How did we get from “Do Not Muzzle an Ox” to …?

Posted by on Sep 10, 2023

A radical approach suggested by all Christian interpreters is that “Do not muzzle an ox while it is threshing” refers to the clergy staff in the churches. But those interpreters are giving the wording of the law a meaning that it does not have. We can understand their efforts to justify the collecting the tithes in the churches, but the situation is hardly parallel. The theologians have invented an issue in the Torah that does not exist. Besides, their interpretation may work in the Church but contradicts Deuteronomy. Nevertheless, their interpretation falls short on explaining why Mosheh does not mention man in this law, if that were his intention. This seems quite astounding that Mosheh must have failed to mention this detail. So, how did we indeed get from “Do not muzzle an ox while it is threshing” to “Give me your tithes”? This is how.

What was Mosheh’s concern?

The command not to put a muzzle upon an ox when threshing (i.e., you do not restrain it from eating), is widely known and spoken of by the traditional Jewish commentators. The threshing with oxen yoked together to separate grains or seeds from the husks and straw by kicking out the grains with their hoofs had been used in the ancient world leaving the animals unmuzzled so that they can eat while laboring.

Threshing floor and oxen in the ancient world.

Threshing floor and oxen in the ancient world. Then and now, it seems unthinkable that someone can muzzle an ox.

If the owner lets the animal work while muzzled, he is guilty of violating the following commandment,

Do not muzzle an ox while it is threshing. (Deu 25:4)

In this concise law, it will be clear to the reader that the perception of treating an animal with kindness is expressed by the words “Do not muzzle an ox” while it is craving for food. This is hinted at in the apparently extraneous (Hebrew) word, which means “while it is threshing”. The sages are in agreement that the wording of this law teaches that any animal must be treated even more kindly, while it works for us, for it is quite impossible to suppose that Torah would allow harsh treatment and animal abuse. The reason why this single Hebrew word is necessary, although the passage would have been understood without it, is because Mosheh intends to tell us something more, as we would like to posit more ways to look at this law.

But why is only the ox mentioned in Deu 25:4, to exclude all other animals? In the context of Torah, in which even the kind treatment of a mother bird is considered, this law is not intended to apply merely to an ox employed in threshing, but to be understood in the general sense of prohibition that applies as well to all other domesticated animals used for labor. Ox being the largest and strongest domesticated animal is used by Mosheh as a representative of all other animals. And if indeed “ox” is used as a general term, Torah simply means to say, “You may not muzzle while threshing” under any circumstances, thus concerning all animals.

One more consideration that comes to mind: the last thing we would expect the Torah to ask would be to keep the animal craving for food while laboring. The right to eat is not something that is given to the animal by man, but it is something that it cannot be taken away from the animal, because animals are created to work and eat. It is a natural law of Creation for all living creatures, that is an animal instinct. However, a question presents itself: Does Torah express concern only for the animals? As we will see below, Torah allows alternative interpretations, which may make more sense to the critical reader, because other laws which Mosheh has employed in the following chapters also suggest that the terminology carries an alternative charge.

Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, best known by the acronym “Rashi”, was an early and influential medieval Torah and Talmud commentator. He goes on a deeper level in his interpretation of this law to make the following statement, saying,

Scripture is speaking of what usually occurs, but the same law applies to any cattle, non-domesticated beast and fowl that are doing some work that is connected with food. But if so why does it state “ox”? To exclude a human being from being subject to this law!

According to Rashi, Mosheh included this law in the Torah not to exclude the other domesticated animals but to exclude man, because the law does not apply to humans, as threshing is not a normal occupation for which human beings are used. Therefore, man is not protected by this law, as the animals are.

In other words, Rashi seems to claim that the law is meant to “muzzle” the mouth of a human being (i.e., restraining him from eating). What does it mean? Humans unlike animals do not have the natural instinct to stop eating when satisfied with food. A hired laborer would eat at the expense of the owner of the field as long as he is not caught. For this reason, a hired worker is not allowed to eat in the field for the field owner compensates him for the work he does; he is already compensated. The owner has his rights on the produce of the field to prevent himself from suffering a loss, and the laborer has his rights on his wages, a laborer is not to be deprived of his wages.

When the law is read in context

However, Mosheh wrote another law that states,

When you come into your fellow’s vineyard, you shall eat to the satisfaction of your desire, but do not put any in a vessel of yours. When you come into your fellow’s standing grain, you shall pluck the heads with your hand, but do not use a sickle on your fellow’s standing grain. (Deu 23:24-25)

The sages interpret these verses to mean that they are applied solely to a paid worker, a hireling. Otherwise, what right does any person have to enter someone else’s field without his permission and eat what is not his? If so, this law therefore means the following. When a worker labors in the field, but the work has not been completed, the employer is commanded by Torah to allow him to eat from the produce, so that he will not neglect his work to sit down and eat, and thus the employer will suffer losses. Hence, the choice of words “while it is threshing” is applied to work that is not yet completed. However, the worker may not use his sickle to reap more for himself in excesses of what he naturally is able to eat. Once the work has been completed, he may not eat, unless the employer has made a special condition with the worker.

