In the Bible
The yoke was usually made from a circular wooden halter which was placed on the animal's neck, and harnessed to a plow, cart, or other vehicle. Pegs, two on each side, with the neck of the animal between them, were tacked to the halter from underneath. A harness which encircled the neck of the animal from underneath was attached to these pegs. The remaining parts of the harness which were connected to the cart, plow, or other vehicle were connected to the halter of the yoke itself. The ordinary yoke was designed for two animals, but yokes for only one animal were also common.
The yoke was a symbol of servitude in the Bible. In order to emphasize the weight of oppression, the yoke is sometimes described as of iron (Deut. 28:48). It was also a symbol of the burden of slavery or taxes upon the people (I Kings 12:11), while freedom from oppression was described in poetic and prophetic literature as the breaking of the yoke (Jer. 5:5).
Jeremiah was commanded to go about Jerusalem wearing a yoke on his neck, as well as to send yokes to the kings of the neighboring countries, to indicate that they, together with Judah, should submit themselves to Babylonian rule. At the dramatic public disputation in the Temple with *Hananiah , the son of Azzur, the prophet of Gibeon, the latter broke the yoke which Jeremiah was wearing as a sign that "I will break the yoke of the King of Babylon," while Jeremiah prophesied that in place of the yoke of wood there would come a yoke of iron (Jer. 28).
In Rabbinic Literature
In rabbinic theology the yoke is a metaphor of great importance. It is the symbol of service and servitude, and in accordance with the principle that the Jew should be free from servitude to man in order to devote himself to the service of God, the "yoke of the kingdom of man" is contrasted with "the yoke of the kingdom of heaven." The doctrine is fully enacted in the statement of *Neḥunya b. ha-Kanah : "Whoever takes upon himself the yoke of the Torah, they remove from him the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly concerns, and whoever breaks off the yoke of the Torah, they place on him the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly concerns" (Avot 3:5). The "yoke of the Torah" here presumably refers to the duty of devoting oneself to study but "yoke" is used in a more specific and restricted sense. The proclamation of the unity of God by reading the *Shema is called "accepting upon oneself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven," while the acceptance of the fulfillment of the Commandments as a whole, referred to in the second paragraph of the Shema. is called "accepting the yoke of the Commandments," and it is this which determines the order of the paragraphs. In Avot 6:6 the phrase "bearing the yoke with one's fellow" means "sharing his burdens."
[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.