Life lessons from
Almost all Ancient Israeli Rabbis were organic
farmers, hence the Talmud is abundant with agricultural
“Blessing is only possible in things
hidden from sight, as it is said, 'The Lord will
command the blessing with thee in thy barns.'
Blessing is only possible with things not
under the direct control of the eye. Our rabbi
taught: On entering a barn to measure the new
grain, say: 'May it be Thy will to send blessings
on the work of our hands.'
When one begins to measure: 'Blessed be
the Source of Life that sends blessings into this
But if one has already measured the grain,
the prayer is in vain, because blessing is not
to be found in anything that has already been
weighed, measured or numbered, but only in a thing
hidden from sight.”
~ Taanith 8b
“Rabbi Ahai ben Josiah said, 'He who
buys grain in the market, to what may he be compared?
To a child who is cut off from his mother, and
although it is taken to homes of wetnurses, it
is not satisfied. And he who buys bread in the
market, to what is he compared? To a man who digs
his own grave - a wretched, precarious existence.
But he who eats of his own produce is like a child
reared at his mother's breast.”
~ The Fathers According to Rabbi
Nathan, Avot d'Rabbi Nathan 30:6
“G-d created the world so that all
shall live in pleasantness, that all shall be
equal, that one shall not lord over the other,
and that all may cultivate the land. However,
when warrior-minded people multiplied they began
to rely on their might, and left off cultivating
the land and turned to robbery.”
~ Hochmat haNefesh 22b, Rabbi Judah
For more information
. . . about organic certified heritage grain
products produced by the Arab-Jewish Organic Farmers’
Cooperative, the New England Heritage Wheat Project
restoring rare cold-hardy heritage bread wheats,
and Bread Arts workshops, go to www.growseed.org
or contact Eli Rogosa at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about the Sachnin Foodbank Farm,
contact Laithi G’Naim at email@example.com.
December 14, 2006: A generation ago, the
Arab village in Sachnin, in the pastoral Galilee hills of
northern Israel, produced its own indigenous, drought-hardy
varieties of wheat, and 80 percent of the men were farmers.
Each morning, the fragrance of fresh bread emanated from almost
every home. Today, a mere 3 percent of the population are
farmers, and more than three-quarters of Sachnin families
buy mass-produced white pita bread shipped in from industrial
Who grows the wheat today? Most of the wheat for Sachnin’s
pitas—about 85 percent of it—is now shipped in
from subsidized US farmers. This loss of local food production
echoes throughout the Israeli food system. Rural communities
that were self-sufficient a generation ago have lost their
livelihoods due to low-cost imported foods and lack of competitive
Loss of indigenous landraces results in
loss of local livelihoods
In Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda open-air market, ancient
stone buildings with arched portals give way to a colorful
tapestry of ethnic peoples and fragrant foods. Abraham and
his wife, Yehudit, opened the first Ethiopian shop in Machane,
Yehuda, after they arrived in Israel from Gonder, Ethiopia,
escaping local crossfire to return to their ancient homeland
of Israel. (Ethiopian Jews may be direct descendents of Moses’
children who migrated south after the Exodus, combined with
ancestors from the tribe of Dan, who fled when the Kingdom
of Judah divided in the 10th century BCE, enriched with descendents
from trade relations during King Solomon’s time, perhaps
even the Queen of Sheba.)
Today, Ethiopian-Israelis number 100,000. Almost all were
traditional farmers in rural mountain villages, but most have
joined the ranks of Israel’s low-income, under-employed
populations from Third World countries. Few have found ways
to adapt their farming methods to compete with high-tech farming.
So they resort to shipping their ancient Ethiopian wheat,
teff and other traditional foods direct from Ethiopia to family-run
markets such as Abraham and Yehudit’s.
It was in Abraham and Yehudit’s market stall that I
found emmer (Triticum dicoccum), called ‘Em
Ha’Hitach’ or Mother Wheat in Hebrew, the almost-extinct
delicious wheat variety that was domesticated in the land
of early Israel 12,000-10,000 years ago. Wild emmer (Triticum
dicoccoides) still can be found growing in remote fields
“Do you know what this is?” I asked Abraham incredulously.
“Of course, it is aja, (Amharic for emmer),” replied
Abraham, with an almost gleeful-hinting smile. “Abraham,
this wheat was used for our first matzahs in Egypt.”
“Yes,” concurred Abraham, “It has been kept
by our people in Ethiopia.” “Why don’t you
grow it here to bake matzahs?” “Ah,” he
lamented sadly. “Who of our people have farms here in
holy Israel? Who would buy our simple foods?”
Arab and Jewish families who were self-sufficient traditional
farmers a generation ago have become marginalized in a world
of rapid agri-technological advance. Last generation’s
family farmers are today’s cheap labor.
The ancient teachings of Israel are rooted in its agricultural
heritage of decentralized small-scale farming. The biblical
vision, the Talmud and Israel’s ancient laws, documented
in the Mishnah, written down in the 2nd and 5th century in
the book “The Way of the Seed” or “Seder
Zari’im” in Hebrew, explains the principles of
food justice, gleaning, tithing and the power of blessing,
that are at the heart of the Hebraic tradition. In contrast
to Canaanite practices of human and animal sacrifice that
evolved from nomadic shepherds, the ancient Israeli farmer
believed that the land and the people are one total living
ecosystem. In additional to the practices of composting, crop
rotation and fallowing, the Israeli understood that healthy
soil would only bear nourishing fruit when the people, all
of the people, were fed.
