The Mishna in Shabbat enumerates 39 distinct archetypical labors, or melakhot, according to a number of series. The first is the series of making bread, which begins with sowing and is followed by plowing (Shabbat 73a).
The gemara objects that in practice plowing precedes sowing; why does the Mishna reverse the order? The answer: the sage who taught this Mishna “was in the Land of Israel, where one sows and then plows”. Rashi explains that the earth in the Land of Israel is unusually hard; thus, even after the initial plowing to enable the seeds to go into the earth, an additional plowing is needed to cover them up properly. The Mishna needs to tell us that even this kind of plowing falls under the rubric of the melakha of plowing.
While Rashi does not say so explicitly, it is fairly clear that without this hint in the Mishna, we would think that this second plowing would be considered an extension of the melakha of sowing, which includes any action done to help seeds sprout or plants grow. The gemara at the beginning of Moed Katan records a dispute between Raba and Rav Yosef regarding the liability of weeding and watering; Raba states that they are a kind of plowing because they incidentally soften the earth, whereas Rav Yosef considers them a kind of sowing because they are primarily intended to help the seeds grow. (See Tosafot MK 2b, d.h. ka.) But in the case of actual plowing, both agree that plowing is the more appropriate category.
Perhaps we can find an interesting hint here regarding the unique nature of cultivating the land of Israel. The land of Israel is a good land, as we say in the Grace after Meals, it is a “land of delight, good and broad”.
Yet it is also a hard land, making unique demands on its inhabitants.
There is a certain measure of preparation that we assume, based on our experience in exile, is sufficient. We plow the land, preparing the earth, or the human environment, for a new kind of growth and taking root. We perceive that our preparations are sufficient and we move on to plow a new row, or build a new community. But we are not aware that the land of Israel is hard; we can’t just sow and move on, rather we have to continue the work of plowing, of softening and preparing the environment, even after sowing takes place. Though we have every reason to think that a new planting, a new community, is completely ready to grow on its own, we need to realize that in the land of Israel we need to cultivate the natural and human environment more intensely in order to guarantee that our plants truly take root.
However, when we do take these steps then the very hardness of the earth is our ally. The hard and stubborn earth of the land of Israel holds fast to any plant which is firmly rooted in it, and the sometimes hard and stubborn Jews who live here are well accustomed to holding fast to any part of their country which is adequately prepared, and which they have been properly educated to appreciate.
This doesn’t mean we need to apologize for the way we have plowed and sown in the past, as our efforts were based on the best knowledge of cultivation from our experience among the nations. But we do need to learn from our recent experience, as well as from the message of our sages, and adjust our approach to the unique character of the land and the people of Israel.
Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh.