Talmudic pages

Shabbat 54

Gadgets of animal husbandry.

Today’s page is full of fun facts about ancient animal husbandry. We promise you haven’t heard of half of the techniques we’re about to mention.

As we learned recently, animals (like people) may not carry burdens in the public domain on Shabbat. For pages, the rabbis have been at some pains to define what constitutes a burden (for instance: bridles for leading the animal are not considered a burden, but ornaments are). But it turns out that there are a number of other items an animal might wear out in public.

For example, camels might have their legs bound in various manners — either one leg tied to another or one leg bent and tied to itself — so that they could not run away (forbidden on Shabbat). Donkeys might go out with bells around their necks (forbidden on Shabbat even if plugged so they do not ring). Also forbidden for a donkey: a device called a sulam (literally: “ladder”) that was placed on its jaw to prevent it from gnawing at an injury and making it worse (similar to the cones pets wear after a visit to the vet). Sometimes owners also wrapped the individual legs of an animal so they would not rub together and cause injury.

There were all kinds of therapeutic items an animal might wear. Sheep were outfitted with various warm compresses after being shorn or while in labor to keep them comfortable. The Gemara does make a bit of fun of these ovine “luxuries,” claiming the sheep are being treated like royalty, or in a remark that feels much more personal, like Yalta, the well-kept wife of Rav Nahman, who was descended from the exilarch. (We met her in the last tractate where she behaved … memorably.) Sheep were also sometimes tied to a bit of wood from a plant that would make them sneeze in the belief that this would cause worms to fall from their heads. (This went only for female sheep. Rams, who were in the habit of head-butting one another, did not require this treatment to expel their worms.)

The list goes on. Rams were sometimes outfitted with little wagons tied beneath their tails so that their tails would not be injured by dragging on the ground. Female goats and sheep might have their udders bound, either to keep milk from leaking out or to put an end to lactation altogether and bring them back to a state of fertility. Lambs and freshly-shorn sheep were sometimes wrapped in cloth to keep their wool clean so the resulting fabric would be extra fine. And then, there was also mechanical animal birth control:

The mishnah states: “Ewes may go out kevulot.” What is the meaning of kevulot? It means that they bind their tails down with animal hide so that the males will not mount them.

But perhaps the oddest of all was this one:

A cow may not go out on Shabbat with the skin of a hedgehog placed over its udder. The owner does this to the cow so that creeping animals will not suckle from it.

The vast majority of the devices mentioned on today’s page may not be attached to an animal entering the public domain on Shabbat. But perhaps for the contemporary reader — who is less likely to own these animals or contraptions — there is some pleasure in peering through the windows of history to get a glimpse of animal care nearly 2,000 years ago.

Read all of Shabbat 54 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 29, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

Discover More

Gittin 51

Wallets and oxen.

Kiddushin 25

What's with all the elephants?