It has been a while since I last posted to this site. I have not forgotten which negative commandment comes next, nor have I abandoned the blog. These past months have been a time of reassessing what I want to accomplish with this forum. For eight years now I have written about Liturgy, Halacha, Mishna and Mitzvot. There are still plenty of topics to cover but the world of Jewish education has changed over the years, and I have changed over the years as well. What started out as a new opportunity for me to teach a wider Jewish audience, is now in need of a facelift. I dedicated this forum to the memory of my father after his death and one of the many legacies he left me was never to be afraid to reinvent myself.
In 2003 blogging was new and exciting. Today we live in a world of Facebook, Twitter and Google+. In 2003 Jewish education was built around religious school and day school. Now we have Hebrew language charter schools, home schooling and private tutors. The world of Jewish education grapples with parents who are much older when they start having children and who don’t see themselves as part of the world of the synagogue anymore. If you are a follower of my other blog, “Jewish Common Sense” you know that even the very essence of the synagogue is changing. If the synagogue is the primary location of Jewish education, then how can these changes impact the way we deliver information about our faith?
I find myself grappling more and more with theology. What do we know about God? What difference does our understanding of God have in our lives? How does prayer, meditation and spirituality fit into this picture? I have been writing about Mitzvot for a long time but I never thought to talk about the whole notion of what it means to be commanded; a challenge made by the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary a few years ago and a topic I have been teaching as part of my adult studies seminars.
Now you see why I have not written for awhile. I have been contemplating not only this blog, but the very foundation of what I am trying to share with my students. Over the past months I have taught bible in a new way, spent ten days on a silent retreat, began to prepare for my first lessons in the field of mysticism and offered my synagogue students the chance to explore in a deeper manner, the latest discussions in understanding about what we mean when we talk about God.
In one way or the other, it all goes back to how we understand Torah. What is the nature of these five books? What did they mean to our ancestors and how do we learn from these words today? I hope to use this blog to travel, chapter by chapter through the Torah and share with you some of the insights I have learned from my teachers, colleagues and students.
Forgive me if I do not complete the study of Mitzvot. I hope to make this new venture a chance to go back to the source of all that is Jewish, to learn not only Mitzvot but the entire range of what Judaism has to offer us as individuals, as Jews and as human beings.
I hope you will find this new journey interesting and compelling and that you will want to share your ideas and comments as well.
14-5771 Mitzvah N-109
Negative Mitzvah 109 – This is a negative commandment: do not redeem the firstling of a pure (kosher) animal.
Hafetz Hayim – As Scripture says: “but the firstling of an ox… you shall not redeem” (Numb. 18:17). At the time that the Sanctuary is not in existence, it is permissible to sell it; but the buyer has to treat it in accordance with the holiness of a firstborn animal. As for a firstling with a disfiguring defect, it is permissible to sell it, whether it be alive or ritually slaughtered, provided it is not sold at the meat-market. This is in effect, everywhere and in every time for both men and women.
This is also not a law for vegetarians or vegans.
The law of the Torah is that the firstborn of kosher animals is to be sacrificed on the alter. Parts of the animal are then eaten by the priests who are officiating. The rest is burned on the alter. Non-kosher animals were not permitted to be sacrificed and they had to be redeemed so that they could be used for other purposes. The owner would pay a priest a set price and the animal would lose its sanctity as a first born. Kosher animals had to be sacrificed and could not be redeemed. They belonged to the priests. (The firstborn son is also holy and must be redeemed; this is the origin of the Pidyon HaBen ceremony). If the firstborn animal had a defect that would not permit it to be sacrificed, then that animal was to be redeemed and the money paid to a priest. We should see this as a livestock “tax” that was paid to the priests from the firstborn of cattle (oxen, sheep and goats).
That was the law if the Temple was still in existence. Since the Temple was destroyed, the animals can no longer be sacrificed and therefore we need to handle them differently. The rule here is that we are permitted to sell a firstborn animal, but a Jew who buys it should not put it to work like any other beast of burden. It is a holy animal and should not be plowing or threshing. If the animal has a defect it can be sold and used as normal. One can use it for personal consumption but should not sell it for its meat to a butcher. This is how it is handled differently from other animals.
I must admit that this is not a mitzvah that is of use to anyone other than those engaged in animal husbandry. This would be a special area of Jewish Law and I am not an authority in this area. It is interesting how these firstborn animals were handled differently in ancient times and how we should handle them differently today. I don’t see any reason to go into this in more detail than we have.
13-5771 Mitzvah N-108
Negative Mitzvah 108– This is a negative commandment: do not slay ritually both a pure [kosher] animal and its young in one day.
Hafetz Hayim – As Scripture says: “And whether it is a cow or a ewe, you shall not slay it and its young both in one day” (Lev. 22:28). If someone transgressed and did ritually slay them, the meat is kosher [permissible]. The day follows the night [a day is reckoned from sunset to sunset]; therefore if a person ritually slew the mother-animal at the beginning of the night of the fourth day of the week, he should not slay the young until the beginning of the fifth day. But if he slew the mother-animal toward the end of the fourth day, he may ritually slay the young at the beginning of the night of the fifth. This is in effect, everywhere and in every time for both men and women.
