Today’s daf continues to explore the laws of kilayim (prohibited mixtures), in particular the methods by which one may plant various species in a single vegetable patch. A statement in the name of Rabbi Yonatan asserts that in legislating agricultural law — that is, where to plant which crops — we can rely on the “earlier generations.” The Gemara then specifically identifies these earlier generations as descendants of a biblical figure named Seir the Horite — whose progeny were especially skilled at all matters pertaining to the land. In fact, their name provides a clue to their talents:
And they were called Horites [hori] since they smelled [herihu] the earth to determine what is fit to be grown there.
And in explanation of why the early inhabitants of Seir were called Hivites [hivi] (Genesis 36:2), Rav Pappa said: Because they would taste the earth like a snake [hivya] and determine what should be grown there according to the taste.
Rav Aha bar Ya’akov said that they were called Horites [hori] because they became free [b’nai horin] of their possessions when the children of Esau drove them from their lands.
The earthy skills of these ancient agriculturalists were impressive. Being able to smell or taste the dirt and know what plants were best suited for each plot is a unique skill. The Horite analogy to snakes, however, should give us pause — it’s not a ringing endorsement. We are reminded of the very first snake who was punished for its transgressions in two major ways: losing its upright posture and being forced to eat dirt.
Ultimately, eating dirt — pure physicality — is not the way to go. Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter (also known as the Sfat Emet), underscores how excellent the Horites were at understanding the physical side of land, but asserts that the Children of Israel are the ones who are deeply attuned to the spiritual side of land and place. While it’s important for us to understand the material, terrestrial aspects of agriculture, we choose our land not only because of its potential yield and productivity, but also for what it means to us. And moreover, we can’t forget our dependence on God and the importance of praying for rain. The Jewish farming experience is meant to be both physical and spiritual.