The 613 commandments that are in the Torah can be broken down into a number of different categories (many of which overlap). Positive and negative, between man and G-d and between man and his fellow man, those we understand and those that we do not, and many others. The name given to the final category, those commandments that we struggle to understand, are most commonly known as “chukkim” and the most common example of a “chok” is the Parah Adumah – the red heifer. A further example is that of Kilayim.
Masechet Kilayim is the fourth masechet of Seder Zeraim, and deals with the prohibited creation of new breeds of plants and animals as well as the mixing of existing materials such as wool and linen (Shatnez).
The laws of Kilayim are derived from the following pasuk in Vayikra (): “You shall observe My decrees [Chukkim]: you shall not mate your animal into another species, you shall not plant your field with mixed seed; and a garment that is a mixture of combined materials shall not come upon you”. Rashi immediately writes in his commentary on this pasuk that “they are the decrees of the King and there is no point attempting to explain them”. Just like we do not understand the reasoning behind the Parah Adumah, so too, we don’t understand the reasoning behind the laws of Kilayim and it was for this reason that the Torah introduces these laws using the word “chok” - a term used for that which is unexplainable to human logic.
However, not all commentators agree with Rashi on this point. Ramban, in his commentary on this pasuk, states very clearly that there is a logical and understandable reason for the laws of Kilayim and that they definitely do not fall into the category of “unexplainable”. Ramban explains that the reason Hashem commanded us to observe the laws of Kilayim is that anyone who attempts to create a new species of plant or animal by joining two existing species together is clearly denying the fact that Hashem created and completed the world in seven days. For if everything was complete, why would man have to seemingly “help” G-d by creating new species of plants or animals?
Furthermore, Ramban also offers an explanation as to why the word “chok” appears in the pasuk. It is not coming to teach us that the law is unexplainable (as Rashi did) but rather that the violation of these laws are a violation of the laws of nature and you should therefore “observe” the decrees/laws of nature set down by Hashem by adhering to the laws of Kilayim.
A further explanation is offered by the Sefer HaChinnuch (whose author is unknown) in his commentary to the 244th commandment – the prohibition of mating two animals of different species. The Torah states at the end of the sixth day of creation that Hashem “saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good” (Bereshit ) According to the Sefer HaChinnuch, everything created by Hashem has a purpose and each creation is perfectly suited to its purpose. If someone were to change one of the creations by mixing it with another species, the new species would therefore lack the original perfection achieved by G-d.
This idea is expanded upon in his commentary to the 62nd commandment – not to allow a sorcerer to live. Not only does the creation of a new species destroy the purpose of that species and cancel the good that it would have provided to humankind, but the result of the creation of a new species is the nullification of the power of both the angels of the original species. This idea is based on a Midrash in Bereshit Rabbah (10:7) that says: “you will not find a blade of grass below [on earth] which does not have a celestial being above that bids it, Grow!” The creation of a new species not only destroys the angels appointed over the two original species but fails to create a new angel for the new hybrid species.
Finally, although it would seem from the above explanations that man is forbidden to make even the smallest improvement to his quality of life, it should be noted that the laws of Kilayim are limited to specific matters. They do not limit the infinite number of combinations that are so much a part of modern life. To the contrary, man is duty bound to improve the world and in a sense, “complete” the work of creation.
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