Those laws of the Torah focusing on farming and working the land are often ignored simply because we no longer live in agricultural societies. But if we study them in detail, we will discover many lessons that are applicable even to this generation of city-dwellers. One of these is the Torah’s (Devarim 22:10) warning that: “You shall not plough with an ox and a donkey together.” The Sages of the Midrash (Sifrei) explain that this prohibition is not limited to an ox and a donkey or just to ploughing, but extends to any two species and to any other activities, including threshing or pulling a load, such as a wagon. Why does the Torah prohibit this?

Rambam (in The Guide To The Perplexed section 3:49) suggests that the prohibition of working two species together is actually a preventative measure to ensure that the farmer would not try to crossbreed them. If he were allowed to tie them together and plough a field, he may be tempted to mate them and thereby transgress the Torah’s rule about the crossbreeding of species. Most of the commentators reject the Rambam’s view and feel that this is a prohibition in its own right and should not be connected to the law against crossbreeding.

Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra (Spain 1080-1164), one of the earliest Torah commentators, suggests that “G-d has compassion upon His creatures and [would not like them to work together] because the strength of a donkey is much less than that of an ox.” While one may take issue with this explanation because the prohibition is not limited to an ox and a donkey, nevertheless it teaches us an important life principle. G-d does not want two animals of unequal strength to work together on the same project because the one will tire out the other. What is true of animals is certainly true of human beings - we should not place two or more people of unequal strength and talent into a situation where the one overshadows the other. In the world of sport, one would never put a featherweight into the boxing ring with a heavyweight or send a ‘C’-side to play an ‘A’-side. It’s no contest and it’s unfair. This mistake is frequently made in the field of education. Often academically-minded ‘left-brained’ children are placed together with creative ‘right-brained’ children and both groups are expected to flourish with the same syllabus and the same teaching style. This experience can ruin a child’s academic career for life. A friend of mine at Yeshiva only realised a decade after leaving school why his grades had been so low - he had ADHD, but was never diagnosed. He was expected to master the same work as everyone else and he just could not. We need a radical rethink about education if we hope to cater for the varying levels of academic ability.

Unfortunately, the Yeshiva system has not been that different. The original curriculum, established in the famous “mother’ Yeshiva in Volozhin, Lithuania, was meant for gifted young men. They started on the first page of the Talmud and were expected to complete all 63 tractates by the time they left the Yeshiva. Although other Yeshivas did not aim for such a lofty goal, they nevertheless had rigorously high standards for their students. This was acceptable in Europe where the Yeshivas could only afford to take a small quantity of students and therefore only the very best pupils were considered. However, now that a Yeshiva education is basic to every religious child, there are countless students who just cannot make the grade and often fall out of Judaism entirely because the curriculum is too academic. Thankfully, new institutions have opened that cater for the less academically inclined students and occasionally offer training for a trade together with religious studies.

In this overlooked mitzvah, the Torah provides us with valuable information about the challenges of co-existence. We should not expect polar opposites to shine in the same scenario and we should not create a situation of animosity between co-workers. Rather, we must bring out the inherent strengths of every child, labourer and person by allowing them to use those strengths in a non-threatening way rather than matching them against people of far superior strength or intellect.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Liebenberg