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D'varim/Deuteronomy 23:25(24) When you come into the vineyard of your neighbour, you may eat grapes as your soul desires
This verse sets off a vigourous debate between the obvious meaning of the text, its rabbinic interpretation and our practical knowledge of what happened. Basing his comments on the Sages of the Talmud (b. Bava Metzia 87b) who link this verse to "You shall give him his wages before the sun sets" (D'varim 24:15, NASB)) because of the verb which is used both there - the sun setting - and here - coming into the vineyard,Rashi tells us that this verse applies only to workers who are actually working in the vineyard and not to anyone who happens to be passing by. Rav gives a reason for this: "it might ruin an owner" ( Sifrei) if everyone passing by or through the vineyard helps themselves to a bunch of grapes! Rashi notes that the text does try to protect the owner by allowing the eating of enough, "as much as you need, but not a gross over-eating".
Abravanel mentions the context of war: "In wartime those participating go into vineyards and standing corn and eat their fill, even putting into their vessels and destroying the trees in the course of fighting." Quoting from Vayikra 26:5-6, which juxtaposes the blessing that "grape gathering will last until sowing time" (v. 5, NASB) with "no sword will pass through the Land" (v. 6, NASB), Abravanel points out that "this precept bids every citizen, even as a militiaman, to look after his neighbour's vineyard, taking good care not to destroy it." The Mishnah makes the point that "he that labours on what is still growing after the work is finished, and he that labours on what is already gathered before the the work is finished" (m. Bava Metzia 7:2) may eat from the produce where they are working because the tithe is taken from the harvested crop once the work is complete. Malbim and Rambam both comment on the need for the eater to have the permission of the owner before eating the crop, as would indeed be the case for a hired worker, but implied if the coming into the vineyard is seen as a deliberate action rather than just a chance encounter.
On the other hand, Josephus holds that the text did apply to any passer-by (Ant. 4.234-237) and cites the occasion of Yeshua's disciples husking a little grain to eat as they passed through a corn-field on Shabbat (Matthew 12:1, Luke 6:1) as an example from his own time. Tigay comments that, "Apparently, fields and vineyards were laid out in such a way that people often had to pass through those belonging to others. This was not considered trespass; only damaging the field is trespass. According to nineteenth century travellers, this right was still recognised as a charitable obligation on the Middle East in recent times."
Taking a completely different tack, theBaal HaTurim notices that this text immediately follows a passage talking about vows. From this he deduces an allusion to the Talmud's instructions to someone who has taken the nazirite vow: "Do not [even] approach the area surrounding the vineyard" (b. Bava Metzia 92a); such a person should not hire himself out to work in a vineyard. The nazirite has vowed - amongst other things - that "he shall abstain from wine and strong drink; he shall drink no vinegar, whether made from wine or strong drink, neither shall he drink any grape juice, or eat fresh or dried grapes" (B'Midbar 6:3, NASB). A vineyard, therefore, in the opinion of the Sages is just too much temptation; he might succumb and then have to start the period of his vow all over again. Perhaps he would himself keep the vow, but because workers in vineyards are allowed to eat some of the fruit, he might have been seen working there and so be suspected of having broken his vow and be forced by community pressure to start the vow again. The Baal HaTurim seems to be saying: don't go in the way of temptation!
Rav Sha'ul brings this concept up in the context of food: "'Everything is permitted,' you say? Maybe, but not everything is helpful. 'Everything is permitted?' Maybe, but not everything is edifying" (1 Corinthians 10:23, CJB). Just because we can, Sha'ul is saying, doesn't mean that we should - everything has its consequences and our words and actions may be misread by others or develop into destructive habits for ourselves. He goes on, "No-one should be looking out for his own interests, but for those of his fellow" (v. 24, CJB). We don't live in isolation in the Body of Messiah or in the larger world; our words and actions always have a knock-on effect to those around us. It is necessary to take care, Sha'ul is saying, that our freedom doesn't become a stumbling block for others. As Sha'ul wrote on the same subject in another letter, "Do not, by your eating habits, destroy someone for whom the Messiah died" (Romans 14:15, CJB). The same applies in all the other areas of our lives; we must always think about the effect or repercussions of what we do or say upon others who see and hear us. They may be tempted to do something that for them would be foolish or even sin, which for us may simply be unwise but not harmful.
Further Study: 1 Corinthians 6:12-14; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-22
Application: How could you moderate your behaviour and speech so as to protect those around you? Do you have any habits that although not directly harmful to you are a bad witness to others? Why not ask G-d to help you see yourself as others see you and ask Him if there is anything you need to change.
© Jonathan Allen, 2008
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