Bava Kamma 35

The intelligent ox.

On today’s daf, we meet one of my favorite figures in the Babylonian Talmud: Rav Pappa’s ox. 

The context is a mishnah on the bottom of yesterday’s daf comparing different kinds of liabilities that humans and animals have when it comes to violating rabbinic law. That mishnah leads the Talmud today to ask whether animals could be liable for setting a fire on Shabbat. The rabbis insist that only creative acts transgress Shabbat, thus a purely destructive fire would be exempt. But just as humans sometimes set fire for creative reasons — to make light or to clear fields, for example — could an animal do the same? 

A creative animal, really? Yes, says Rav Avya. 

Here we are dealing with an intelligent ox that was bitten on its back and wants to burn down and roll around in the ashes.

Apparently, rolling around in ashes has healing properties, at least for oxen. And the Talmud insists that this case is not just theoretical.

And from where do we know? Because after it burned it, it was rolling around in the ashes.

So we know of at least one ox who set a fire knowing that fires create ashes, which have medicinal properties when it comes to bites. Can we extrapolate from one very intelligent ox to oxen more broadly?

Yes, as a certain ox that was at the house of Rav Pappa had a toothache. It went inside, and broke the cask, and drank the liquor and was cured.

While I can’t speak to the healing properties of ashes, I imagine that many of us can attest to the numbing properties of alcohol. And Rav Pappa’s ox, at least, knew about it too. 

On the one hand, we are meant to associate the ox with a toothache specifically with Rav Pappa, who as a beer brewer, likely had quite a bit of alcohol close at hand. Perhaps both Rav Pappa’s beer and his wisdom have rubbed off on his ox, leading it to take an exceptional action. On the other hand, no owner is mentioned in the discussion of the first ox, so clearly one doesn’t have to be the ox of a famous rabbi to figure out how to relieve pain.  

Today’s discussion of animal cognition is interwoven with discussions of mitzvot and transgressions, human behavior and animal behavior, the rabbinic household and other kinds of households, what is “normal” and what is not, what can be observed and what can be imagined. But perhaps that is actually the point. 

As Beth Berkowitz has argued, “Knowledge about animals, like knowledge about various human others, combined that which was taken for granted with imaginative challenges to it. Thus did the project of knowing animals — especially trying to know what they knew — populate the margins of late ancient reality with its fantastic others, creatures unusual or impossible, like the flying camels and massive snakes of the Mishnah, along with somewhat more imaginable yet still extraordinary animals like the Babylonian Talmud’s clever ox.”  

In other words, trying to understand animal behavior — both the ordinary and the extraordinary — was just another part of the rabbinic project of examining, categorizing and creating laws about the whole known world. And powerfully, for the rabbis, this world was one in which humans are not the only creatures capable of thought, intention and transgressions.

See you tomorrow!

Read all of Bava Kamma 35 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 7th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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