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Are Jews Meant To Be Farmers, Workers, or Thinkers?

So much of the Talmud is about working the land, and the rules that govern labor, profit, and loss

Adam Kirsch
August 19, 2014
(Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock)
(Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock)

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

When you think of typical Jewish occupations, “farmer” comes pretty near the bottom of the list. Jews, we usually imagine, are an urban people specializing in commercial and professional pursuits, and there is a good deal of truth to the stereotype. In many periods and places, Jews were forbidden to own land in Christian Europe; they clustered instead in occupations like finance and trade, where they could benefit from their international contacts and high levels of literacy. By the time Zionism arose in the late 19th century, the alienation of Jews from the land was a major theme in the movement’s reform program. In the Land of Israel, Jews would “build the land and be built,” re-acquiring the rugged rural character they had lost in exile.

One of the things Jews were doing instead of cultivating the land was studying the Talmud. Famously, in Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Yaakov says: “One who walks along a road and studies and interrupts his studying to say, ‘How beautiful is this tree!’ ‘How beautiful is this ploughed field!’—the Torah considers it as if he had forfeited his life.” The pious Jew should be thinking about the Law, not the earth; about holiness, not nature. Yet the irony is that so much of the Talmud is about nothing but the land and working the land. The rules about planting and harvesting in the land of Israel are laid out in great detail. What effect did it have on generations of Jews, I often wonder, to read about the farming practices of the rabbis, many of whom were landowners themselves? Did a Jew studying in a yeshiva in Golden Age Spain, or in 19th-century Vilna, find his imagination excited by these details, dreaming of a life on the land that would be possible once the Messiah came? Or did it all seem abstract and a little tedious, like reading about the tax laws of a country you’d never inhabit?

These questions came up once again in this week’s Daf Yomi reading, as we began a new tractate, Moed Katan. The title of the tractate literally means “Little Festival,” and it refers to the intermediate days of holidays like Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, which the Bible commands us to celebrate for seven days. (In Diaspora, the rabbis established the practice of extending them to eight days, as a way of insuring that the first day fell on the correct date.) The holiest and most important days of these festivals are the first and the last, but a certain level of holiness also obtains during the days in the middle. The rabbis set out in chapter 1 of Moed Katan to explain just what kinds of work you are allowed to do on these days.

The first item in this discussion involves a long account of Talmudic-era irrigation practices. Labor, for the rabbis, clearly means agricultural labor; this is the work that most Jews in their world performed and had to know when not to perform. “One may irrigate a field that requires irrigation on the intermediate days of a festival,” the first mishna begins, “both from a newly emerged spring and from a spring that did not just emerge. However, one may not irrigate a field with rainwater collected in a cistern … or with water drawn with a shadoof [lever].”

This seemingly straightforward ruling provokes an exceptionally dense discussion in the Gemara, as the Amoraim try to figure out the exact justification for these distinctions. On the first and last day of a festival, as on Shabbat, most kinds of work are prohibited; the exception, as we saw earlier in Tractate Beitzah, is that on a festival you are allowed to prepare food. But here the rabbis show that the rules for the intermediate days of the festival are more lenient. It is still forbidden to do work that requires intense physical labor: That is why you can’t draw water with a lever, which would require exerting a lot of force to raise the bucket from the well.

But why, the Gemara asks on Moed Katan 4a, is it forbidden to use rainwater from a cistern even when it does not require a lever to scoop it up? “What excessive effort is involved in irrigating with rainwater?” Rav Ashi explains that this is one of those cases where the rabbis made a fence around the Torah by enacting a more stringent rule: “Rainwater itself will come to be water drawn with a lever,” he explains. Once you start emptying a cistern, eventually its water level will fall to the point where a lever will be needed. Better not to start using it at all and avoid the temptation.

Irrigation that doesn’t require pumping from a well, however, is permitted on intermediate festival days. Irrigating a field from a spring still requires some work but not enough to make it a violation of the holiday. Moreover, the rabbis are concerned, here as often, not to impose a ritual law that would result in financial harm to Jews, knowing that such laws have a tendency to be broken. If you could not irrigate your field for five days in a row, the crops might shrivel up, resulting in a serious financial loss.

The rabbis distinguish, however, between a field that requires irrigation and one that normally makes do with rainfall. You can continue to irrigate the first kind of field on a festival, since this is a matter of avoiding a loss; but you can’t irrigate the second kind, since this would be a matter of going beyond the minimum labor to increase one’s own profit. The Gemara curtly states the principle at issue as “loss yes, profit no”: On intermediate festival days, you can only do work needed to avoid a loss, not work to gain a profit. By the same reasoning, the mishna instructs, you cannot dig a new water channel on a festival day, but you can repair a damaged channel.

A second distinction involves work for private benefit versus work for the public good. It is permitted to do work that helps the whole community, including repairing roads and ritual baths, as well as marking graves. The mention of graves leads to another long discussion in the Gemara about the reasons for this practice and how to do it. Coming into contact with a corpse, or any part of a corpse larger than the bulk of an olive (a standard Talmudic measurement, though a rather macabre one in this context), renders a Jew tamei, ritually impure; and a priest is absolutely forbidden to contract this kind of tumah. You can also contract tumah simply from being under the same roof as a corpse—and this extends, the Gemara says, to the “roof” formed by the canopy of a tree, or a stone projecting from a wall. Clearly, it’s necessary to mark the location of graves so that Jews will know where not to walk.

There is, naturally, a protocol to follow for marking graves. “They do not erect the marker directly over the site of the ritual impurity,” we read in Moed Katan 5b, “so as not to cause a loss of ritually pure food items.” That is, if you were walking in a field holding a bundle of dates in front of you, you might accidentally get close enough to hold the dates above the location where the corpse is buried, so that they would become tamei. On the other hand, “they do not distance the marker from the site of ritual impurity, so as not to cause a loss of Eretz Yisrael.” If you fenced off more ground than was necessary, you would effectively be diminishing the amount of land the Jewish people could use for agriculture.

The Talmud doesn’t say exactly how to thread this needle—how to place the marker close to, but not right on, the site of the buried corpse. But it does explain how marked stones were commonly used to signal gravesites. “If one found a single marked stone”—the marks were made with lime—then “the ground underneath it is ritually impure.” If there are two marked stones with a trail of lime on the ground between them, this indicates that the whole area between the stones is ritually impure. However, if there are two stones and no lime trail between them, then each stone is taken to mark a separate burial site, and the ground in between is safe to use. It’s eerie to imagine walking through a field at night and coming across the ghostly white of a lime trail, showing where the dead are buried. Even the most technical parts of the Talmud are capable of inspiring visions.


To read Tablet’s complete archive of Daf Yomi Talmud study, click here.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

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