Today we return to the topic of caring for animals on Shabbat. The Torah commands that animals too deserve a day of rest. The rabbis understood from this that it is forbidden to make one’s animals perform any of the 39 melachot, labor forbidden to Jews on Shabbat. For example, animals should not be led into the public domain carrying burdens that do not benefit them (see, for instance, discussions on Shabbat 52, 53 and 54). Similarly, riding an animal is forbidden, though as we saw yesterday, one might possibly be used as a piece of playground equipment for a small child.
But what about the human labor that goes into providing for animals? After all, many animals need care on Shabbat. And those actions verge on melachot. The rabbis famously read Deuteronomy 11:15, in which God promises to provide grass for cattle and thus indirectly feed human beings, as an injunction to feed one’s animals before oneself. But just as it is complicated to prepare food for humans on Shabbat without performing melachot, it can also be difficult to feed one’s animals without performing forbidden labor.
Today’s discussion begins with a mishnah that the rabbis find difficult to understand:
One may untie peki’in of grain before an animal on Shabbat, and one may spread the kifin but not the zirin. One may not crush hay or carobs before an animal, neither for a small animal nor for a large one. Rabbi Yehuda permits to do so with carobs for a small animal.
Half of these words are left untranslated because the rabbis themselves disagree about what they mean, but they seem to have something to do with how food is bundled — and how much work is required to open it up. The Talmud offers two interpretations of the mishnah, one from Rav Huna and one from Rav Yehuda. The former thinks the underlying principle of this mishnah is that one may exert oneself to lay food before the animal (untying bundles, etc.) but one may not take food that is inedible and render it edible — in other words, the food needs to be pre-prepared. The latter, in contrast, finds the opposite principle in this mishnah: he thinks that one may render a food that is inedible to an animal edible (for instance, by mashing up carobs for a small animal), but one may not exert oneself to lay it out.
These two perspectives on the mishnah are gallantly argued back and forth with no definitive conclusion. This may feel all a bit arcane to those of us for whom animal feeding generally consists of scooping a cup of kibble and dumping it in a bowl, but the debate serves as a reminder that Shabbat requires us to balance guarding against work in order to create a day that is truly set aside, while still managing to live in the real world where both we and our animals receive proper care.