Farming or Shepherding – A Question of Character, Part 1
Bein Adam Le-chavero: Ethics of Interpersonal Conduct
In commemoration of the yarzheit of Sholom Mayers z"l
by Debbi and Eddie Simpser
Dedicated in memory of Gertrude Spiegel a"h
by Patti and Michael Steinmetz and Family
Shiur #13: Farming or Shepherding – A Question of Character, Part 11
The Agricultural Mitzvot of Vayikra 19
In the last two lessons, we discussed the significance of the agricultural gifts to the poor, which provide the framework for a successful landowner to maintain a holy perspective as he reaps his crops and gathers in the fruits of his endeavors. We gained an understanding of how these agricultural mitzvot serve as the introduction of Chapter 19 of Vayikra, which is dedicated to interpersonal mitzvot and the achievement of a holy character.
It is noteworthy that two other agricultural mitzvot also appear in this chapter. Though at first glance they may seem related to neither character-building nor interpersonal holiness, the fact of their being in this chapter indicates that they too have such a function.
Immediately after the lengthy series of
interpersonal mitzvot culminating in “you must love your neighbor as
yourself” (19:17), the Torah moves on to a radically different set of laws with
no obvious connection to the interpersonal realm. Without the slightest break in
the text, the Torah begins a discussion of the laws of kilayim, the
forbidden mixtures, followed by a short, three-verse description of the asham
shifcha charufa, the sacrifice brought by one who had relations with a
partially free Canaanite slave woman who was betrothed to a Jewish slave. The
chapter then returns to agricultural mitzvot: orla, the
prohibition against benefiting from a fruit tree during its first three years of
growth, and reva’i, the commandment to eat the fruits of the
fourth year in
That these mitzvot are grouped together is remarkable in its own right, but their conspicuousness is compounded by the question of why they are placed in Vayikra 19, the chapter presenting the model of a holy Jewish lifestyle.
This smooth transition testifies to the close connection between these laws. For the laws of preserving the separation of species throughout the organic world are connected to the laws of preserving the dignity of man. Moreover, they are related to the whole section of social holiness, whose first part they conclude.
Through the prohibition of revenge and the obligation to love one’s fellow, the sanctification of man’s character in human relationships with others reaches its zenith. Revengeful and hateful feelings toward an offender for wrongs suffered are deeply embedded in the physical nature of animals. They are part of the instinct for self-preservation; they are part of the self-love that powerfully dominates the animal soul, self-love with which the Creator has provided each one of His creatures for the purpose of self-preservation. To free oneself completely of any feeling of revenge or hatred toward an offender, to transform love of self into love of one’s fellow – that is the height of self-control. It entails freely subordinating one’s bodily will to the higher dictates of God’s will. Exerting this power of self-control is man’s duty. He who fulfills it bridges the gulf between the animalistic-physical and the godly-moral; he transcends the boundary that separates man from beast, and he ascends the heights of holiness that leads to God’s closeness.
And when we have reached the heights of human destiny, God’s word directs our attention backward. He shows us the whole organic world lying far below us. We behold that this world too is a world of divine laws. Every plant, every living thing, proclaims God’s glory. With every fiber and with all their strength they attest to God, Who makes the laws of their existence and formation. All this He shows us so that we will reflect and realize that if we have ascended to the heights of life’s holiness, we have only fulfilled the purpose for which we were created. All the plants and animals perform God’s will by compulsion … we, however, have been given the ability and charge to obey God in freedom …
Later, in his commentary to verse 24,
The Jew waits three years after planting a tree for food. For three years be refrains from enjoying the fruit, and vis-Ã -vis God gives up his ownership right. This restraint trains him in self-control, which is the essential condition for the morality of enjoyment … Orla and reva’i teach man to free himself from the bonds of animal desire and attain moral freedom, for even during sensual enjoyment he will remember God and serve Him joyfully. Accordingly, even in his sensual enjoyment, he remains close to God and worthy of the name “man.”
As evidence of his view,
Young trees will cut off the feet of butchers and those who have relations with menstruating women.
The commentators explain that the requirement to wait three years before partaking of a tree’s fruit should serve as a lesson for butchers who eat an animal’s meat before checking that it is kosher and for men who have relations with their wives who have menstruated rather than wait for them to achieve ritual purification. This is the lesson of self-restraint taught by the mitzva of orla.
