Joyful Planting: COVID and the Prohibition of Planting During the Three Weeks

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Erica Brown

Among the laws oft debated in contemporary halakhic literature on the Nine Days—the prohibitions of purchasing new clothing or a new home, shaving, swimming, or listening to music—one rarely encounters a meaningful discussion of the prohibition of planting during the Nine Days. There may be too few gardeners in our modern society to attach relevance to this law. But perhaps it is this prohibition above the others that truly showcases the emotional tenor of mourning that is generally challenging in the absence of having personally experienced the Temple’s destruction and the ruin of Jerusalem.[1] To understand the significance of this prohibition, we will briefly review the rabbinic sources and connect them to a more fundamental understanding of the role gardening plays in the Hebrew Bible and its inherent joy.

In defining the prohibition, the Shulhan Arukh contrasts building and planting that is done as pure manual labor from that which is an expression of aesthetic beauty or pleasure:

From Rosh Hodesh until the Fast we minimize business transactions and constructions of joy, for example the building of a house for one’s son upon marriage or the erection of molding or interior decoration. One also refrains from planting for joyous purposes (lit. happy planting), for example the creation of a royal canopy for a banquet (avurneki shel melakhim), that is planted for its shade or the planting of myrtle species and other coverings.[2]

The Shulhan Arukh’s halakhic synopsis is based on Tractate Yevamot, where the major categories of prohibition during this time period are outlined:

What is the period of mourning to which Rav Ḥisda is referring? As we learned in a mishnah:[3] During the week in which the Ninth of Av occurs, it is prohibited to cut hair and to launder clothes, but on Thursday it is permitted in deference to Shabbat. Prior to this time the public reduce their activities, refraining from business transactions, from building and planting, and one may betroth a woman but may not marry, and cannot hold a wedding feast.[4]

The royal canopy detail mentioned in the Shulhan Arukh is discussed elsewhere in the Talmud where an important distinction is made between building and planting out of necessity and that done for pleasure:

When the Sages said that construction must be decreased on public fasts, they were not referring to the construction of homes for people who have nowhere to live, but to joyful construction. Similarly, when they said that planting must be decreased, they were not referring to planting food crops, but to joyful planting. What is meant by joyful construction? This is referring to one who builds a wedding chamber for his son. It was customary to build a special house where the wedding would take place, and at times the couple would also live there. What is meant by joyful planting? This is referring to one who plants trees for shade and pleasure such as one might find in a royal garden [avurneki].[5]

For our sages, who lived within a farming culture, the kind of planting that would be problematic during the Nine Days is non-essential planting. It is the wealthy who could afford to build a house for a child upon marriage or an aristocratic wedding canopy. The one who orders these luxury items does so just for pleasure; it is purely joyful planting. The Halakhah contrasts the demanding life of the farmer with the more playful and volitional endeavors of the gardener that bring pleasure and delight. Although engaged in many of the same activities and with the similar desired outcomes, one is an occupation, the other a hobby. It is pleasurable planting, the kind which brings joy, that is problematic during the Nine Days. To understand why, we turn to the early chapters of Genesis that take place in the Garden.  

Back to the Garden

In the second chapter of Genesis, God created a garden as a home for human occupation: “The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and placed there the man whom He had formed” (Genesis 2:3). Of all the places of vitality that could have been chosen to house human beings, God selected a garden with trees that offered bounty, wisdom, and life itself. Before Adam was created, there was no one to tend God’s new landscape: “No shrub of the field was yet on earth and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted because the Lord God had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to till the soil” (2:5).[6] Ten verses later Adam’s role as gardener is made even more explicit: “The Lord God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to till it and tend it” (2:15).

Ibn Ezra on 2:15 describes the nature of that work: to provide water and to guard the garden from destructive animals. Radak contends that Adam must have been formed outside of the garden and only then placed within it since the verse states this explicitly: “The Lord God took the man and placed him there” (2:8). This small and arresting detail conveys, according to Radak, that Adam was moved into the Garden from outside it so that he would appreciate the magnificence of the garden and that God desired the best for humanity.

