method in fermented food products like beer; a consistent product allows for better branding and marketing. It also allowed food to be preserved for longer periods of time and shipped farther distances, which allowed for a broader consumer base. These benefits to industry were often at the expense of nutrition and ultimate quality for the consumer.

As industry expanded, production of any particular thing was concentrated and put on a production line; the same was true of the dairy industry. What happens when you take the factory model and apply it to farming? The advent of the factory farm.

Today, in concentrated dairy operations, thousands of cows live in a confined square of barren land and dwell in their own drek day in and day out. They may spend their entire lives never tasting a blade of fresh grass, the food that is called their "bread" by King David (Psalm 147); additionally, G-d designed their stomachs with a rumen specifically to digest grass, and it is by that digestive process ("rumination") that they are designated as kosher animals in the Torah (Lev. 11:3; Deut. 14:6). Normally diseased conditions and lack of grass in their diet would eventually kill a cow, but they are kept alive with antibiotics and other methods. I got to see the workings of such an industrial dairy farm firsthand (a kosher one, in Israel), the cows marching to the milking machines with dung hanging from their overly swollen udders. With such cows and such milk, it's true, their unpasteurized milk is infested with harmful bacteria and would be poisonous to drink. (Never drink unpasteurized milk from cows raised in factory farming conditions!)

However, such was not the state of Avraham's herds. As was noted in last week's parsha, Parshas Lech L'cha, Avraham's herds were free-range and ate grass and were, presumably, superbly healthy. Indeed, there was not enough grass near Beth-el to support Avraham and Lot's herds, and so they had to part ways. (Gen. 13:6-7) These were healthy cows, living well as G-d intended them to live, producing healthy unpasteurized milk.

I personally drank raw goat milk that I milked myself almost every day during a three-month apprenticeship I did on a small, sustainably run farm on the East Coast, and enjoyed robust health during that time. Apparently, not only can raw milk be safe, but it can be abundantly more nutritious than pasteurized milk. According to the Campaign for Real Milk, "Pasteurization destroys enzymes, diminishes vitamin content, denatures fragile milk proteins, destroys vitamins C, B12 and B6, kills beneficial bacteria, promotes pathogens and is associated with allergies, increased tooth decay, colic in infants, growth problems in children, osteoporosis, arthritis, heart disease and cancer. Calves fed pasteurized milk do poorly and many die before maturity."

Before I end, I want to note that I have noticed a vociferous aversion to farming among a number of my teachers and peers over the years, based on the misguided argument that Jews are meant to be businessmen or professionals, and chassidim are meant to be on shlichus, and you can't do shlichus on a farm. I don't know what these opinions are based on. As a bit of anecdotal evidence to the contrary, the life of Zusik Rivkin, a Lubavitcher chassid and dairy farmer who lived in Kfar Chabad in Israel, is illustrative. The following is a patched-together accounting from a couple articles about his life:
[As a youth, his] family made it to Israel, where Zusik was sent to study in the Central Lubavitcher Yeshiva-Tomchei Temimim in Lod. Unlike the other students, the young Rivkin did not pursue rabbinical studies, instead following the personal directives of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson of righteous memory, who instructed the boy to take up agriculture. “He believed it was part of his mission as a Chasid to show the world that a religious Jew works hard on the field and at the books,” recalled one of Rivkin’s family members in an interview after his passing. Until his very last day, Zusik, as he was known to his friendly neighbors, saw dairy farming as his "mission in the world," lording over a herd of some 130 cows that collectively produced more than 1,500 liters of kosher milk each day.
(see the full articles here and here.)
Hopefully this will provide something for you to think about.