It is not surprising, then, that Chapter 19 of Vayikra includes a number of agricultural laws, first leket, pe’ah, and olelot, and then kilayim and orla. Just as the agricultural gifts to the poor present a new model of charity and a new perspective on one’s wealth and harvest, the mitzva of kilayim allows us to recognize the power of our free will as human beings, and the mitzva of orla teaches man how to restrain his appetite for food. This analysis helps us understand the connection of these mitzvot to a life of holiness, and their essential role in informing how one relates to the physical world of the field.
What remains perplexing, however, is that
the more we understand the importance of these agricultural mitzvot, the
more we are dumbfounded by the question with which we ended last week: Why limit
these mitzvot to the
In order to answer this question, we will take a broader look at the challenges and benefits of agricultural work.
In our day and age, many individuals choose a profession from literally thousands of options, and the idea of dedicating one’s life to agriculture is a foreign concept for most people. Yet before the Industrial Revolution, a person’s professional choices were far more limited. In numerous places the Torah seems to intimate that the essential choice was between shepherding and agriculture. While it might at first seem that this decision was merely a matter of an individual’s professional proclivities, the truth appears to be to the contrary.
Kayin and Hevel: Land and Acquisition
From the beginning of human history, it is made clear that working the land can be harmful. In the description of the first fight between brothers – Kayin and Hevel – very little is explicit regarding what brought about the dispute. The only thing that the Torah clearly tells us about the brothers is their different professions.
Although Kayin was the first to offer a sacrifice to God, his offering was not accepted as was Hevel’s. Why not? Part of the answer may be that only Hevel brought his offering from the best of his lot – but why was Kayin’s taking initiative not reason enough to accept his offering?
Further, we note that in God’s discussion with Kayin, He warns him that “sin crouches at the door,” while concluding with the positive message that “you can rule over it.” What is the meaning of this?
The Torah’s description of the brothers’ professions, we suggest, says something about their personalities. In fact, given what the Torah says in this context, it should not be surprising that leaders of the Jewish people throughout the generations of the Tanakh tended to begin their careers as shepherds, rather than farmers.
Kayin’s choice of profession, says
Agriculture demands all a person’s physical strength … he needs to devote his whole life to his bodily existence. The concept of “Kayin,” i.e. “kana” (acquisition) – self-recognition – and the pride associated with acquisition, implicit in the terms kayin and kana, are most evident in the farmer. The ground that the farmer has fertilized by the sweat of his brow has become part of his personality. He has made his ground bear fruit, and it becomes something of ultimate value for him – it becomes part of his personality, he holds onto it and settles it.
To be sure, agriculture stimulates and develops civilization. Most inventions and skills may be credited to agriculture. The settlement of the land implicit in agriculture leads to the formation of society and state and the administration of justice.
Nevertheless, though agriculture does have these positive elements, it also poses a tremendous spiritual challenge to the farmer, as seen in the agricultural societies of old:
On the other hand, the farmer is a slave to his field, and the field draws him towards it. Once he has placed the yoke of pursuit of acquisition upon his neck, his spirit also becomes subservient … This leads to slavery … Moreover, he will easily be brought to admiration of the forces of nature, upon whose influences the success of his field depends. Faith in God and in the superiority of man was first lost among the agricultural nations. It was there that idol worship first developed.
Yet Hevel’s choice of profession, continues
In contrast, the life of the shepherd is most elevated. He is concerned principally with living things. His care of them arouses within him humane feelings and sympathy for suffering. His acquisitions are portable. The flock needs the shepherd’s care, but their existence is not in his hands. Thus, the shepherd is protected from the danger of overestimating his own value and that of his property. His profession does not occupy all his strength and efforts. His spirit is invested in his labor to a lesser degree, and remains open to godly and humane values. For this reason our forefathers were shepherds, and Moshe and David also shepherded flocks.
Working the land is fundamentally tied to the concept of private ownership. There is much significance to the fact that Hevel became a shepherd, while Kayin, obsessed with kinyan (acquisition), became a tiller of the soil.
That said, it is clear from God’s words to Kayin that though one who works the land is faced with a challenge, his pursuit need not be an evil one. Sin does indeed “crouch at the door” – at the plowed field of the tiller of the soil – but “you can rule over it.” Man’s free choice and moral independence afford him the ability to be an upright worker of the soil with a deep religious consciousness.
We find this tension between the tiller of the soil and the shepherd throughout history. Obviously, the land must be planted and built up to provide food for humans and for the flocks they tend. However, one who chooses to focus on building the land as his profession is liable to become overly attached to it and even intoxicated by its physical qualities, and to lose his spiritual perspective.
