This week’s Torah reading is full of commandments, a number of which relate to the sort of relationship a person should have with animals: “Thou shalt not see thy brother’s ass or his ox fallen down by the way, and hide thyself from them; thou shalt surely help him to lift them up again” (Deuteronomy 22:4). A person is walking along and encounters another person with a beast of burden that is carrying something on its back. If the load falls off, the first person is obligated to help the animal’s owner reload its contents. But does this obligation stem from the relationship a person is supposed to have vis-a-vis another person’s property − or from the person’s relationship with an animal?
The explanation preceding this verse leaves no room for doubt: “Thou shalt not see thy brother’s ox or his sheep driven away, and hide thyself from them; thou shalt surely bring them back unto thy brother. And if thy brother be not nigh unto thee, and thou know him not, then thou shalt bring it home to thy house, and it shall be with thee until thy brother require it, and thou shalt restore it to him. And so shalt thou do with his ass; and so shalt thou do with his garment; and so shalt thou do with every lost thing of thy brother’s, which he hath lost, and thou hast found; thou mayest not hide thyself” (Deut. 22:1-3).
The ox is “thy brother’s ox,” and has no role here per se; it is simply a person’s property. Thus, the law applying to it is compared to that relating to “his garment.” In this instance, the relationship between a person and an animal is actually the same as that between a person and another person’s property: A person must return any lost goods to their owner because they belong to the owner, not because of any special feelings for that property.
In the Book of Exodus, there is another commandment concerning relieving the load carried by an animal that parallels the one mentioned above: “If thou see the ass of him that hateth thee lying under its burden, thou shalt forbear to pass by him; thou shalt surely release it with him” (Exodus 23:5). Although this verse and the one appearing in this week’s Torah reading, “thou shalt surely help him to lift them up again,” are both directed at the animal’s owner, there is a difference underlying the commandments they describe, and that difference redefines the relationship between a person and an animal.
In Mishneh Torah, Maimonides sums up the extensive discussions presented in the Talmud on the difference between these two commandments: “The Torah commands one to unload a burden without expecting any financial reward. However, the act of replacing the burden constitutes fulfillment of a commandment for which a person can request a reward” (Laws Governing Murderers, Chapter 13; following the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Metzia, p. 32a).
Although a passerby must not ignore either of the above situations, it is permissible for him to request payment for helping to restore the load the beast is carrying; by contrast, it is forbidden to ask for remuneration for help in removing the load.
The relationship between people is economic in nature. Money, tangible and quantifiable, can be given to one person for assisting another who needs help repacking his animal’s load. In this case, the beast of burden is the owner’s exclusive property, and the deal made mainly concerns the animal. But while this is true when it comes to replacing the burden, it is not the case when one tries to ease it: When one person sees another person with an ass or ox for whom its burden is too heavy, the first person must help the animal’s owner to unload it, but is prohibited from requesting payment.
Although the relationship between people is economic, the commandment of unloading a heavy burden pertains not to the relationship between people, but rather to that between a person and an animal. Naturally, the animal’s owner has a vested interest in ensuring that his beast not be encumbered by carrying its load. Yet, the act of freeing it of its burden is ultimately intended to make life easier for the animal, not the owner. That act may delay or prevent the owner from pursuing the course he has set for himself and enables the animal to rest.
A passerby who does not himself own an animal has something in common with the animal owned by another person, and from it stems the passerby’s moral responsibility. An unusual relationship of cooperation is created between him and the beast of burden. It is a relationship of a totally different nature from the relationship between the two people; it is not economic, nor does it serve vested interests. In fact, it is a cooperative relationship that, ultimately, or at least partially, does not serve the interests of the animal’s owner.
The commandment to unload a burden is, to a certain extent, an act of protest directed against the idea of human beings owning animals and using them to serve their own needs. Perhaps that is why the Talmud cites this commandment as its source when declaring the principle, “The prohibition against cruelty to animals is a commandment that is explicitly given in the Torah” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Metziya, p. 32b).