Bava Kamma 24

The petting test.

As we’ve seen, the rabbis differentiate between domesticated animals that have an established record for losing their temper (mu’ad, or forewarned) and those that don’t (tam, or innocuous). Owners of the former are required to pay for the entirety of the damage their beasts cause, while owners of the latter are only on the hook for half. Some rabbis teach that an ox moves from the tam category to the mu’ad category if it gores another animal on three separate occasions. Others say the three gorings must take place in close proximity to each other, i.e. three days in a row. 

In a beraita on today’s daf, and a mishnah that appeared at the bottom of yesterday’s, we learn that an ox that has become mu’ad can return to its tam status. In other words, an ox can shed its reputation for being dangerous. How so? There are two opinions.

The first, held by Rabbi Shimon in the beraita and Rabbi Yehuda in the mishnah, says that if a mu’ad ox goes three days without further incident, we assume that it has reverted to its innocuous habits and is considered to be tam again. The second opinion, held by Rabbi Meir in the mishnah and Rabbi Yosei in the beraita, says:

If children pet it and it does not gore.

Rather than establishing a set period, Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yosei set a different sort of standard — children must pet the ox without setting it off on a rampage. At first glance, this seems like a fine standard. If children can pet the ox and it remains calm, it’s a sign that the ox is not in goring mode. But if you think about it, this isn’t really practical. What parent in their right mind would allow their child near an ox with a reputation for attacking? Wouldn’t parents want to know that the ox is tam before allowing their children to approach it? How can this be the standard for deciding if an ox is tame or not?

One possible answer can be found in the Tosefta, a collection of tannaitic material that is parallel to, but not identical with, the Mishnah, which says the following (Tosefta Bava Kamma 2:2):

Which type of ox is tam and which is mu’ad? An ox is deemed mu’ad where (witnesses) testified about it (that it gored) on three different days. An ox is deemed tam when children pet it between its horns.

Here, the matter of children petting the ox (and between its horns no less) is mentioned not to explain how an ox returns to an innocuous state, but rather what defines the innocuous state in the first place. So perhaps Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yosei are not suggesting that a child be sent out to test a mu’ad ox and see if it has calmed down yet. Rather, they are establishing a standard that an ox has calmed down when its behavior reflects the definition of what a tam ox is to begin with. 

So yes, an ox is deemed to have returned to a tam state when children are able to pet it without causing a violent reaction, but that doesn’t mean we test the ox by dispatching children toward it with arms outstretched. Rather, when parents are comfortable letting their children approach the ox, then we know it’s tam — regardless of whether it went through a mu’ad phase or not. 

Read all of Bava Kamma 24 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 25th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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