Noach: The Tension Continues
One of the greatest examples of this danger is that of Noach. Noach is introduced to us as the righteous individual building the ark, the head of the lone family to survive the Flood. Yet immediately after his departure from the ark, he turns to agriculture and plants a vineyard (Bereishit 9:20). To introduce his choice of a pursuit that ultimately leads to his inebriation and humiliation by one of his sons, the Torah uses the term “vayachel,” connoting an act of chullin, that which is unsacred.
Although Rashi, citing the Midrash, specifically faults Noach’s decision to plant a vineyard, Chatam Sofer disagrees. He explains that Noach began with the righteous motive of planting grapes to use as libations for sacrifices to God. Yet in practice, he partook of the wine himself before offering a libation. He thus became intoxicated, and the enterprise became unsacred.
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 31:3)
comments that although Noach is first described as a “righteous man” (6:9), when
he turns to agriculture he becomes a mere “man of the land” (9:20).
Ya’akov and Esav: The Shepherd and the Man of the Field
With Noach’s example in mind, it is not surprising that most Jewish leaders turned to shepherding, an occupation in which they could harness their feelings of care and concern for others. This dynamic is noted in the Midrash, which notes that Moshe’s care for each and every individual sheep in his flock showed God that he would care for every Jew as well.
The only exception to this rule is Yitzchak, who besides amassing a vast quantity of livestock (Bereishit 26:14) also planted crops, obtaining a one-hundred-fold return on the seeds he planted (Bereishit 26:12). That the Torah sees fit to tell us about Yitzchak’s crops may be understood in the context of the two generations that followed him.
Yitzchak’s twin sons, Ya’akov and Esav, were seemingly both supposed to take part in shaping the future of the fledgling Jewish nation. Yet interestingly enough, “Yitzchak loved Esav, for game was in his mouth." Yitzchak loved Esav due to his choice of profession, hunting, as opposed to Ya’akov’s pursuit of shepherding, the usual Jewish profession of the day.
Yitzchak valued his son Ya’akov’s sincerity, but evidently thought that alongside his spirituality, Esav, the man of the field, would have to act as a provider. However, Esav took his pursuits in the field to an extreme. He made no effort at cultivating the land, preferring to see it merely as a place to indulge himself and hunt wild animals. The concept of working hard to achieve results – a key positive aspect of agriculture – was totally lost on Esav.
Midrash Ha-gadol (cited in Torah Sheleima 199) underscores the difference between the brothers’ personalities in its account of the purchase of the birthright:
When Esav entered, he found Ya’akov standing and cooking, his eyes tearing from the smoke.
Esav said, "Why do you go to all this trouble? Open your eyes and see how all people on earth eat whatever they find – fish, insects, crawling creatures, swine, and such – but you trouble yourself to prepare a dish of lentils!"
Ya’akov said to him, "But if we act in that way, what will we do to prepare for the day about which it is said, ‘Seek justice, seek humility; perhaps you will then be protected on the day of the Lord’s wrath’ (Tzefanya 2:3), the day when the reward of the righteous is dispensed …?"
He said to him, “Is there a world to come, or perhaps a resurrection of the dead …?”
Ya’akov said to him, “If there is no world to come and no resurrection of the dead, why do you need the birthright? Sell your birthright to me today!”
Yaakov was prepared to invest time in accomplishing his goals. Esav only wanted quick results.
Yitzchak had planted a field, rather than
restrict himself to shepherding, because he knew that the Jewish future would
require planting as well as shepherding. The Jewish people would need to build
Yitzchak knew that despite Esav’s failure, the Jewish nation would at some point need to revert to farming, to planting seeds as Yitzchak himself had done. Yaakov understood, though, that this time had not yet arrived; he therefore became a shepherd. Yet one of Ya’akov’s sons understood that a day would come when shepherding would no longer suffice as the sole occupation of the Jewish people.
 After an animal is slaughtered, it must be skinned and cut apart, then inspected to ensure that it is not a tereifa, an animal that would have died soon even had it not been slaughtered (Rashi).
 Specifically, the Torah forbids cross-fertilization of different species of plants even outside of the Land of Israel.
 On Kayin and Hevel, see the beginning of Chapter 4 of Bereishit.
 See Rashi. Other commentators understand the word differently.
 For an expansion on this theme, see Malbim on Vayishlach.
 The Torah (Bereishit 25:27) describes Esav as “a man of the field,” but in light of the preceding phrase, “an expert hunter,” Rashi understands this term to mean “a person who is idle and hunts beasts and fowl with his bow.”