Chayei Sarah(Genesis 23:1-25:18)
The Muzzled Camels
The parsha relates two main stories. The first: Sarah's death and burial. The second: Abraham's searching for, and finding, a wife for his son, Isaac. When his servant, Eliezer arrives at Rebecca's home, Laban, her brother, greets him and welcomes him inside. We find the following:
"And the man came into the house and he unfastened the camels, he gave straw and fodder to the camels and water to wash his feet and the feet of the men who were with him."
And he unfastened - RASHI: He loosened their muzzles, for he had sealed their mouths, so they (the camels) should not graze in other people's fields.
Can you see why Rashi needed to interpret the verse this way? What was bothering him?
WHAT IS BOTHERING RASHI?
An Answer: If Eliezer had to unfasten the camels, apparently they were muzzled.
But why were they muzzled? These muzzles shouldn't have been necessary. This unfastening was what was bothering Rashi. How does his comment deal with this?
An Answer: Rashi tells us that these muzzles were Abraham's idea. Abraham was particularly careful not to have his camels feed freely, since some of the fields might belong to a private owner, and this would then constitute theft.
THE RAMBAN (THE MIDRASH) QUESTIONS RASHI
The Ramban asks a question on this interpretation. Rashi's source was the Midrash. And the Midrash itself, (which the Ramban cites) questions the interpretation that Abraham muzzled his camels so that they would not graze in private property.
It cites the famous case of the Talmudic scholar, Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair. He had animals that "instinctively" would not eat grains that had not been tithed. He did not need to muzzle his animals. So they ask, certainly Abraham's animals were no less righteous than Pinchas ben Yair's animals! Why did Abraham have to muzzle his animals?
Can you think of an answer?
By the way, the Midrash gives no answer, implying that, in fact, Abraham did not muzzle his animals. Also, according to the Ramban, the animals were not muzzled. He interprets the "unfastening" in our verse as unfastening their saddles or the ropes with which one camel was tied to another, which was customary to do on long journeys.
But can you think of an answer for Rashi?
Hint: Can you see any difference between Pinchas ben Yair's case and Abraham's?
An Answer: One simple difference between Pinchas ben Yair's case and Abraham's is that Pinchas ben Yair was concerned about his animals' eating untithed grains. This was a problem for his own righteousness. He was concerned about this transgression but at the same time he also trusted his animals, because they had, so-to-speak, absorbed the holy influence of his household. If he was satisfied that this was sufficient "protection" that his animals should not transgress the sin of eating untithed food, that's fine.
But Abraham had to be more cautious since the problem here was theft from another's property. In such a case it wasn't just Abraham's righteousness that was at stake; it was another person's possessions. Abraham couldn't rely on the "instinctive righteousness" of his camels. He had to muzzle them. So Rashi's comment is quite reasonable.