D’var Torah – Being difficult just because we can be

Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 17 May 2019

Tomorrow morning’s Torah portion includes the laws of the sabbatical year, when the land was given a rest, to lie fallow.   This idea comes up in a fun game that the rabbis play that we find in the Mishnah.  How many negative commandments, they ask, can be broken in the same one action?  The action they choose is to plough a single furrow in a field.

So how many biblical prohibitions can this one act break…

Number one:  The first is that you could be ploughing during the Sabbatical year, the seventh year when we should leave the land fallow.

Number two:  You could plough with an ox and a donkey yoked together in contravention of the law in Deuteronomy not to do so for the welfare of the animals.

That ox and donkey could have also being dedicated as an offering to the temple – thereby transgressing:
Number three: A specific mitzvah not to do work with the firstling of your ox, and
Number four:  A general principle not to misuse holy things

Number five:  It matters where the ploughing is taking place – it could be in a vineyard, and involve two different kinds of seeds (also forbidden in Deuteronomy).

Number six:  And it matters when – it could be happening on a festival day when work is prohibited.

Number seven:  And it matters who is doing it – the person ploughing could be a priest, and the place could be a cemetery, where a priest is forbidden to be for purposes of ritual purity.

Number eight:  And that priest could also have happened to have taken a Nazirite vow so would be doubly not allowed to be in a cemetery.

So the answer is eight.  Though a sage called Hanina ben Chachinai says that you can even make it nine, if the man involved is wearing a garment of mixed kinds of fabric at the same time (forbidden in Leviticus and Deuteronomy) – though the other rabbis say that he is just being silly.


What is really going on here?
This text is found in Tractate Makkot of the Mishnah, which is to do with punishment, and in particular the punishment of flogging.  So, the main legal point the rabbis are making here is that one act can be punishable by lots of lashes because it involves breaking multiple transgressions at once.  A point very well made!

But underlying this Mishnah is another, more important observation.

The rabbis are showing us that, of course, if we really want to, we can rebel.  If we put our minds to it, we can do lots of things that are ‘forbidden’, intentionally, to make a point.  In fact, if we want to, they will even tell us how.  But by laying it on so thick, by parodying this rebellion, they are also pointing out that rebellion of this sort can be a bit ridiculous.  They remind us how childish it can be.

We can all get it wrong.  Acting with the best of intentions, we all make mistakes.  But to do so just to make a point is a very different kind of thing.  So every time we act, stop and think first:   Are we ploughing with ox and donkey, two different seeds, wearing a mix of linens after taking a Nazarite vow?
Are we being difficult just because we can?

For if we are, the rabbis want us to know just how silly this can be.