The ancient Jewish farming practice that could cure your Facebook addiction









The ancient Jewish farming practice that could cure your Facebook addiction
A new shmita-themed program in New York called Fallow Lab aims to help get Jews offline.

By Judy Maltz | Sep. 23, 2014 |
It’s ancient biblical law meets digital detox movement. Or, what does laying off the land have to do with kicking your Facebook habit?

Inspired by the religious practice of shmita, which requires Jewish farmers in Israel to give their fields a rest every seven years, these digital device addicts are taking on an ambitious challenge at the onset of the Torah-mandated agricultural sabbatical: living more of life offline.

They’re all participants in a new program called Fallow Lab — the brainchild of Amichai Lau-Lavie, an Israeli-born rabbinical student and performer who is also the founder of Lab/Shul, an experimental arts-driven congregation in New York City.

The program’s name is derived from the commandment, first mentioned in the Book of Exodus, to let the land lie fallow, with “shmita” coming from the Hebrew word for “release.” Along with the Jewish calendar year, this year’s sabbatical begins on Rosh Hashanah, which starts at sundown Wednesday.

For Lau-Lavie, it makes little difference that shmita is an agricultural law, or that it applies only in the Land of Israel. It’s the spirit of the law, he says, that counts.


Lau-Lavie in his hammock in the East Village. Photo: Naomi Less

Lau-Lavie in his hammock in the East Village. Photo: Naomi Less

“The truth is that at the end of the day shmita is not kept in the way the Torah wanted it to be kept,” says Lau-Lavie. “The sense of release is not happening, and the sense of being in tune to cycles of rest is not happening.”

Among the prime culprits, in his view, are digital devices that don’t allow modern-day folks to take a break and slow down. That’s why he decided to make the theme of his shmita-inspired yearlong program — or “journey,” as he prefers to call it — laying off the digital devices.

Every participant gets to devise his or her own plan of action for moving offline, says Lau-Lavie, with no pressure to go cold turkey.

“It is whatever you decide,” he explains. “The important thing is having both a public and private discourse on our digital use. Smartphones have been around for less than a decade, so we’re the first generation of users to this extent. There are corporate forces at play that are very much interested in turning us into lab rats that keep coming back for more rewards online, and I think it’s important to question their motives and to establish our own healthy norms of being digital users.”

Some participants in the program have decided to limit their texting. Others are going to turn their personal Facebook pages into fan pages “so they don’t get sucked in,” as Lau-Lavie puts it. And him? “As of a few months ago, there is no digitalia in my bedroom. I no longer sleep with an iPhone next to my bed — I bought an alarm clock instead. And I turn off my digital devices at least an hour a day in the middle of the day to go take a walk or go meet somebody in person instead of emailing and texting.”

Lau-Lavie says he’s decided to take the agricultural concept literally as well, taking the opportunity to clean up and rejuvenate the tiny overgrown garden behind his rented East Village apartment.

The son of Israeli diplomat Naftali Lavie and nephew of the former chief rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, Lau-Lavie is a single, openly gay man with three biological children. He’s also a rising star on the New York Jewish cultural scene. A descendant of 37 generations of rabbis, Lau-Lavie broke away from his Orthodox upbringing when he was in his early 20s, and is now studying to become ordained as a Conservative rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Fallow Lab is among dozens of shmita-themed initiatives being launched this year by progressive-minded Jews in Israel and the Diaspora. Their common goal is finding creative, modern applications for the ancient Biblical commandment, focusing less on the letter of the law and more on its messages of rest, rejuvenation, and social and environmental justice. In addition to giving the land a rest every seven years, the laws of shmita also require farmers to waive their rights to property ownership during the sabbatical and open their fields to all in need.

Lau-Lavie’s interest in digital discipline, he says, predates this shmita year. Through Reboot, a network of young Jewish thinkers committed to making ancient laws and rituals relevant for modern times, he’s been active in the National Day of Unplugging, an event that takes place every March. (Reboot has also provided some funding for Fallow Lab.)

But it was during an eight-hour walk one Shabbat last year with a good friend in San Francisco, says Lau-Lavie, that the idea finally crystallized. That friend was Nigel Savage, the founder of Hazon, an American nonprofit that urges Jews to think more deeply about their food choices and healthy, sustainable living.