Adam, as a gardener, lived in harmony with surroundings created for his sustenance and satisfaction. But after Adam’s sin, his punishment transformed him from a gardener to a farmer: “Cursed be the ground because of you; by toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:17). Suddenly, Adam had to work hard and perspire for his food. All this was to occur outside the garden. The curse continued and intensified over the next generation. Cain’s punishment added another layer of complication to working the land.[7] Hard work would not necessarily result in a successful yield.[8] Cain was destined to wander, implying that he could never put down roots that are figuratively and literally essential to farming.[9] Noah’s very name was to inaugurate a cessation to the land’s curse.[10] Thus, in Genesis, gardening is an act of joy, harking back to humankind’s idyllic existence in the Garden of Eden. Farming may be life-sustaining, but it is backbreaking work. Adam and his descendants wanted to be good stewards of the earth yet their transgressions replaced joy with adversity and gardening with farming.

Adam’s exile from the Garden became, in essence, a metaphor for all future exile. In the spirit of Ecclesiastes, there is, “A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted…” (Ecclesiastes 3:2). Rashi explains this as a metaphor for nation building and for destruction. Anyone who has ever weeded a garden understands the physical violence of uprooting. With one sharp tug, an entire root system is eliminated, one that may have taken many days, months, or years to grow, an experience even more jarring with deeply rooted, stubborn plants. Such brutal and destabilizing leave-takings were made only worse throughout Jewish history the longer Jews were permitted to stay in a particular land. The comforting delusion of safety and security was overturned as quickly as a gardener overturns the earth with the sharp blade of a hoe.

Perhaps for this reason, the Temple destroyed is likened in Eikhah, Lamentations, to a decimated and uprooted garden. “He [God] has stripped (va-yahmos) His Booth (sukko) like a garden; he has destroyed His Tabernacle” (Lamentations 2:6). Rashi on 2:6 defines “va-yahmos” as “cutting off the vegetation of a garden.” In other words, the sukkah is uprooted. R. Dovid Altschuler links the term to Zephaniah 3:4 as an act of perverse decimation. The Temple in Jeremiah’s haunting words is like God’s booth, a simple place God dwells in on earth while in the midst of planting, except that God’s sukkah was now shattered.[11] One conjures images of an abandoned field with a small shade hut at its center that is splintered and unusable.[12] But in this construct, it is the farmer who has slashed at the booth that now affords no protection from the elements. Like a field burned down by a farmer with only the scantest reminder of its former benefits, is the Temple stripped bare. Dr. Yael Ziegler, in her new commentary on Lamentations, writes, “The garden metaphor, with its absconded produce, alludes to this plundering of Jerusalem’s food as the catastrophe unfolds. The result is hunger in Jerusalem … The garden metaphor also evokes the Temple’s life-giving functions, the way its religious rituals provide food for the soul.” Ziegler alerts us to the practical consequence that is at stake. A destroyed garden cannot feed a starving capital city.

Like the original exile from Eden, the destruction of the Temple was also akin to the loss of a garden. Joyous planting, or gardening, which returns us to a prelapsarian Edenic state and evokes a Temple still standing, cannot be appropriate for the Nine Days.

Modern Gardening and Redemptive Regeneration

Gardening not only harks back to the joy of Eden and the Temple, but suggests a future joy as well, one of regrowth and renewal. In this vein, it was only during COVID that I truly began to understand the prohibition against joyous planting during the Nine Days. Behind masks, we bore the daily weight of terrible news: daily, global death tallies, unattended funerals, rising unemployment, political unrest, and race riots. Grief began to include lesser disappointments: celebrations postponed, vacations cancelled, gatherings shunned. The small and irritating inconveniences of working in closets and home schooling mounted. Slowly, we became a simulacrum of ourselves.

As the news in March and April of 2020 got worse, spring, nevertheless, majestically unfolded, creating a canopy of nature and birdsong that made the words of Song of Songs that Passover thrum with newness. Like countless others, I spent time in my garden. Crocuses gently peeped out of the dry cold earth, followed by daffodils, then later the dogwood blooms and, later still, the bursts of hydrangeas. Walking in silence most mornings, I took in the outdoor world with a patience and vitality that I would otherwise have been too busy to absorb.