After millennia of displacement from the land of Israel,
most Israeli farmers jumped into green revolution agriculture
with the seeds of modern breeding.
“Israel’s mainstream agriculture is totally
Western in its reliance on modern high-yielding hybrids.
This, urbanization and habitat erosion threaten the indigenous
landraces, many of which date back several centuries, if
not to Biblical times.”
~ Israel Gene Bank Report, 1966
“In the West Bank, there is a considerable decline
in local varieties due to introduction of hybrid 'high-input'
varieties. At least 90 percent of Palestine’s farmers
have no irrigation. Both the drought-hardy traditional cultivars
and farmers’ traditional knowledge of seed selection
are disappearing. There is a critical need to revive traditional
varieties in the Palestinian Areas. However the PA has no
central seed bank. Existing facilities are weak or non-existent.”
~ M.S. Ali Shtayeh, PhD
The lands of Israel and Palestine, in the southern arch of
the Fertile Crescent, are the ancient center of origin for
almonds, artichoke, barley, beets and chards, black mustard,
celery, chickpea, date palm, emmer, pear, fig, flax, lentil,
lettuce, melon, olive, pea, radish and safflower. Wild edibles,
herbs and indigenous knowledge of their uses are embedded
in both Jewish and Arab traditions. All of this is being lost
today due to urbanization.
Traditional Arab and Jewish farmers in Israel depend almost
completely upon themselves and other farmers for locally-adapted
seed. There are no commercially available indigenous vegetable
seeds in Israel with the drought-hardiness on which traditional
low-input Middle East farmers depend (20 percent of Israel’s
population are citizens of Arab ethnicity who often lack access
to irrigation systems). Small-scale organic farmers who grow
for local markets do not have any supply of native heirloom
vegetable seed, except what they domesticate, select, save
and exchange amongst themselves and their neighbors.
The Israel Seed Conservancy
A dynamic circle of farmers, selective seed savers and markets,
The Israel Seed Conservancy arose to fill the void. This grassroots
consortium of Jewish and Arab small-scale farmers and seed
savers are pooling shared genetic resources together to conserve
and improve threatened native varieties in the fields of traditional
and organic farmers, and to teach cooperative gardening with
Arab and Jewish young people (see www.growseed.org/seedstewards.html).
The model is adapted from Restoring Our Seed (www.growseed.org),
a project, originally funded by SARE, that I founded with
C.R. Lawn of FEDCO seeds (www.fedcoseeds.com).
The Israel Seed Conservancy (ISC) has established a biodiversity
conservation farm near Jerusalem, works in partnership with
Laithi G’naim’s Food Bank Farm in Sachnin (see
New Farm series: Vine
and Fig Tree), and is a member of the EU-funded Landrace
Wheat Working Group. On-farm genetic conservation in the fields
of traditional, organic farmers keeps vital the dynamic interaction
of indigenous varieties with their pests, predators and pathogens,
and the durable resistances needed for robust crops not dependent
on agro-chemical protectants.
ISC organizes annual seed exchanges and training for on-farm
seed-saving. I quietly exchange open-pollinated seed with
Palestinian seed colleagues, under difficult conditions, protecting
their identities for safety in a region of conflict. The power
of organic farming cooperation and the mutual benefits of
sharing seed speak louder than ethnic differences. “We
are helping each other to help ourselves,” reports Laithi.
ISC’s work is rooted in four inter-dependent strategies:
- Conserve the landrace varieties, the living stories they
carry and indigenous knowledge of their cultivation and
- Restore the seed into the hands of farmers for selective
- Integrate seed crops to enhance biodiversity for sheltering
habitats for pollinators and predators of insect pests.
- Market in ways that benefit small-scale, low-input farmers—the
traditional stewards of landraces.
Wheat is the most widely cultivated crop on earth. Heritage
wheat’s rich flavor and nutritional value are the very
qualities bred out of modern wheat varieties, selected for
high yield and uniformity, at the cost of high water demand.
Artisan bread bakers prefer heritage wheat’s superior
flavor and baking qualities. ISC is restoring rare, ancient
indigenous wheats as a strategy to increase food and livelihood
security for the region’s neglected traditional farmers.
These indigenous heritage wheat varieties have evolved extensive
roots system for efficient nutrient scavenging in poor soils,
and they thrive in the typical climate extremes of rainy winters
and droughty summers.
Emmer (T. diccocum), Einkorn (T. monococcum)
and Hourani (T. durum) are delicious little-known
wheats that nourished ancient civilizations but today are
almost extinct. It is our hope the historic value of these
crops, their exceptionally rich flavor, high nutritional value,
and capacity to thrive in the soils of their ancestral homeland
will create markets that support traditional farmers to continue
their heritage of farming.
“If you bring a grain offering of the first fruits
to the Lord, offer the crushes heads of the spring grain
roasted in the fire.”
~ Leviticus 2:14
"The day after the Passover, the very day they
ate of the produce of the Land, the unleavened bread and
the parched grain."
~ Joshua 5:11
Instead of purchasing subsidized wheat from industrialized
mega-farms in the developed world, the Israel Seed Conservancy
hopes to turn the table by restoring the seed of Israel’s
diverse small-scale farmers and the traditions of bread-baking
and other food arts. The cooperative is restoring emmer to
bake organic matzah, einkorn for tasty flatbread with local
wild herbs, and Hourani for “parched wheat” using