This is not a law for vegetarians or vegans. The law is pretty straight forward; we are not permitted to kill a mother-animal and her young on the same day. If you make a mistake and do it, you have sinned, but the meat is still kosher and it is permitted to be eaten. A day,for the purpose of this law is not twenty-four hours from the first slaughter. One has to wait until the next sunset before the second animal can be killed.
It is interesting to me that there is no punishment listed for those who violate this law. I suppose that there is no point in wasting the meat as long as it has been killed properly, but the person who has killed mother-animal and her young on the same day clearly has no heart for the suffering of animals and has a pretty cruel attitude about his or her work. Just because one makes a living slaughtering animals for food, this does not allow that person to become cruel or indifferent. We are obligated by Jewish Law to alleviate the pain for animals.
There is a story about Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi who was walking on the street when a calf who was being led to slaughter ran from the man who bought her and hid under the Rabbi’s cloak and mooed mournfully. Rabbi Yehuda returned the calf to the owner saying to the calf, “Go, for this you were created.” The story concludes that Rabbi was afflicted with a horrible illness for this act of cruelty to the animal. He suffers for many years until he, from his sickbed, speaks up for some mice in his home. For this act of kindness, he was cured. Judaism takes kindness to animals very seriously. Caring for animals is the first step in learning kindness to other people.
12-5771 Mitzvah N-107
Negative Mitzvah 107– This is a negative commandment: do not sow two kinds of seeds in a field.
Hafetz Hayim – As Scripture says: “you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed” (Lev. 19:19). In lands other than Israel, a Jew is permitted initially, from the start, to sow two kinds of seeds together. As for mixed kinds of trees, which means grafting an etrog tree onto an apple tree, or anything similar, it is forbidden in the other lands as well. So too, it is forbidden to graft a tree onto a vegetable or a vegetable onto a tree, even in other lands. However, with both mixed kinds of seeds and mixtures of trees, even though a violation of the law is committed thereby, their produce is nevertheless permitted to be eaten, even by the one who did the forbidden act. As for mixtures of a vineyard (which means planting grain in a vineyard), it is forbidden to sow them, eat their produce or derive any benefit from them – in other lands, by the law of the Sages; and in the Land of Israel, by the law of the Torah.
Here we have to think like a farmer. There are so many acres of land that are ready to produce food. Clearly we want to use as much of the land as possible. By planting a mixture of different crops, we can not only feed our family but also have a hedge against the failure of any one crop. The problem is that the Torah forbids us from certain kinds of planting. We can plant one area with wheat, one area with barley and one with oat. But we can’t mix these grains together in one field. The problem here is not grafting, we are not talking about hybrid grains. This is just not a proper way for Jews to plant grains. The law applies only in the Land of Israel.
Grafting trees is the issue in the second part, since it does not matter if you plant different trees close to one another. Here the problem is creating hybrid fruits or vegetables. While Jews should not be doing these kinds of plantings, there is, significantly, no punishment for those who do the grafting nor is there a prohibition against using the hybrid fruits. The prohibition applies both in Israel and in other lands.
In a vineyard, one might think to use the space between the vines to grow grain. After all the vines are above so the grain could grow below. This is also forbidden. And if it is done, then the fruit of both grain and vine are forbidden to be eaten, sold or used in any way that the grower could derive a benefit.
So the question is, “Why?” Why are we forbidden to mix seeds? This is one of three laws in this one verse (Leviticus 19:19) which includes the prohibition of mating cattle with different animals and wearing cloth of two different materials (linen and wool). These laws are part of the priestly legislation that are very concerned with keeping things pure and preventing “impurity”. This law of “mixture” falls under a category of laws, in Judaism, called “Hukkim” or “laws that have no apparent logical explanation”. We are commanded to obey these laws, not because we understand them, but because God gave them to us. Etz Hayim, the Bible commentary published by the Rabbinical Assembly, USCJ and JPS, notes that, in Conservative Judaism, we accept hukkim when they do not affect us morally. When they do affect our moral sense, we reserve the right to challenge and change the law; challenging the Torah to be morally consistent in its laws (p. 697 comment on verse 19). These laws about “mixture” don’t seem to have any moral issues associated with them so they stand as written.
There are number of commentators who try to find meaning in these “unexplainable” laws and their answers are interesting, midrashic in nature, explaining after the fact why such a division of species is a good idea. The Torah seems to be teaching that we have limits in how we can change nature. The Sages may limit these mixtures by location and species but the fundamental meaning behind them is unknown. Modern anthropologists have tried to make sense of these laws in Judaism and in other cultures with mixed results (eg: Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger). The reasons behind these laws still remains unclear and when we take up farming, we are bound by these purity laws.