The shutdown created the luxury of found time to plant and tend a porch garden, read about gardening, and pay attention to the daily changes in flowers and the sudden irascibility of weeds. I’d remove the brown leaves and shriveled petals and welcome daily the new buds. So much died overnight. So much was born overnight. Gardening involves constant decisions about what to nurture and what to destroy.[13] It also requires constant vigilance. The astonishing and constant replenishing of nature kept me hopeful. The known world was on fire, but the dill and basil kept growing in their terracotta pots. Solace takes small forms.

Dr. Joel Flagler, professor of plant biology at Rutgers University reported on the popularity of gardening during COVID: “There are certain, very stabilizing forces in gardening that can ground us when we are feeling shaky, uncertain, terrified really. It’s these predictable outcomes, predictable rhythms of the garden that are very comforting right now.”[14] But there was something else that became clear. In planting, only by removing that which was dead is space properly made for the living. Only then can a plant invest its energies in growing that which is new. This was Adam’s job and the job of all humans after him: to remove death and to make room for life, to experience the verdant sense of possibility that is everywhere in the lushness of a garden.[15] And this, I discovered, is joyful planting. One need not plant a royal wedding canopy to experience this level of happiness. Gardening is the ultimate expression of hope in the future.[16]

Regeneration is redemptive, as we read in Job: “There is hope for a tree; if it is cut down it will renew itself; its shoots will not cease” (Job 14:7). Leaves and stems that seem listless and lilting can return to full vibrancy within hours of being watered. Ezekiel extols this vitality: “And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month … Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing” (Ezekiel 47:12).

Jeremiah’s mandate to build houses and pleasure gardens in exile (Jeremiah 29:5) was meant to provide a glimmer of hope at a time of general hopelessness. Redemption takes time: to eat of a tree one planted takes years, but it will happen. The gardener understands this. Planting gardens stabilizes exile and becomes a rehearsal for the promise of planting in a homeland. That Israel is our garden and we its gardeners is apparent in the closing lines of the book of Amos: “I will restore My people Israel. They shall rebuild ruined cities and inhabit them. They shall plant vineyards and drink their wine; they shall till gardens and eat their fruits” (Amos 9:14). But it is only in Isaiah that the trajectory from emotional relief to the actual work of tilling and tending is stated clearly and unambiguously. Jerusalem will be rebuilt and then we will all become gardeners: “For I shall create Jerusalem as a joy, and her people as a delight. And I will rejoice in Jerusalem and delight in her people. Never again shall be heard there the sounds of weeping and wailing” (Isaiah 65:18-19). The emotional relief is profound, but then the work must begin: “They shall build houses and dwell in them. They shall plant vineyards and enjoy their fruit” (Isaiah 65:21).[17]

In exile, we plant Jeremiah’s garden. In Israel, we plant Isaiah’s garden. The difference is not only the location. It is the promise that our enemies will not eat the fruit of our labors. The only ones who will enjoy our gardens, according to Isaiah, are our own descendants: “They shall not build for others to dwell in, or plant for others to enjoy. For the days of My people shall be as long as the days of a tree. My chosen ones shall outlive the work of their hands” (Isaiah 65:22). Like the tree, we will thrive, and our saplings will continue to delight in what we have nurtured under each vine and fig tree.

It is this joy of replenishing and renewal—deep, enduring, eudemonic, and purposeful—that we refrain from experiencing during the sad days that lead up to Tishah Be-Av. When we mourn during the Nine Days, we cannot—should not—be gardeners. With sober hearts, we submerge ourselves in collective grief and lock up the elation that comes with removing death and supporting life. But when the mourning concludes, we take out our spades and return to the delight of gardening. After Tishah Be-Av, it is good to plant something in a garden, to renew vegetal life and once again to plant hope.[18] Perspiring under the hot sun, we close our eyes and, for a moment, we return to Eden.

