Respecting the Separate Species

Dear Friends,

The spiritual culture of the Community of Israel differs in certain ways from the modern western culture that we were raised in. It is therefore not surprising that many of us approach the teachings and precepts of the Torah with the biases and outlooks of the culture that we were raised in. For example, one does not have to be a historian to realize that modern western culture has stressed the idea that the human being is the owner and sovereign of the earth and its creatures. It is therefore difficult for many of us to understand and appreciate the various mitzvos of the Torah which instill in our consciousness the following truth: "To the Compassionate One belongs the earth and its fullness, the inhabited land and those who dwell in it" (Psalm 24:1).

I therefore hope that as our series progresses, we can strive to put aside the cultural biases of our upbringing and thereby open our hearts and our minds to the holistic vision of our Torah. In this spirit, we shall discuss the following mitzvah which limits human power over the species:

"Keep My statutes; you must not mix animal species by crossbreeding" (Leviticus 19:19.)

"Keep My statutes" - Keep the laws of my world which I already established (Talmud, Sanhedrin 60a). When did the Creator establish these laws? These are the laws of nature which the Creator established when the world was created. Included in these laws are the ways in which separate species maintain their existence and reproduce themselves; thus, we are to maintain the existence of the diverse species and avoid crossbreeding. (Commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch to Leviticus 19:19.)

The above mitzvah calls upon us to maintain the separate species and avoid crossbreeding. The Sefer Ha-Chinuch, is a classical work on the Torah's mitzvos, and it states that the underlying principle of this mitzvah is found in the following verse: "And the Just One saw all that He had made, and lo! It was very good! (Genesis 1:31). The Sefer Ha-Chinuch adds: "Now, since the Just One knows that everything He made is holistically suited to its purpose, as it is needed in His world, He commanded each and every species to produce offspring of its own kind." (Mitzvah 244)

Rabbi Hirsch discusses this mitzvah in Horeb, his classical work on the mitzvos, and he explains that this Divine mandate is a call to respect the Divine order within creation. He writes:

"We hear the call: Look around, O human being, look around you in the great household of the universe. See how every being which lives and develops has the great law 'for its own species' imprinted upon it by God. According to this law, every creature first transforms all that it absorbs from creation into suitable food for itself, enlarging itself, and then uses the surplus of its corresponding powers to generate a being similar to itself. See how every self-developing being, plant and animal, lives for itself and for its species. Watch this law of Divine order in the universe and respect it in your own human activities, to perfect your own essential human self. Do not forget that God has summoned you to the task of serving the world and cultivating it protectively, but not to enter destructively into this orderly course of development through your self-seeking." (Chapter 57)

Rabbi Hirsch stresses that each creature is meant to preserve its own unique species, and he adds: "It is in this way, as such single beings, each gifted with powers of development for itself and its species, that the independent animal and the trees and plants which grow from the womb of Mother Earth stand before you. To mix and graft various species of animals and plants is to make a mockery of this law of creation."

"To the Compassionate One belongs the earth and its fullness, the inhabited land and those who dwell in it" (Psalm 24:1).

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)

Related Teachings:

1. The same verse which prohibits the crossbreeding of animals also prohibits the crossbreeding of seeds, as it is states, "you shall not plant your field with mixed seed" (Levticius 19:19). As Rabbi Hirsch explains in his commentary on this verse, this prohibition is only referring to a form of planting which leads to crossbreeding. As a result, writes Rabbi Hirsch, "it is permitted to sow two different varieties of seed one next to the other provided that one separates them properly."

It is also prohibited to graft one kind of tree on to another tree. The Torah's prohibition against crossbreeding trees applies both in the Land of Israel and in the rest of the world; however, the Torah's prohibition against crossbreeding seeds only applies in the Land of Israel. Rabbi Hirsch discusses a possible reason for this distinction in Horeb (chapter 57). Rabbi Hirsch also discusses the various aspects of these laws; however, if after reading this chapter you have further questions, please consult with a rabbi who is familiar with the agricultural laws of the Torah.

2. The Ramban (Nachmanides) is one of the classical biblical commentators, and in his commentary on the prohibition against crossbreeding seeds, he refers to a deeper, kabbalistic reason for this mitzvah.

3. "Keep My statutes; you must not mix animal species by crossbreeding" (Leviticus 19:19). Rabbi Hirsch indicated that the "statues" referred to in this verse are the laws of nature which the Creator established when the world was created. A similar interpretation is found in the commentaries of the Netziv (He'emek Davar) and the Torah Temimah. The Netziv also refers us to the Midrash Rabbah on the words, "If you will follow My statutes" (Leviticus 26:1). The Midrash Rabbah states: "If you will follow the statutes through which I created heaven and earth!" The Netziv explains that this Midrash also applies to our verse which prohibits crossbreeding, which is a violation of the natural laws which enable each species to reproduce itself.

Hazon - Our Universal Vision