Shmini Atzeret: Eating in a California drought



I live in Southern California. The majority of my water is pumped from Northern California and other western states. It’s energy intensive, illogical and not sustainable. To add to this, California is in the worst drought in the past 500 years.  What does this mean for Californians and the rest of the nation?

A LOT!  California is America’s fruit basket and salad bowl–the state provides half of the fruit, vegetables and nuts for our country. In the process of growing all of this food, the California agriculture sector uses 80% of the state’s water. 

This is dire for state’s agriculture, which has already lost a half million acres of farmland, will cost the industry $2.2. Billion this year and 17,000 jobs. For some Californians, like hundreds of Tulare County residents (many of whom are Mexican immigrants drawn to the region for agricultural jobs) who use well water, their taps have run dry.

So, what does this have to do with Shmini Atzeret? Bookended by Sukkot and Simchat Torah  (in Israel, it is celebrated on the same day as Simchat Torah), the importance of California’s water situation is keenly attached to this holiday. This holiday concludes the harvest period and initiates the rainy season. It is on this day that we say the Tefilah HaGeshem (Prayer for Rain). The following line is added to Amidah, Masheev HaRuach U-Moreed HaGeshem (He causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall) and is said until Passover (when the rainy season concludes). While this holiday never held the gravitas or excitement of other ones for me, I’m keenly aware now of the genuine importance of it, living in this parched state.

My aloe plant

It’s also a time to connect, again, to the ideas of a Shmita year which just started with Rosh Hashana a couple of weeks ago.  Shmita is the  last in a seven-year cycle that prescribes a Sabbatical for the land: letting the land lie fallow and to consume wild plants and perennials (e.g. fruits and nuts). It’s a period of rest for the land.  As I previously wrote, implementing the ideas of Shmita outside of Israel is happening for the first time. It’s an exciting time for individuals and communities to construct and implement their own ideas and programs inspired by Shmita. Hazon has excellent resources and online communities to engage people in conversations about Shmita.

Nopales (cactus paddles)

Nopales (cactus paddles)


Will California farmland lie fallow? Clearly not. But, interestingly there are some steps towards more Shmita friendly practices happening in the Golden State such as growing more perennials. “California farmers have increasingly turned toward orchard crops like nuts, grapes, and stone fruit. That’s because those crops bring more return for the water invested than lower-value row crops like cotton, rice, and vegetables.” 

And, Jewish organizations across the state are taking a leadership role, too, by implementing and educating others about water conservation measures.

What’s realistic for Californians to do during this crisis? We can each try to take steps to incorporate simple Shmita and water friendly practices into our lives. You can start by finding or hosting an event on Food Day (Oct 24) to discuss Shmita and water practices in your community. Get involved with Hazon, Wilderness Torah, Urban Adamah and Netiya’s water conservation activities.  I’ve created a “drought friendly” recipe below using low water plants: Aloe (from my garden), tomatillos and Nopales cactus which are readily available in Southern California (my first time cooking with them!).

Chopped nopales

Chopped nopales

Nopales and Tomatillo Saute


1 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 white or yellow onion
3 Nopales “cactus paddles” with thorns removed
5-6 large tomatillos
1 large piece of aloe
1 large dried chili
pinch of salt (preferably smoked Maldon salt)
ground pepper to taste



Cactus tomatillo saute

Nopales tomatillo saute


1. Wash all ingredients.

2. Chop onion, chili and tomatillo into small pieces and cactus into strips. Scrape aloe to get jelly-like inside.

3. Heat olive oil on warm skillet.

4. Add onion and saute 2 minutes.

5. Add cactus and tomatillos and cook for 3-4 minutes.

6. Add chili and insides of aloe. Cook over medium heat until tomatillos and cactus are soft but not mushy.  Add salt and pepper. Serve.



18 thoughts on “Shmini Atzeret: Eating in a California drought

  1. Love all the connections you are making between Shmita, Shmini Atzeret, and the California drought. And cooking with cacti! Praying for rain wherever it is needed… (we had our first drops fall on the first night of Sukkot here in Jerusalem – felt like such a blessing :)).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sarah,

    This is so creative, educational, relevant and on target. Bringing Shimini Atzeret and this Shmita year to the table gives focus to the relevance of religion and the wisdom of Elders. Shmita reflects that Judaism is a religion of practices that concerns caring for people and for environment.

    Thank you,


    Liked by 1 person

  3. As I previously wrote, implementing the ideas of Shmita outside of Israel is happening for the first time. It’s an exciting time for individuals and communities to construct and implement their own ideas and programs inspired by Shmita

    When I discovered Shmita outside of Israel on Apr. 10th 2014, it was like piece of the puzzle being filled in. I would like to move beyond sharing my theories and become involved in some practical work involving Shmita. Like most people, I am detached from gardening-agriculture and the processes involved in producing the food we consume. I am thinking of writing a thesis paper on Shmita for an online school, but I think hands on Shmita work(if there is such a thing) should be part of the process.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks!! You can actual forage for cactus in LA but just be careful removing the thorns 🙂 Or you can easily find it at some farmers markets and small groceries. Great idea re tortilla chips–I’m sure your corn chips will be organic, of course 🙂


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