As we near the conclusion of tractate Shabbat, this final chapter concerns itself with what may or may not be done for animals on Shabbat. Some of these matters have been dealt with in earlier chapters, but in the Talmud, there is always more to say on any subject.
On page 154a, Rav Zevid speaking in the name of Rami bar Hama reminds us that:
With regard to one who drives his laden animal on Shabbat, if he does so unwittingly, he is liable to bring a sin-offering, and if he does so intentionally, he is liable to be executed by stoning.
Why such a severe punishment? It is because this is not merely a rabbinic prohibition; it is a biblical one — and intentional violations of biblical Shabbat prohibitions incur capital punishment. In Exodus 23:21, we learn that one may not force an animal to carry out a burden on Shabbat; animals deserve to rest as well.
However, as usual with the Talmud, we quickly venture into the grey. What if the animal isn’t exactly being used to carry a burden, but rather is being employed as a playground structure for a bored toddler?
The Gemara on page 154b relates:
Abaye found Rabba sliding his son on the back of a donkey on Shabbat to entertain him. He said to him: The Master is making use of living creatures on Shabbat, and the sages prohibited doing so. Rabba said to him: I placed my son on the side of the donkey, and as they are sides, the sages did not issue a decree prohibiting making use of them.
A discussion then ensues about whether loading up a donkey with baggage that rests on the sides of the animal is problematic, since the load is not being carried on the animal’s back in the usual manner.
As Shabbat observant parents, we resorted to lots of tricks to entertain our children when they were young, especially during the long summer afternoons. From “family nap activity” to “Shabbat outside reading party,” we pitched all sorts of special one-day-a-week opportunities that we hoped would keep our kids from viewing Shabbat as a burden rather than a blessing. (It seems to have worked; one of them even became a rabbi.) My grandchildren now slide down the sides of the pull-out couch. If a donkey had been made available, we might have chosen the same route as Rabba.
Although the example brought in the Gemara is a light-hearted one, this debate is vitally important. How much is too much to require of an animal that is entitled to Shabbat rest along with its human counterparts?
Perhaps we can view it this way: if a donkey isn’t seen as just a beast of burden but as a quasi-pet capable of playing, maybe that bodes well for its proper treatment all week long. And that’s not only in keeping with the mandates of the Torah, it helps out the whole family.