Shabbat 52

An unruly donkey.

Among the 39 melachot (labors forbidden on Shabbat) is the prohibition on working one’s animals — they too are deserving of rest on the Sabbath. In fact, rest for animals looks much like rest for their masters. For instance, animals should not be made to carry burdens through the public domain on Shabbat — which, for detail-oriented legal minds like those of the rabbis, leads to the question: Does an animal’s bridle count as a burden?

This question occupies much of yesterday and today’s pages, and the general answer is that if the bridle is used to secure or guide the animal, it is not considered a burden. Naturally, that’s an oversimplification, and the details will vary from animal to animal and from bridle to bridle. The Talmud considers special cases of white female camels with nose rings and Libyan donkeys — apparently a much superior brand of donkey — with iron halters. But we don’t need to understand all the particulars to appreciate this story which bridges yesterday’s page and today’s (try not to get lost in all the Rav Hunas — it was a common name!):

Levi, son of Rav Huna bar Hiyya, and Rabba bar Rav Huna were once traveling together on a road. Levi’s donkey went ahead of Rabba bar Rav Huna’s donkey. Rabba bar Rav Huna was offended because he was the greater Torah scholar, and he thought that Levi went first to assert himself as the greater scholar. 

Levi said to himself: I will say something to him, so that he will be placated and will understand that it was not my intention to disrespect him.

He said to him: An undisciplined donkey whose conduct is wicked like this one that I am riding, what is the ruling with regard to having it go out with a halter on Shabbat? 

Rabba bar Rav Huna said to him: Even if the security is considered extraneous, your father said the following in the name of Shmuel: The halacha is in accordance with the opinion of Hananya, who said that a device that provides excessive security is not considered a burden.

The rabbis, like all of us, were prone to misunderstanding and misplaced offense. When Levi’s donkey sprang ahead of Rabba’s donkey, the senior scholar took it as an insult to his superior learning and status. Poor Levi, who had no intention of riding ahead, was forced to quickly defuse the tension caused by his unruly donkey. And he succeeds admirably! Cleverly, Levi quickly asks Rabba a legal question which not only communicates his respect for the senior scholar’s learning, but also simultaneously insinuates that the donkey’s maneuver was beyond his own control. In one stroke, Levi offers Rabba two ways to understand that he has deep respect for the latter’s learning. And he does it without directly calling out his teacher for misplaced ire — so as not to embarrass the man.

Rabba, for his part, responds graciously. Not only does he answer the question — explaining that even if one places an extra secure, and therefore extra large, bridle system on the animal, this does not violate the Shabbat prohibition on making animals carry a burden — but he returns the kavod, the honor, by citing Levi’s father as the source of his answer. Levi may not have been as learned as Rabba, but the Gemara gives him full marks for intelligence, diplomacy, and kindness.

Read all of Shabbat 52 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 27, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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