[1] See my discussion of the emotional challenges of modern mourning in the introduction to In the Narrow Places (Maggid/OU, 2010).

[2] Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim, 551:2. I have liberally translated the passage and filled in the ellipses for the ease of reading.

[3] Taanit 26b.

[4] Yevamot 43a. Translation from Sefaria with emendations for clarity.

[5] Megillah 5b. Translation from Sefaria.

[6] Rashi on 2:5 observes that only with the birth of Adam was there a recognition of how foundational rain was to the success of this new enterprise of creation.

[7] R. Joseph Soloveitchik contends that nomadic existence preceded pastoral existence and that only the settler can truly produce and create. See “Sacred and Profane,” Jewish Thought (Fall/Winter 5754/1993): 61-62. This was originally delivered as a yahrzeit shiur in memory of his father and also appeared in HaTzedek (June 1945) and then in English in Gesher 3:1 (June, 1966).

[8] Genesis 4:12.

[9] As a result of Cain’s recognition of his sin and his repentance, God mitigated Cain’s punishment, as evident from 4:17 when Cain marries, has a son, and builds a city named after his son—the acts of a penitent, not a permanent wanderer.

[10] Genesis 5:29.

[11] The closest shared meaning of sukkah to the one in Lamentations is found in Isaiah 1:8: “Fair Zion is left like a booth in a vineyard, like a hut in a cucumber field, like a city beleaguered.” A sukkah can also be a refuge from strife, see Psalms 31:20, or a place of vulnerability, as it appears in Job 27:18, 36:29, and 38:40.

[12] Like Lamentations 2:6, Jonah 4:5 mentions a booth as a shelter, but one in which the prophet escapes responsibility for others.

[13] For more on gardening as both act and metaphor, see Michael Pollin’s Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education (Grover, 2003). There, he writes: “No less than the nineteenth-century transcendentalists and reformers, we look to the garden today as a source of moral instruction…gardening becomes, at least symbolically, an act of redemption” (p. 85). With thanks to Jeffrey Saks for bringing this book to my attention.

[14] Lauran Aratani, “Gardening Trend that Bloomed during the Pandemic is Here to Stay,” The Guardian (March 31, 2021).

[15] For the controversial thesis that plants are sentient, see Peter Tompkins & Christopher Bard, The Secret Life of Plants: A Fascinating Account of the Physical, Emotional, and Spiritual Relations Between Plants and Man (Harper and Row, 1989) and Stefano Mancuso & Alessandra Viola, Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence, trans. Joan Benham (Island Press, 2015).

[16] Richard Powers in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Overstory (W.W. Norton, 2018), documents the understory of plant life that influences the overstory of humans above ground.

[17] Meir Shalev provides a modern corollary in his latest book where he connects a return to Israel with the planting of a specific gardener, his grandfather: “My grandfather grew up in a Hasidic family in the Ukraine, and when he was old enough to know his own mind, he underwent a religious conversion from the work of God to the work of the land. But my grandfather did not forget his Talmud: the first trees he planted in his yard were olives, pomegranates, and figs, all close to the vineyard. It was no coincidence that they were the fruit trees the Torah included in the seven species that the Land of Israel was blessed with,” in My Wild Garden: Notes from a Writer’s Eden (Schocken, 2020), 5.

[18] Special thanks to Yosef Lindell and the other editors at Lehrhaus for their helpful edits.

Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the founding director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership. Her most recent book is Staying Human: Wartime Fragments of Anguish and Hope (Maggid). Erica was a Jerusalem Fellow, an Avi Chai Fellow, the recipient of the 2009 Covenant Award, and is a faculty member of the Wexner Foundation. She has written 13 books on the Hebrew Bible, spirituality, and leadership, co-authored 2 books, and co-edited one anthology. She has been published in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Tablet, First Things, and The Jewish Review of Books. She wrote a monthly column for the New York Jewish Week and is a consulting editor for the journal Tradition. She currently serves as a community scholar for Congregation Etz Chaim in Livingston, New Jersey. She is the proud mother of four children, four in-law children, and five beautiful grandchildren.