K'afra D'ar'a: Like the Dirt of the Earth

Rabbi David Seidenberg

“All the chametz that is in my possession/r’shut, which I did see or did not see and which I did remove or did not remove, let it be nullified and become like the dirt of the earth, k’afra d’ar’a .”

This is what we traditionally say before Passover to cover ourselves in case we missed some chametz when we cleaned our houses. Some people think it’s a magic formula that turns chametz into dust. It’s really a
legal formula that lets you renounce ownership of any chametz still in your space or your domain, your r’shut, by comparing it to dirt or dust.

But is it true that dirt is ownerless? We certainly act like we own the dirt, the soil. Developers take good farmland, truck the topsoil away to sell to other people, and build houses on it. Farmers poison
the soil’s microbial communities with pesticides to grow GMO corn and soy, as if the soil can be renewed and replaced at will, then they replace the nutrients those microbes would create with petroleum
fertilizers. Broken-up soil gets washed downstream and into the ocean along with agricultural runoff, creating algal blooms and anoxic dead zones. And we mix our food scraps that should turn back into soil with household poisons and toxins in our landfills, instead of composting them.

In that sense, we treat the soil like it is both ownerless and valueless. But our lives are almost entirely beholden to the soil. If it is ownerless (as the Shmita year teaches) it is because it should belong to all of us, including all the non-human creatures. Or more precisely, as the story of the rabbi deciding between claimants goes, “The land says it doesn’t belong to you or to you, but that you belong to it.”

Just as we do not own our chametz, may we remember that we cannot own this earth. May we recall that Adam, the human, is made of afar, soil, dirt. God’s promise to Abraham that his progeny will become “like the dirt of the earth,” in Hebrew, “ka’afar ha’aretz,” in Aramaic, “k’afra d’ar’a.” And one lesson we can learn is this: our purpose, like the soil, must be to nourish all Life.

Author bio: 

Rabbi David Seidenberg is the director of neohasid.org and the author of Kabbalah and Ecology: God’s Image in the More-Than-Human World, published by Cambridge University Press. He is also the co-creator of the Omer Counter iApp, which you can use for the whole Omer period from Passover to Shavuot, and the composer of the Shmita Harachaman that you can use this whole year. Go to neohasid.org for these resources and more.


the land belongs to itself

R. David,

Beautiful. Where is the teaching about the land belonging to itself from?

land story

As far as I know this story about the land is cross-cultural and doesn't have an authenticated Jewish source. But what it expresses is in harmony with Jewish teachings and the idea of a rabbi mediating between disputants is certainly Jewish. If anyone else has more information please share it! Note that in that story we belong to the land. If the land belongs to anyone it would belong to God, in the same way that we do.

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