This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Horse Sense*

Have you ever seen photographs of the early Zionist pioneers mounted proudly on horses, garbed like bedouins and radiating a sublime confidence? An important ingredient in their mood is the fact that they were bucking a long and entrenched tradition.

Jews were simply not supposed to ride horses.

As one who resides in the home of the world's largest rodeo, it is only with great difficulty that I can divulge this dark secret about the age-old animosity between Jews and horses.

The problem goes back many millennia.

In the Bible, horses are likely as not to be mentioned in connection with an enemy cavalry. Even the beloved in the Song of Songs is portrayed as a mare sent in to wreak distracting havoc among the stallions of the Egyptian army. The Torah sets strict limits to the number of horses that can be owned by a Hebrew monarch, and condemns Solomon for violating those limits.

This hostility to our equine friends is quite surprising when we bear in mind that the ancients regarded horses as an emblem of nobility.

Thus, when Ecclesiastes attempted to describe a state in which all conventions have gone topsy-turvy, he declared "I have seen servants upon horses, and princes walking as servants upon the earth." This indeed expresses aptly the reversal of the normal social hierarchy.

The costs of equine upkeep were sufficiently prohibitive that in ancient times the ownership of horses was usually a prerogative of the aristocratic classes. From their elevated perches, the blue-bloods could conveniently command battalions of foot-soldiers in war, and lord it over the peasants in peacetime.

As a saying in the Talmud put it: "The person on the horse is the king, the person on the donkey is a free man, the person wearing shoes is a human being, and the person who has none of these is worse than someone who is dead and buried."

From the rabbis' perspective, the greatest Jewish leaders of the past should have ridden on horses. For this reason, a Talmudic tradition related that the authors of the Greek translation of the Torah had altered the sacred text, so that Moses would be described as riding a horse, in keeping with his position of leadership, rather than on a lowly donkey, which would have disgraced our greatest prophet in the eyes of foreign readers.

According to the Talmud, Balaam was ridiculed by his aristocratic colleagues because he rode a humble donkey, instead of the horse that should have conveyed a royal emissary of his stature. The pagan prophet tried to defend his dignity by declaring disingenuously that his horse happened to be in the shop (or pasture) that week. Just his luck that his donkey could talk and divulge the truth.

Jewish traditions from the Second Temple era equated the riding of horses with collaboration with the Greek or Roman enemies. Thus, at the time of the Maccabean uprising, the Hellenistic High Priest Alcimus taunted the martyred sage Yosé ben Yoezer "Look at my horse, which my Roman master has allowed me to ride!"

A certain individual who rode a horse on the Sabbath during the days of the Greeks was executed "not because he really deserved it, but because the hour demanded such action." The violation of the Sabbath restrictions was considered to be of a lesser severity; however the riding of a horse was seen as a dangerous betrayal of religious principles.

So obvious was it that loyal Jews would not ride horses that, according to one tradition, a group of Pharisaic rabbis, in the days of the Sadducee king Yannai, fled to Lebanon in a time of sectarian persecution, and were able to conceal their presence from hostile pagans by tying a horse to the front gate of their hiding-place. Potential assailants simply ruled out any possibility that pious Jews could have a horse parked in front of their house.

It is probably no mere coincidence that the most notorious heretic of the Talmudic era was also one of its few Jewish horsemen. Elishah ben Abuya, who abandoned his heritage and collaborated with the Romans, rode his horse beyond the distance permitted on the Sabbath. And just so that there should no misunderstanding of his intentions, he also made a point of trotting along on the Temple Mount on a Yom Kippur that fell on the Sabbath.

The upshot of all these stories is that horses were associated with the qualities that were most antagonistic to Jewish values: oppression, arrogance and atheism. The beast was accused of every kind of obnoxious trait; including that it "enjoys promiscuity and loves war, is overbearing, hates sleep, eats much and excretes little; and some say that it try to kill its owner in battle."

Another old adage insisted that "one who purchases a horse in the marketplace in order to ride it and flaunt himself before his fellows-- is destroying his reward in this world, and abolishing the fruits of the world to come."

Is it any wonder that the great rabbis of the Talmud and midrash, like the prophets of Biblical days, took care to travel on more modest steeds, such as mules and donkeys?

I think that the Jews of the Canadian prairies are ideally positioned to effect a reconciliation of this tragic historic enmity. It is finally time for us to rein in all that ingrained hostility and ride off together into the sunset.
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University of Calgary Press

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, June 29 2000.

  • Bibliography:
    • Moshe Beer, "The Attitude of the Sages towards Riding Horses," Cathedra 60 (1991): 17-35.
    • Yehuda Feliks, Ha-hai ba-mishnah (Jerusalem: Institute for Mishna Research, 1972).
    • L. Lewysohn, Die Zoologie des Talmuds (Frankfurt am Main: by author, 1858).
    • Marvin H. Pope, Song of Songs, ed. W. F. Albright and D. N. Freedman, The Anchor Bible (Garden City: Doubleday, 1977).