Bava Kamma 55

Yoking a goat with a fish.

We’ve talked a lot about oxen lately, and on that subject you might recall that Deuteronomy 22:10 prohibits plowing a field with an ox and donkey together. Presumably, the size mismatch between the two animals put a strain on both. This rule is nestled among other restrictions on mixing different categories — sowing a vineyard with another plant’s seeds or wearing cloth mixing wool and linen — and later interpretations extend this ban to joint work by any two species of animals where one is kosher (like a cow, goat or sheep) and the other is not (like the vast majority of animals). Quoting Reish Lakish on today’s daf, Rabbi Yirmeya asserts that the rules on separation apply to land animals and sea creatures as well, regardless of their kosher status.

But why do we even need this ruling? When might anyone be tempted to yoke a land animal and sea animal together? The Gemara suggests a scenario:

The sage Rahava raises a dilemma: With regard to one who drives a wagon on the seashore with a goat and a shibbuta (a certain species of fish), pulled by the goat on land and the fish at sea, what is the halakhah?

The two sides of the question are as follows: Do we say that since the goat does not descend into the sea and the shibbuta does not ascend onto the land, they are not working together at all, and so he has not done anything forbidden? Or perhaps since, in any event, he is now driving the wagon with both of them, he thereby transgresses the prohibition?

This is fun to picture: Someone traveling along the coast harnesses a goat and a fish to a wagon, with the goat parading on dry land, the fish swimming alongside, and the wagon straddling the tide’s edge. (This may be slightly beside the point, but how do you even attach a yoke to a fish?) And yes, I’m aware that the zodiac sign Capricorn represents a sea goat, which also makes an appearance in Jewish legends. But a hybrid species is clearly not what we’re talking about here. Is this for real?

I’m clearly more concerned with the logistics than the halakhic permissibility, but if we’re forced to consider the latter, Rahava asks the obvious question: Are the goat and the shibbuta working together in an inappropriate manner, akin to an ox and a donkey? To answer this question, Ravina presents an analogous dilemma:

But if that is so that one is liable, then if a person joined wheat and barley together in his hand and sowed the wheat in the land of Israel and the barley outside the land of Israel, where the prohibition of diverse kinds does not apply to seeds, so too he should be liable.

This seems more realistic than the goat/fish wagon. After all, with borders and citizenship far less rigid than they are in modern times, there may have been plenty of plots of land astride the borders of the land of Israel where a person might sow wheat on one side of the border and barley on the other, leveraging the fact that the prohibition on sowing two species in the same field applies only in Israel, not outside of it. If the wagon driver has violated halakhah, reasons Ravina, surely our hypothetical farmer has as well.

But the rabbis disagree:

How can these cases be compared? There, in the case of planting diverse kinds of seeds, it is specifically the land of Israel that is the location subject to this obligation, whereas outside the land is not a location subject to this obligation. Here, by contrast, in the case of the person driving a wagon, both this location, (i.e., the land) and that location (i.e., the sea) are locations subject to this obligation.

There’s a distinction to be drawn: The rules about mixed planting are place-specific — that is to say, they apply only in the land of Israel, so any mixed sowing outside of the land is permitted. In contrast, the rule on animal labor has universal application, so there’s no exemption for animals in and out of the water. As a result, the farmer is in the clear, but our goat-and-fish wagon driver is in the wrong.

This is neither the first, nor likely the last time we’ll encounter this talmudic brand of absurdity. I’ve come to admire the rabbis’ creativity and desire to ensure the halakhah is as complete as possible, even if we veer into the entertainingly ludicrous from time to time. For me, it’s welcome comic relief. For the rabbis, I suspect it was as well.

Read all of Bava Kamma 55 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 27th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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