I have often thought how strange Sukkot must appear to those who are not familiar with the holiday. I imagine my neighbors thinking something like, “I thought it couldn’t get any more bizarre after my neighbor built this hut in her backyard, but now she is out there holding a lemon and shaking a bunch of leaves!” Even for those of us who are familiar with the rituals of the holiday, as city dwellers we have become so removed from agriculture that it is often hard to connect with this fall harvest festival. But for our ancestors, the harvest was so central to their lives that Sukkot was known simply as chag, the holiday. It was the time of year when they celebrated the completion of the harvest but also looked toward the future recognizing that without the proper conditions, they might not survive to celebrate Sukkot the next year.
As we face our world, threatened by global warming and a depleted water supply, Sukkot offers us a wonderful opportunity to remind ourselves how central the environment is to our survival. But reflection is not enough. During the week of Sukkot our ancestors fervently prayed for rain to ensure their future survival. We too must take action during Sukkot to work towards a more sustainable future. One action we can take is eating locally and sustainably during Sukkot.
There are countless benefits to eating locally and sustainably. Below are a few reasons why it is especially important to eat locally and sustainably during Sukkot:
We learn in the Talmud that during Sukkot God judges how much water will be available for the coming year. The holiday of Sukkot reminds us that water is a scarce commodity that is integral to our survival. Today, we are concerned not only with the quantity of our water supply but also the quality of our water. Two thirds of the water in the world is used for agriculture. Due to the overuse of irrigation by factory farms, much of the water that is available to us in aquifers, such as the Ogallala Aquifer, is drying up.
Additionally, our water supply is being polluted largely due to the pesticides and synthetic fertilizer used in conventional farming practices. In 2000, the EPA concluded that “agriculture is the leading source of pollution in 48 percent of river miles, 41 percent of lakes… and 18 percent of estuaries found to be water-quality impaired.” Studies have shown that organic farming requires 30% less water than conventional farming practices. Additionally, since organic farmers do not use pesticides, there is no concern of chemical run off polluting our water supply. During Sukkot, as we take up the lulav and etrog, we pray for an abundance of unpolluted water and by taking up our forks filled with local, organic produce we can feel like we are doing our part to ensure this reality.
Sukkot is a fall harvest festival. By eating produce that is grown locally, you will be connecting with the season. Additionally, by eating locally you are cutting down on your carbon footprint.
The NRDC reports that in California in 2005, “Almost 250,000 tons of global warming gases released were attributable to imports of food products — the equivalent amount of pollution produced by more than 40,000 vehicles on the road or nearly two power plants.” The best way to cut down on this pollution is by eating locally.
Pollution is not only a threat to our environment but to our health, creating health problems such as asthma and other respiratory problems. During Sukkot, we build temporary structures that sway with the wind and allow rain to fall inside. Sukkot offers us an opportunity to recognize that our bodies are fragile, just like our sukkot. We should take special care during this holiday to ensure we are only using food that does not threaten our safety. Not only does local food cut down on pollution, but it is healthier. Food that has traveled around the world has lost a great deal of its nutritional value, not to mention that it was bred to withstand bumps and bruises at the cost of losing its flavor. Sukkot is known as Z’man Simchateinu, our time of rejoicing, and during this joyful period we should only be eating the best food – food that not only tastes the best and is the best for our bodies, but food that is the best for the world.
Michael Pollan has recommended that we eat a diet similar to our grandparents. Our ancestors were enjoying a local and sustainable diet in their sukkot as they reaped the bounty of their hard work. This year during Sukkot I hope you will join me in connecting to this central holiday, our ancestors, the season, and the environment by eating locally and sustainably.
For tips on how to create a sustainable Sukkot, check out Hazon’s Healthy, Sustainable Sukkot Resources.
Amanda Schanfield is a second year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She has participated in many wonderful Hazon programs including the NY Ride, the Food Conference, and helping to start a Hazon CSA in Denver.