“We were walking and talking and talking, and he pitched me the whole shmita concept as a socioeconomic social justice thing, and I started thinking how awesome,” recalls Lau-Lavie. “We’re literally talking about this as we’re walking barefoot in the park, and because it was Shabbat, we were both without our cellphones, and it sort of dawned on me that all the work I’ve been doing on unplugging and Shabbat as a day of digital rest can be translated effectively for people’s needs year-round.”

The decision to take up the cause was reinforced during a recent visit to Israel, which happened to coincide with the Israel-Gaza war and the increasingly toxic nature of the discourse it generated on social media. “It was a big reminder,” says Lau-Lavie, “of how conditioned we are to knee-jerk online and to lose nuance and balance.”

At the risk of treading on charged political territory, he also suggests that Israelis start thinking about shmita in the context of the ongoing land dispute with their neighbors.

“What shmita teaches us is to be thoughtful about land ownership. The Torah is basically telling us that you’re not the owners here, and every seven years, there’s a vivid reminder of that,” he observes. “The question is what is that going to do to our political discourse about land and about different kinds of land and about who lives on the land and who gets to own the land.”

When he told a prominent, yet skeptical, rabbi during his recent visit here that one of his objectives in launching Fallow Lab was to help Jews outside the country connect to Israel, the response he received was: “Tell them to move to Israel.” Lau-Lavie shot back: “That’s not gonna happen, but this is a way to bring Israel to them.”

Fallow Lab involves 12 monthly conversations based on classical Jewish sources on shmita and new texts on digital use and technology, primarily Douglas Rushkoff’s “Program or be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age” and a new translation of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s classic “Shabbat Ha’aretz,” a book on shmita whose title means “The Sabbath of the Earth.” These conversations, which take place live in New York and are led by Lau-Lavie with guest teachers, are also accessible online through webinars, podcasts and an interactive website.

About 20 people took part in the first conversation held this week, among them a few Orthodox Jews and non-Jews.

The irony of running such a program online is not lost on Lau-Lavie, though he points out that neither shmita nor his digital take on it is about a complete rupture.

“Let’s think about how the original shmita was kept — by the farmer opening the gates to his fields so that everyone could pick,” says Lau-Lavie. “In other words, the earth is being honored and being used. Everyone just gets a break. I love the digital terrain, and I live there. We all just need to learn to live there better.”

Welcome to FallowLab! Digital Shmita 5775. Rest, Rest, Restore.



Welcome to Fallow Lab
  – a year-long journey of exploring better balance between our virtual and actual lives.

Inspired by the Jewish Shmita tradition, this journey reinterprets the biblical agricultural practice of a year of release to the land and to the farmer, reapplied for today’s social, economic and digital reality.

Our ancestors worked the land, lived its cycles and knew when to let go, release and renew.

Our landscapes of labor exist more and more virtually. Can we extend the logic of the old sacred cycles and recycle Shmita back into our lives?

Join Amichai Lau-Lavie and guest teachers for a year of exploring the origins of Shmita and its application to our digital lives.

The Fallow Lab journey will consist of 12 monthly conversations, each focusing on an area in our lives impacted by digital technology that could benefit from attention, release, or better balance, for our own good.
There are 7 ways you can get engaged with each conversation – most of them for free! (All FallowLab programs are free for Lab/Shul SeasonPass holders.  Some program costs apply – with sliding scale options, everybody friendly.)

The goal: fruitful conversations, inspired action, better balance, new friendships, a year of growth and grounding, well spent.

The Shmita year begins on September 24th 2014.


The Fallow Lab journey begins with a Free Info Call with Amichai: September 17 2014 

see calendar of events here

Welcome to Fallow Lab

Sign up here. Questions and Inquiries: here.

Fallow Lab is a Lab/Shul Project.

Partners and Supporters:

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Up All Night Tonight: Rumi, Maya Angelou, Rav Kook & More. Download now.. Joyful Weeks.

I’m excited to stay up all night tonight – bringing on the dawn of revelation with a lot of friends in Downtown NYC. Can’t join us tonight in NYC for INTO THE NIGHT?

check out and download my three study session sheets– linking the upcoming Shmita Year to Shavuot and our sacred cycle of sevens – from the Sabbath to the End of Time.. 

Texts include Torah, Talmud, Rav Kook, poetry by Maya Angelou, Rumi, and Yehuda Amichai, and lesser known Chasidic commentary. 


May the heavens open to new truth. Joyful Weeks!


