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People of the Land

People of the Land

Shepherdology: Understanding the Jewish obsession with shepherding


Any avid reader of the Bible or student of early Jewish history will know that tending sheep was the choice profession of many of our nation’s progenitors.

The list includes such biblical greats as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Rachel. King David, too, herded goats and sheep.

In fact, as one midrash has it, what endeared Moses to G‑d as the prototypical Jewish leader was his tender way with animals.

Interestingly, in the first human conflict recorded in the Bible—between the brothers Cain and Abel—G‑d prefers the gift of the shepherd to that of the farmer.

In a similar vein, the mystics identify, as the root of the sibling rivalry that tore Jacob’s family asunder, Joseph’s deviation from the family tradition of sheepherding.

What endeared Moses to G‑d was his tender way with animals

[Before medicine and law, it appears, the honorable Jewish profession was animal herding. One could just imagine ancient parents proudly introducing their children as “my son, the shepherd” . . .]

Joseph was the black sheep in the family, as it were, choosing agriculture and commerce as a profession.

So integral was sheepherding to the identity of Jacob’s children that when they were introduced to Pharaoh—the king of a nation which deified sheep and abhorred those who handled their god—they did not hide the fact that they supervised sheep for a living. To his question (Genesis 47:3), “What is your occupation?” they replied, “Your servants are shepherds, both we and our forefathers.”

Hardly the best way to make a good impression.

What is it about sheepherding, one wonders, that made it a favored pastime and the ultimate career choice of our saintly ancestors?

People of the Land

While it’s true that for the better part of our history we have been a people in exile, it’s also true that for the entirety of our history we were a people who sought to change that status, directing our prayers as often as three times daily, and our dreams more often than that, to the homeland promised us by G‑d.

Judaism’s very first journey begins with the quest for a land, and the very first divine revelation to the very first Jew (Genesis 12:7) makes central the promise of that land.

In fact, much of four out of the five books of Moses tells the unfinished story of a people on a tumultuous journey to their promised land. And the touching scene we are left with, as we close the last of the five books, features a broken Moses on a mountaintop, hungrily overlooking the land of his dreams. Sadly, only his yearning gaze would make its way across the border into the holy land.

Judaism’s very first journey begins with the quest for a land

The message of the Torah, then, is clear: We are not only the people of a book, but also the people of a land!

This point is strongly reinforced by the curious fact that a large number of the 613 mitzvot apply only in one particular region of the world. Think about it: Shouldn’t commands of the Torah such as leaving the corners of one’s field to the poor apply wherever one happens to live?

But perhaps the geographical restrictions of these mitzvot teach us that ultimate Jewish fulfillment, from the Torah’s point of view, can be realized only when our people find themselves settled in their land.

Planting Roots

Perhaps this can explain the early Jewish fixation with herding sheep as opposed to working land. Sheepherding is a vocation that involves transportable beings, not fixed and stationary land. Thus, the shepherd retains a sense of transience and impermanence that farmers do not, due to their commitment to the land they nurture. The farmer’s fate is linked to a permanent patch of earth; that’s where his energy and destiny is invested.

Sheepherding for our forefathers and mothers, then, was not just a matter of practice but of principle, motivated by the fear of becoming tied to, and emotionally involved, with a land not their own.

Determined not to lose sight of the essential Jewish dream of a homeland, Jews throughout the ages have similarly always maintained a transitory sense of non-arrival—unfortunately, all too often, with the unsolicited help of hostile host nations—ever-conscious of the fact that they were still on a journey.

In our day and age this message is especially relevant, as we live in an unprecedented era of liberty and wealth, conditions which naturally lead to complacency and a sense of arrival.

Today, more than ever, we need to nurture the sense of yearning, imparted to us by our ancestors, for the time when the journey commenced by Abraham and Sarah “to the land that I will show you” will finally be realized.

Mr. Gennadiy Bogolubov lives with his wife, Sonya, and three children in London.
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AA Ellingham December 25, 2017

What seasons or months are not appropriate for foraging? When is it too cold or too wet for the shepherds to sleep outside at night? Reply

Cindy Greene Lenoir, March 28, 2016

I recently heard a person say that the shepherds would break the leg of a wandering sheep and carry him back into the fold.My question is this statement true ? Reply

Sarah Israel December 26, 2017
in response to Cindy Greene:

Absolutely not! This was brought up earlier in the comments as well. Judaism forbids cruelty to animals. And practically speaking that would be unnecessary, and would incur financial loss to the shepherd. I can't imagine why anyone would do or say that. Reply

Kim November 2, 2015

Dear Sarah,
Thank you for your post. I sincerely do not recall where or when i'd heard of this , supposedly , ancient practice. I do however remember that it was used in the context of a sermon. As I ponder Gods words and Gods ways, every so often this question resurfaces to the fore front of my thoughts. I'm glad to be informed that the practice of breaking the leg of a lamb if false. Blessings to you and your family.


