Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Shabbat 85 – Sowing Seeds

One of the more obscure restrictions in the Torah concerns what one may planting in a field – Deuteronomy 22:9 says: “You shall not sow your vineyard with different seeds; lest the fruit of your seed which you have sown, and the fruit of your vineyard, be defiled.” Is this an example of early agricultural wisdom based on observation and experience? Perhaps; but it is also one of a series of laws that, two verses later, commands one to avoid wearing any garment with linen and wool together. This rule, called shaatnez, is so opaque that even Maimonides, the famous Sephardic medieval rabbinic authority, said it was one of those commandments meant to test your obedience to God because there was no real reason behind it. So perhaps not sowing with different seeds was more theological than agricultural.

Be that as it may, the Mishnah and Talmud inherited this rule and needed to work within it. Thus when the Mishnah claims that in a planting box six handsbreadths on a side, one may plant therein 5 different kinds of seeds, one on each side and one in the middle. How to do this without violating Deuteronomy’s law? The Talmud claims that the earlier rabbis realized that such a planting arrangement would not cause the roots of each to draw nutrients from each other, which is how they interpret the original Deuteronomic rule. And the Talmud and its commentators further explain planting patterns that clearly indicate that the seeds were not indiscriminately planted together but rather in independent strips.

This passages is of more historical than ethical or philosophical interest – we can learn something about patterns of small-scale agriculture in more urban settings, something of the vegetable diet of the times, and also about the change in priorities in rabbinic law. The Mishnah contains an entire seder, or order, called Zera’im [seeds] – obviously, agriculture and planting were very important to them, particularly rules concerning planting in the land of Israel. The Talmud explores the section from Zera’im on Blessings (as we did this year), but that’s about it! The agricultural insights they have to offer are sown [pardon the pun] throughout the rest of the Talmud instead. This may indicate a move to more urban concerns, or the reality of a Babylonian Talmud composed hundreds of miles from Israeli fields. Today, with new and active Jewish farming in that very soil, old issues have sprouted up [oops. . .] all over again.

Rabbi Adam Chalom