This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (“If you go”), is packed with ethical rules. But right after the law about building a parapet around your roof so no one can fall off, Moses gives a apparently senseless rule about segregating different crops.
The contrast is more pronounced in a similar passage in the portion Kedoshim (“Holiness”) in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra. Right after the command to love your neighbor as yourself, the Torah switches to rules about segregating different species of animals, plants, and even fibers.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am God. My chukot you shall observe: You may not breed together livestock of kilayim, you may not plant your field with kilayim, and clothing of woven material of kilayim may not go over you. (Leviticus 19:18-19)
chukot (חֻקֺּת) = decrees, fiats. (Early commentators wrote that chukot are the divine rules that humans cannot figure out using reason, but that Jews must obey anyway.1)
kilayim (כִּלְאָיִם) = two kinds; an enforced mixture of two different kinds. (Kele, כֶּלֶא = imprisonment + –ayim= a suffix meaning a pair.2)
Were these three rules about forbidden mixtures always chukot, or was there an early rationale behind them that was lost over the centuries? No definite reason for the rules has yet been discovered, but many commentators have argued that these rules instill respect for God the Creator.
Attempting to crossbreed two different species of animals (or even a wild donkey with a domesticated donkey3) insults God by implying that the animals God created are insufficient or imperfect.4 Growing crops of two different species without a clear separation between them, or grafting a branch from one tree onto another kind of tree, gives an observer the impression that species of plants that God created have been altered—another insult.5
19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch even applied this argument to clothing made with kilayim (mixed wool and linen, according to the Torah portion Ki Teitzei) when he wrote: “…every seedling and fiber of organic life does the Will of its Creator, without deviating from its assigned task.”6
In Ki Teitzei
The three chukot from Leviticus change a bit when Moses repeats them in Deuteronomy, right after the law about the parapet.
You may not plant your vineyard with kilayim, or else it will be holy: [both] the full yield of the seeds that you plant, and the produce of the vineyard. You may not plow with an ox and with a donkey together as one. You may not wear material woven of wool and linen together as one. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 22:9-11)
The version in Ki Teitzei refers to mixing seeds in a vineyard rather than a field, and adds the warning that such a mixture is holy. (Usually when something is holy in the Torah, it is prohibited from ordinary use and reserved for God, but here the grapes and other produce are merely prohibited from use.)
The next change in the Deuteronomic version is that plowing with two different animals is banned, instead of breeding them. Finally, Ki Teitzei specifies that only woven material that mixes wool and linen is forbidden.7
Commentators have used these changes or clarifications to generate additional explanations for the inexplicable chukot. If the rationale that the rules enforce respect for God the Creator is not convincing, we can read arguments that the chukot about kilayim are instructions for distinguishing between the traits of Cain and Abel, or for segregating the holy from the ordinary. The second rule, about plowing with two kinds of animals, has also been interpreted as an ethical command.
Distinguishing Cain from Abel
The distinction between linen and wool suggests the story of Cain and Abel, in which God rejects Cain’s offering of plants, but accepts Abel’s offering of a sheep, and Cain kills his brother Abel.8 In the 8th or 9th century C.E., the author of Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer wrote: “Rabbi Joshua ben Ḳorchah said: The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Heaven forbid ! Never let the offerings of Cain and Abel be mixed up (with one another), even in the weaving of a garment …”9
13th-century Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah went farther. Besides identifying Cain’s offering as flax (the raw material for linen), and Abel’s as sheep which grow wool, he declared that Cain’s father was the serpent in the Garden of Eden, while Abel’s father was Adam, so Cain and Abel were themselves kilayim, as well as the first murderer and the first murder victim.10
Segregating the holy
Another explanation is suggested by the reference to holiness in the rule about vineyards. In the 19th century, Hirsch wrote that only wine from grapes grown in observance of God’s rule could be taken into the sanctuary as a libation to God.11 In that case, holy means prohibited for any use.
