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.”

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