Be Human; Let Them Graze: Commentary on Parashat Ki Tetzei 5782
By Rabbi Jonah Rank, President & Rosh Yeshivah of Hebrew Seminary
In a Biblical court of law, the ox stood a chance.
When Moses, in Parashat Ki Tetzei dictates to the Israelites a law about the treatment of oxen in the field, it appears at first blush that the rule came out of nowhere. Deuteronomy 25:4 reads in its entirety: לֹא־תַחְסֹ֥ם שׁ֖וֹר בְּדִישֽׁוֹ (lo tachsom shor bedisho, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is threshing”). This short pro-ox verse follows the description of how a court should punish the guilty (25:1–3) and precedes the laws of the levirate marriage (25:5–10).
Whoever first spewed out the laws of the Hebrew Bible was undoubtedly a skilled messenger—someone who thought about how to structure their messages. Our job as modern readers of the Torah is not merely to ensure we see or hear each word of the text but to understand why these words were presented to us in this fashion. The hands that edited our text must have wanted us to be surprised by the sudden image of an ox goring its way into our sacred law code, right in between a court and a widow aside her brother-in-law. In trying to solve the mystery of why the anti-muzzling law is part of our text, it is helpful to consider how this law was presented and re-presented in our tradition.
Compiled some 1500 years ago, the Babylonian Talmud records our rabbinic forebears’ attempts to paint the picture of a (somewhat) civil society. Business ethics is a hot topic to the sages of the Talmud, and Bava Metzi’a 89a paints the picture of an egalitarian business model in the field of agriculture:
.מה חוסם אוכל במחובר אף נחסם אוכל במחובר, ומה נחסם אוכל בתלוש אף חוסם אוכל בתלוש
Just as the muzzler may eat what is attached to the ground, so too the one-who-would-be-muzzled may eat what is attached [to the ground]. And just as the one-who-would-be-muzzled may eat what has been plucked, so too the muzzler may eat what has been plucked.
Gender equity in the workplace was not on the table, but harmony between different species was. Deuteronomy’s anti-ox-muzzle law, as our ancestors perceived it, strives to level the ground of the workplace. The law dictates that animals and humans have the same rights to noshing when they’re on the clock. This lens does not view human beings as superior to farm animals. This mitzvah elevates the legal status of oxen to something a bit more anthropomorphic, deserving of their own privileges in life.
The anonymously authored (Sefer HaChinnukh) from around the 13th century C.E. undertook the work of enumerating what (in the author’s mind) constituted each of the 613 מִצְווֹת (mitzvot, ‘commandments’) to be found in the Torah. The compiler of this work, counting lo tachsom shor bedisho as the Torah’s 596th entry, emphasized the severity of this law:
.ונוהג אסור זה בכל מקום ובכל זמן בזכרים ונקבות
This prohibition is operative in all places and at all times—[forbidden to] men and women.
Applying this law to protect the snacking rights of animals was countercultural and was expected to maintain its ‘against the grain’ status for a long time. No new geographic or historical circumstance, argues Sefer HaChinnukh, should separate the beast from having a little something between meals. This law demands that we humans surpass the ethical norms by which any human society may treat the four-legged co-workers among them.
The Torah’s utopia, wherein animals are secured their workers’ rights, is a land where the ox is not too many feet away from standing in a human court of law. We can glimpse the deep empathic underpinnings of lo tachsom shor bedisho when considering its rhetorical structure; the law is flanked by the early blueprints of a justice system and the provision of some optional social security for widows (flawed as the levirate marriage system was). Whereas a court may adjudicate cases between strangers and the levirate marriage aims to protect families—oxen who help on the farm straddle the space in between and are neither strangers nor familiars. Animals are our neighbors, co-workers, and friends, and they deserve our protection.
If humans are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26), then—when Jewish law lifts up oxen and other tetrapods—(a la Psalm 8:5) the bovine become little less than Divine.