But in the 21st century, Richard Elliott Friedman speculated that all three chukot might forbid those particular combinations because they are associated with gods, and therefore holy. “The law against cooking a kid in its mother’s milk may be because that was regarded as a food for a deity, since a Ugaritic text pictures the chief god, El, having kid cooked in milk … The law against wearing wool and linen together may be because they were both used in the Tabernacle … And so it may be in the case of mixed seeds, as well: the prohibition of mixing them may not be because the mixing is bad in some way but rather because some mixtures are regarded as divine.”12
Wool and linen are combined for several sacred uses in the Torah. In God’s portable sanctuary, both the screen at the entrance of the tent and the curtain concealing the Holy of Holies inside must be made out of “sky-blue and red-violet and red and linen”.13 The technology to dye linen was unavailable in the Ancient Near East, so the colored threads must be wool.14
A priest’s vestments are woven out of the same combination of colored wool and linen,15 and priests dedicate their lives to serving God at the sanctuary.
In the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, men are required to wear fringes on the four corners of a garment, and each fringe must include a cord of blue wool. Whenever they glance at it, they will remember God’s commandments.16
In this week’s Torah portion, people may not wear or cover themselves with material woven of wool and linen together. The mixture is prohibited for these ordinary uses of fabric, and reserved for holy purposes.
The need to separate the holy and the profane does not explain the middle rule: You may not plow with an ox and with a donkey together as one. (Deuteronomy 22:10)
Some commentators claimed this rule was derived from the prohibition in Leviticus about breeding different species of animals. If a farmer used two different animals to plow together, he would house both in the same shed, where they might try to mate.17
But by the 13th-century, Chizkuni offered: “An alternate interpretation; G-d’s mercy extends not only to human beings but to all of His creatures. Therefore these two categories of beasts being mismatched as one is far stronger than the other, it would be causing the donkey pain to be part of such a team pulling the plough.”18 This is the dominant interpretation today.
I confess that until this week I was only interested in the prohibition against yoking a donkey and an ox to plow together. This rule not only opposes cruelty to animals, but can also be extended to cover situations in which human beings with unequal abilities are expected to perform the same tasks. How often have you heard people with good jobs or inherited wealth accusing the poor of being lazy or careless? We need to oppose cruelty to humans, too.
Now that I have studied the chukot about kilayim, I am also pondering the human need to make distinctions. We want clear choices and definite rules so we can navigate our ordinary daily lives without unnecessary anxiety. Here is a vineyard, over there is a field of wheat. Here are the foods on my diet, over there are the things I don’t eat.
But when it comes to our spiritual lives, we embrace paradoxes and non-rational unifications. So although we try to avoid kilayim in mundane things, we celebrate merging on a spiritual level. God fills the universe, God once lived inside the Tent of Meeting, and today God spoke to me. God creates disasters and approves of wars, and God is good and loves every individual.
Are these good approaches to mundane and spiritual life?
- The Tanchuma (circa 500 C.E.) and subsequent commentaries, including Rashi.
- Following 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Vayikra Part II, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002, pp. 629-630.
- Mishnah Kilayim 1:6 (circa 200 C.E.).
- g. 12th-century rabbis Abraham Ibn Ezra and Ramban (Moses ben Nachman); Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher (1255-1340).
- Mishnah Kilayim 3:5, translated in sefaria.org : “One may plant a cucumber and a gourd in one hole, as long as this [species] inclines in one direction, and the other [species] in the opposite direction. And he should tip the leaves of one [species] one way, and the other the opposite way, since all that the sages prohibited [in matters of kilayim] they only decreed because of appearance.”
- Hirsch, ibid., p. 633. He then launched into an argument that this divine decree is a reminder that a man’s (sic) animal nature should rule over his vegetative nature—unless he is a priest, who can wear wool and linen in the same garment because his whole self is dedicated to God.
- The word sha-atnez (שַׁעַטנֵז), probably a loan-word from Egyptian, appears only in Leviticus 19:19 and Deuteronomy 22:11. It may mean “woven material”, in which case Leviticus prohibits material woven with any kilayim. Or it may mean “woven material combining wool and linen”, in which case Leviticus and Deuteronomy agree.
- Genesis 4:1-8.
- Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 21:6, translated in sefaria.org.
- Hezekiah ben Manoah, Chizkuni, (13th century) translated in sefaria.org.
- Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Devarim, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002, p. 516.
- Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah with a New English Translation, HarperCollins, 2001, p. 632.
- Exodus 26:31, 26:36.
- Friedman, ibid., p. 633.
- Exodus 28:5-6.
- Numbers 15:38-39.
- g. Abraham Ibn Ezra.
- Hezekiah ben Manoah, Chizkuni, translated in sefaria.org.