Sarah October 31, 2015

To the Marine Officer and question I live in Tsfat, my sons are shepherding in the hills to the east of the Kinneret. One of them is out with the sheep and goats every day, year in and year out, though they always come home to the barn so no, it is not nomadic. The animals do forage in different areas depending on the season. They have 2 border collies and 2 CAO's to help them out. Sheparding is practiced all over Israel by Jews and gentiles; sheep dogs are bred and trained here too, though not everyone uses them. And no, the cruel practice of breaking a lamb's leg is unheard of and against Jewish law which forbids cruelty to animals. Reply

K Sauget Washington St. US October 30, 2015

a question I have heard of a practice, of Shepherds actually breaking the hind leg of a young lamb that continually strays. then, carrying the lamb over his shoulders while the leg heals. the purpose being that by the time the leg heals, the lamb will recognize the shepherds voice, thus no longer stray. Is there any truth to this / Reply

Rodrigo Brasil December 23, 2013

G d doesn’t prefer gifts from shepherds rather than from farmers. What bothered G-d was Cain´s intentions, his feelings. What bothered G-d was within Cain, it wasn´t the fact that he was a farmer. Reply

US Merchant MArine Officer in the Pacific Ocean on a Navy ship November 17, 2012

hello Sarah in Tsfat I don't know the livestock situation in Tsfat, but I doubt that it comprises "herding" - ie, nomadic pastoral foraging. More likely to involve foddering... i.e., bring the feed to the fenced-in animals. A real shepherd needs to be a marksman with a rifle. And have a REALLY excellent dog that can boss sheep around. Reply

Anonymous Oakland, CA February 16, 2012

Joseph the farmer Joseph filled pharaohs "granaries" for the approaching famine. In his dream, the sickly cows ate the healthy cows indicating that the herds would not be able to survive the famine. So, filling the granaries and not having healthy herds to tend would indicate that he was involved in farming, albeit as an uber-manager. Reply

Reua Chaya Overland Park, KS February 16, 2012

Josef as agriculturist I think we find that Josef is an agriculturist by his storing of the grain and later distributing it in Egypt. I don't think there are any references to his tending sheep.

Anonymous nahariya, israel February 16, 2012

shepherding Where do we see that Yosef was into agriculture and not shepherding? Reply

chaim SM, CA February 15, 2012

the author should be commended! This article is very special. Thank you! It speaks to the soul... Reply

ruth housma marshfield, ma February 15, 2012

Tsfat One day I hope to visit Safed, another way of spelling Tsfat, as it's that place held sacred by Kabbalists. I have never been but hear it is beautiful, Sarah above.

My writing about the sacred in all places, is different from what you wrote, below me.

I feel a deep kinship to Israel and a belonging when I visit. But I also feel, in the many places of the world where I have traveled, that there is a deep, mystic one ness to all places, and I do not exhort people to go to one place or the other, but rather to land where their hearts take them. A story took me here. I honor that story, and for now, this is my home, these are my roots, and there are many routes that brought me to this particular place at this time.

I give to ASPNI, the Society for the Preservation of Nature in Israel, and do totally support the beauty and wilderness areas in Israel and always will. But I will do this, too, around the world. I believe we're here, all of us, to celebrate these places of heart. Reply

Sarah Tsfat, Israel February 15, 2012

Why aren't you here? A poignant article, making it all the harder to understand why the author is living outside the Land. We made aliyah 20 years ago and, in fact, two of my grown sons are shepards. They are blessed to know the Land very intimately, to value it immensely, and to perform many mitzvot related to the Land (which cannot be performed outside the Land). What are the rest of you waiting for? Don't waste another moment outside our precious Land, come now! Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma February 14, 2012

To Herd & To Be Heard There are surely many Biblical references to sheep, and there is what is known as The Lord's Prayer. G-d as the ultimate shepherd. This permeates other religions and is an ongoing metaphor, subject of many talks in synagogues and on the pulpits of the world. We were wanderers and we did tend to flocks. There is something beautiful and enduring about that connect to animals, the land, the blurring of boundaries between earth and sky. A night of stars and huddled sheep.

You mention the fields and that gleaning of the four corners for the poor, as in Ruth and the deep beauty and significance of this. For me, this Ruth, there is a deep enduring one ness to all places we inhabit and I say we all need to preserve and protect that sanctity of earth within Israel and beyond. It is all sacred land. Why is this so hard to convey?

Live as if every place is sacred and hold that tender love close as a child you dearly embrace. All hills can be alive with the sound of music and Yes, beloved! Reply

Anonymous Oakland, CA February 14, 2012

The duality of Torah A shepherd can be a metaphor for Hashem's caring for the Jewish nation yet Man has a mission; "Hashem G-d took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to work it and to guard it." (Bereishis 2:15) On the one hand Man emulates Hashem as a shepherd caring for his flocks yet, on the other hand, as a farmer he fulfills his mission, his role in creation, in this physical world. Historically, until recently, Jews have only been able to own land in Eretz Israel so, the only place this mission was able to be fulfilled was in that Holy Land where, even today, one must be there to fulfill so many mitzvot. Not until after the foretold exile was over were the Jews prepared to cease wandering and accept the yoke of hard work on the land where Hashem rewards performance of the mitzvot with 'rain in its time.' Now, we are tasked with preparing the land, that we have returned to, for the coming of Moshiach. Reply

Anonymous Toronto, Canada February 13, 2012

complacency In today's times where complacency is so prevalent, I very much appreciated your message of "non-arrival" and how we still need to nurture the understanding that "we are still on a journey." Great message for our time. Reply

Anonymous Chicago, Illinois February 13, 2012

insightful! What an interesting and insightful perspective of the yearning spirit of the Jewish people expressed in many of our leader's foremost occupations of shepherding. How connected we feel to our land! Thank you! Reply

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