Sacred Seven One shavuot 5774

Shavuot Sacred Seven TWO

Sacred Seven Poems for Shavuot 5775


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Redefine Kosher/Rediscover Eating: Food for Thought. Word 26

WORD: A Word a Week from the World’s Best Seller. Follow the Annual Torah Re-Run Series with Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Newest Year-Long Blog. To subscribe via email click here. To listen to the audio version click here.



Instead of bringing us together food can sometimes become a reason for rifts.
A commotion outside the bakery on Agrippas Road, on the night right after Passover: A bearded man, clad in black, yelling at a group of Israelis, men and women, some in knit kippas and headscarves, some not, who are trying to buy fresh pita, eager for the first flavor of unleavened and not in the mood for the yelling: “It isn’t kosher!” the man gestures wildly, “It’s too soon after the holiday is over! This bakery is not kosher!”. He points at a sign on the wall: “Fresh pitas may not be purchased before 8:05pm on April 1. It takes about 30 min. to prep and bake a pita. signed: The Rabbis.”
It’s 8:15.
The bakery owner is not there to reply, the Arab workers busy packing pitas into plastic bags don’t even look up and a few of the startled customers are, Israeli style, shouting back, showing him their watches. He refused to relent – the bakery has been open since 8pm! It must be shut down at once.
We walk away from there, amused but also really not, nibbling a fresh pita and trying to make sense of all this food related mania and where ancient rules for dietary well being have become so Kafka-like ridiculous and so very unappealing. All the flavor taken out of simple pleasures, with too many regulations, too much supervision, separating us instead of adding another chair at the table.
Passover is just such an example of kosher gone wrong – on steroids.  The holiday, like so many others, is grounded in the art of eating – the flavors are what give it meaning, the taste is where our memories reside. But also the ongoing slavery to the wrong kind of stuff. The ultimate gastro-judaic obstacle course sets up each year unpleasant tiffs and family feuds sparked by different traditions of what one does or doesn’t eat and how. Quinoa, for instance, the latest addition to the “kosher for passover or not’ saga is banned by some, blessed by others and ignored by most. But at least at one Seder that I know of – an entire pot of it was thrown out because the hosts feared the hostile reaction of a cousin. Really. It’s not like there aren’t lots of hungry people among us! For THIS we left Egypt? For pseudo Bible thumping hunger games??
Far beyond the norms of actual nutrition, dietary restrictions define our most private and public norms of living, which is, most likely, their very reason for existence.
You could argue that Kosher (Or Halal, etc.)matters because God said so, or because that’s how social walls protect and mould an ethnic identity. But for me it’s simply a device to be more aware of the  daily duty of conscious nutritious intake. It’s about discipline, it’s about gratitude, and it’s about control. The religious prohibitions were inserted to make it more scary to some folks, but really, it’s just the gravy.  The main dish is more conscious eating.
Maybe it all began with that first bite of forbidden fruit – and all this kosher stuff is the reacting to boundless desire?
I grew up 100% kosher, tested the boundaries during my teens and army years, gone way off, and am now somewhere in the 85% vegetarian camp, kosher-ish. I only really started understanding the power of dietary restrictions when I went on a rigid – and successful -low-carb diet about ten years ago. AH! I remember thinking as I carefully removed the slices of bread from my tuna sandwich, with carbs clearly marked as the new Treif: THIS is why we have dietary restrictions in the Torah – it isn’t about some god-like menu – it’s about the disciplined practice of careful eating  – conscious, healthy, enviromentally aware. The law is there to serve the greater human need for better living – and for survival on the planet. The eco-kosher
movement is totally a step in that direction. My friends at Hazon are also doing amazing work in this area.
In this week’s Torah text, Shmini, Leviticus 11 lists the famous do’s and dont’s of kosher cooking – rabbit out, chicken in, etc.
We are what we eat – and what we are not allowed to or choose to avoid determines who we want to become.
Laws are important for the health of a nation, but sometimes laws become an obstacle to life. With all due respect to Kosher and to Kosher for Passover – and even with respect to the yelling Jew outside the bakery on post passover night: dayenu.
The obsession with minutia is driving us away from the real bottom line, the big picture, the healthy diets of disciplined pleasures that will nourish our bodies, satisfy our souls and help us be in better sync with the rest of the planet. Food is there to bring us closer to ourselves, each other, the divine. We must make sure it isn’t used so much as a tool for oppressive separation. There are enough food disorders in our lives already – let’s figure out a way to make the Jewish diet one that doesn’t promote more suffering, but brings more joy into our lives – one bite at a time.
How privileged we are to be having this conversation.
Bon Appetit.
Shabbat Shalom


Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999.