Parashat Ki Teitzei / All Creatures Great and Small

Yakov Z. Meyer
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Illustration from 'Earthly Footsteps of the Man of Galilee'” by John H. Vincent (1894).Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Yakov Z. Meyer

One of the many laws in this week’s Parshat Ki Teitzei (Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19) is the famous injunction, “Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn” (25:4). When you harness an ox in order to thresh grain, you must not muzzle the animal, thereby preventing it from eating the grain. The ox is permitted to feed while working; moreover, the thresher must take into account the resulting loss of grain when calculating his costs. But what about other livestock that can be used to perform such tasks, such as sheep, cows or goats? And what about donkeys or horses? Or instances where a human being, instead of an animal, is used in the threshing or harvesting process?

Concerning these and other problems faced by scholars who seek to apply biblical laws to everyday reality, Sifre-Deuteronomy – the midrashic work produced by the school of Rabbi Akiva – interprets the above verse in the following manner: “It is written, ‘Thou shalt not muzzle the ox.’ One might at first assume that this law applies only to oxen. How do we know that we can apply it as well to other domestic and wild animals and even to birds? The Torah tells us, ‘Thou shalt not muzzle’ – that is, under any circumstances, and in the case of any animal or bird” (Sifre-Deuteronomy 287).

This commandment, according to Sifre, is explicit, concrete: The words “Thou shalt not muzzle” suggest that the law applies not just to oxen but to other creatures as well – whether domestic or wild – and even to birds. The homilist comes to the conclusion that we must interpret this as a blanket statement that can be applied potentially to any living creature that can be harnessed. “And yet,” he continues, “why is it that oxen are specifically mentioned?” The answer: “You must not muzzle an ox but you can muzzle a human being.” Human beings are thinking, rational beings and, if involved in the threshing process, they could be tempted to thievery; therefore, they can be, in essence, muzzled.

The scholars of the rival school, of Rabbi Ishmael, agree with the conclusion reached by this homilist, but arrive at it in a different way: “It is written, ‘Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn.’ How do we know we can apply this directive as well to other domestic animals? Here, the text refers to oxen; on Mount Sinai oxen are also referred to. Just as in that latter instance, oxen are a paradigm for all domestic animals, they serve as the same paradigm here” (Mechilta, Deuteronomy, from Midrash Tanaim). Instead of relying solely on the precise interpretation of Rabbi Akiva’s school, the scholars of Rabbi Ishmael bring in a second text for the sake of comparison.

In the description of the Ten Commandments being handed down at Mount Sinai, oxen are mentioned and it is obvious that this reference includes other domestic animals as well. This comparison of the two schools’ approaches and conclusion appears in a parallel text that also exposes a direct dispute between the founders of those schools, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael, who explain the principles on which their respective positions are based.

A Tosefta in the Talmud focuses on the issue of whether a commandment referring specifically to oxen can also be applied to other domestic or wild animals, and birds: “Rabbi Akiva says: Each instance has ramifications only for that particular instance and not for others. Rabbi Yosseh says, citing Rabbi Ishmael: In the first place [in the Pentateuch] where the Ten Commandments appear [in Exodus], it is written, ‘[But the seventh day is a sabbath unto the Lord thy God, in it thou shalt not do any manner of work,] thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy man-servant, nor thy maid-servant, nor thy cattle’ (Exodus 20:9). In the second and final place [in the Pentateuch] where the Ten Commandments appear, it is written, ‘[But the seventh day is a sabbath unto the Lord thy God, in it thou shalt not do any manner of work,] thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter … nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle’ (Deut. 5:13).

“Oxen and donkeys are part of the general class of animals, so why are they singled out? They are singled out to teach us that what is written about them in connection with the Sabbath applies as well to other domestic animals and also to birds; similarly, what is written about oxen and donkeys in connection with other issues applies to other domestic animals and birds’” (Tosefta, Tractate Bava Kama 6:18).

Let us begin with Rabbi Ishmael’s approach. The Ten Commandments are mentioned twice in the Torah: in Exodus, in the first report of the event on Mount Sinai when God gives the Torah to Israel, and later in Deuteronomy, when Moses reminds the new generation of Israelites of that earlier event, prior to their entry – after 40 years of wandering in the desert – into the Promised Land. In the first mention, it is written that all the residents of a person’s home must rest on the Sabbath, including domestic animals – “thy cattle” (Exodus 20:1), whereas, in the second instance, the Torah says, “nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle” (Deut. 5:14).

Why, asks Rabbi Ishmael, is it written “thy cattle” in Exodus, whereas in Deuteronomy, oxen and donkeys are referenced? His answer is that it is permissible to extrapolate and to use the mention of oxen and/or asses as a sort of lexicon. That is, from now on, wherever explicit mention of an ox appears (as in the case of threshing) or when there is mention of donkeys ־ we know this should be understood as a reference to all domestic animals. Just as mention of oxen in connection with the Sabbath applies to all domestic creatures, therefore, similarly, the reference to oxen in connection with threshing applies to them as well.

In contrast, Rabbi Akiva maintains, “Each instance has ramifications only for that particular instance and not for others.” In other words, the use of oxen to connote other domestic animals in connection with Sabbath observance does not apply in any other situation. This does not mean that Rabbi Akiva and his disciples interpret the verses in the Torah literally, but they do argue that their application must be local and specific, not universal.

Although both schools of thought reach the same conclusion – one must not muzzle any animal or bird during threshing – there is a vast difference between their approaches when it comes to mentioning other texts. According to Rabbi Akiva, one must interpret a verse as it stands – without external references, even if that means that one must “bend” its syntax. On the other hand, Rabbi Ishmael maintains that the singling out of oxen and donkeys is an indication that this lexicon can be applied universally to other instances.

This difference in approach rests on a basic interpretation of the Torah. Did God write its texts as a series of aphorisms, each of which must be deciphered separately, or is the Torah a single composition that can be deciphered and interpreted only through broad readings and through application of its internal lexicon when similar terms are being compared?