With that said we understand that if Mosheh had only written Deu 25:4, and not Deu 23:24-25, we would have thought that he had applied “Do not muzzle an ox while it is threshing” only to animals to exclude men. Therefore, he wrote both laws to make sure that not only animals are subject to this legislation but also humans. Hence, the plain meaning of the laws in Deuteronomy, and the common sense, imply sound practical judgment, namely, man is entitled to his rights to eat from the fruits of his labor, as the ox is. And Rashi therefore says that the workers are not allowed to eat more than they have already been compensated for (i.e., wages and eating on the field, as long as they do not abuse their rights).

When anyone is allowed to eat in an open field

Does Torah however express concern only for the laborers?

There is a possibility of alternative interpretation that the text speaks not of laborers only, who have the right to eat of the produce on which they are working, but of any passerby. In the laws of Deut 23:24-25, Mosheh seems to command the landowner to allow anyone free entrance to his fields and access to the produce that can be eaten from it. This law offers no explicit limits leaving open the possibility that any person could enter the field and eat, as long as he does not hold a sickle and a vessel to collect the grain.

If this is the proper interpretation, this would fundamentally interfere with a person’s right to hold private property and harvest its produce. Imagine 4,000 or 5,000 people who were following Yeshua eating from the fields they were passing by. Would Yeshua have allowed this to happen? But if this were the intent of the law, who is that passerby that walks around with a bag and a sickle in his hand?

The Sages have deduced that these are agricultural workers, who are allowed by Torah to eat of whatever the land has produced, as long as they do not take it home. That is to say, they are not allowed to gain any advantage or profit of becoming rich at the expense of the landowner. While the animal is entitled to eat (for it is its natural instinct of behavior responsive to food stimuli), man is not (for he is created to comply with higher standards, e.g. “Do not steal from your employer!”

This law is capable of another interpretation. The Torah concerns itself also with the poor commanding the landowner not to examine the fruits that might have been left on the tree, nor to glean the grain behind him, but to leave the produce of his land for the poor members of the nation. For them Mosheh wrote this law,

When you beat your olive trees, do not examine the branch behind you. Let it be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean behind you. Let it be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow. (Deu 24:20-21)

In ancient times, olive trees were beaten with a stick, causing the olives to fall to the ground to be collected. Mosheh promises that the Land will supply so much produce that the farmers will only need to harvest what falls on the ground. From the statement we may derive the other that implies that whatever fruits remains on the tree, they will be for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow for they had nothing. This is called social justice according to Torah: you have received abundantly, then give to the poor abundantly.

When the law applies to the Sabbath of the Land

The laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years in Leviticus 25 teach that the Lord is the only real owner of the Land, and the Israelites merely “lease” the land until the coming of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, when they are commanded to give the land its due rest. Torah also regulates who and how to eat from the produce of the land (in Sabbatical and Jubilee years only). Thus, the law in Deu 23:24-25 may also concern itself with allowing everyone to enjoy the produce while the land enjoys its due rest, as long as a sickle is not used, for that would be a harvest (forbidden in the Sabbatical and Jubilee years). Mosheh commanded Israel, saying,

And the Sabbath of the land shall be to you [plural] for food, for you [singular] and your servant, and for your female servant and your hired servant, and for the stranger who sojourns with you, and for your livestock and the beasts that are in your land. All its crops are for food. (Lev 25:6-7)

The meaning of the first “for you”, lachem, is for everyone. The meaning of the second “for you”, lekha, is for the landowner who can eat of that which grows of itself as anyone else. What does it mean? It means that everyone is deemed equal in the Sabbatical and Jubilee years regarding the produce of the land: the landowner, his servants, hired workers and strangers in the Land of Israel, even the beasts of the field (See also Exo 23:11).

What it takes to abuse the Torah

Yet, the religion teaches that the apostle uses the law of the domesticated animals in his epistles to the Corinthians and Thessalonians to justify that the rulers in the churches and missionaries are entitled to their compensations or wages (in the context of the epistles, these are the tithes of the laymen). Ironically, those who teach today that the Torah of the Lord has been done away with believe they are entitled to the laymen’ tithes and demand them. We read from his epistles,

For it has been written in the Torah of Mosheh, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain”. Is it about oxen Elohim is concerned? Or does He say it because of us all? For this was written because of us, that he who ploughs should plough in expectation, and the thresher in expectation of sharing. If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap material goods from you? (1Co 9:9-11)

Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox that treads on the grain”, and “The laborer is worthy of his wages”. (1Ti 5:17-18)

Here, Shaul invokes two laws in Torah: the law in Deuteronomy which excludes men from being subject to this law (Rashi), i.e., they are not allowed to eat more than they have already been compensated for, and the law in Leviticus prohibiting the withholding of the wages of a hired servant by his employer.

Do not oppress your fellow nor rob him. The wages of him who is hired is not to remain with you all night until morning. (Lev 19:13)

But are these laws even applicable to the subject Shaul refers to in his epistles? And why is the command “Do not muzzle an ox while it is threshing” not interpreted the way Mosheh says it should be interpreted? Is its removing from the proper context of the Torah and changing it to its opposite called “interpretation”? Or, the apostle has been extremely misunderstood. Because, for these “interpreters”, it does not seem to matter what the apostles has said in other places. In fact, we have verses which testify to the opposite of their interpretation.

In the following article, we will remove all these difficulties, wherein we will argue and have more to say that the apostle’s intent is quite clear and not difficult to perceive.

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