This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

From Calves to Kittens*

Rabbi Judah the Patriarch was sitting one day before a synagogue in Sephoris, concentrating on his studies, when he was approached by a young calf. The unfortunate beast was on his way to be slaughtered, and was evidently aware of his predicament. He began to moo pathetically to Rabbi Judah, as if crying out Save me!

The great sage was unimpressed, and perhaps irritated about having his studies interrupted. He shrugged the matter off and remarked to the animal What can I do for you? This was what you were created for.

The narrators of the story had no particular problem with the notion of a great Jewish sage conversing with a dumb quadruped; they were, however, disturbed by the contents of that exchange.

At this point in his life, Rabbi Judah began to suffer from severe toothaches that continued to plague him for thirteen years of his life, and Jewish tradition decided that the affliction was imposed upon him as a punishment for his unsympathetic treatment of the helpless calf.

In those days of primitive dentistry, a chronic toothache was as painful an experience as an individual could dread to have. When we combine that fact with the classic Jewish beliefs in the atoning power of suffering, and in the influence that great saints and community leaders can exert on the fates of their contemporaries, we arrive at the intriguing conclusion that Rabbi Judah's anguish was beneficial for the Jews of his generation. The Talmud relates that throughout those thirteen throbbing years, not a single woman in the Land of Israel miscarried, or even experienced pains during childbirth. Rabbi Judah's pain was everyone else's gain.

Years later, a rodent happened to scamper past his daughter--or, according to an alternative version of the story, a household servant found a rat while cleaning the house. By this stage of his life, Rabbi Judah had become sensitized even to the situation of filthy (and non-kosher) little critters, and he ordered the lady not to kill it, invoking the words of the Psalmist (145:10) his tender mercies are over all his works. The Babylonian Talmud relates that this display of humane compassion earned him relief from his ailment, though this fact is not stated explicitly in all the versions of the tale.

I find it interesting that Rabbi Judah's retort to the calf took the form of a quote from an earlier sage, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai. The full text of Rabban Yohanan's adage, as preserved in Pirkei Avot, was: If you have learned much Torah, do not take credit for that achievement, since that was what you are created for.

On one level, Rabbi Judah's implied comparison may have been a kind of motivational pep talk addressed to the calf, urging the beast to welcome his destiny as the performance of a valued bovine mitzvah. Nevertheless, there was a whimsical cynicism in the equating of the two conditions, implying that it is as normal for a Jew to learn Torah as it is for an ox to be slaughtered.

Some of the commentators to the Talmud were uncomfortable with the assumptions that seemed to underlie the story. After all, as long as nobody was proposing that we all adopt vegetarianism (and, in spite of some recent efforts to draw the tale in this direction, this does not seem to be a credible reading of the evidence), Rabbi Judah's remark was a perfectly honest, albeit a tactless, one. As such, it does not seem to deserve such a cruel retribution.

Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz formulated this difficulty in stark terms: Rabbi Judah was correct in what he told the calf, since it is indeed a privilege for a dumb beast to be elevated in its status by being allowed to become part of a human diet, helping to strengthen the limbs of its superior on the food chain. Under normal circumstances, if the person who was going to partake of the calf's flesh had been an upstanding citizen, then Rabbi Judah's retort would have been beyond reproach, and the beast should have jumped at the opportunity to be digested into the body of a rational being.

However, according to Rabbi Horowitz, the owner of this particular animal happened to be a boorish glutton whose ranking in the spiritual hierarchy was no higher than that of an animal. Consequently, in this case Rabbi should have acknowledged that the calf was justified in trying to make a break for it; and his unfeeling dismissal of the plea for help was indeed deserving of punishment.

In a similar vein, Rabbi Samuel Edels (Maharsha) tried hard to identify details in the story that would justify Rabbi Judah's attitude. He argued that cattle, since they are kosher beasts, actually occupy a relatively aristocratic rank on the zoological scale, and therefore merit some respect. Furthermore, it was simply untrue for Rabbi Judah to suppose that the slaughterer's knife is the inevitable fate of the entire species. In the normal course of events, a healthy young calf could anticipate a satisfying career pulling a plough, before his eventual retirement to the abattoir. The rabbi's response was therefore inexcusably flippant; and the ensuing affliction could not be removed until he had shown respectful compassion for one of the lowliest and despised creatures in nature, a rat or a weasel.

This last aspect of the story also has its peculiar twists and turns at the hands of later narrators. In the diverse traditions of the tale that are preserved in talmudic and midrashic literature, the critters to whom Rabbi Judah extended compassion in the end are variously identified as rats, weasels, or generic creeping things. However, somebody recently quoted to me a version of the tale in which the reference was to kittens. Subsequent investigation revealed to me that the kittens version was in rather widespread circulation on that great repository of authentic Jewish wisdom, the Internet. I have not yet succeeded in tracing the ultimate source for this peculiar modification of the story's plot.

At any rate, the variation might be symptomatic of the limitations of our own compassion. Unlike Rabbi Judah, who eventually learned to be considerate even of disease-spreading vermin and rodents, the author of the tale's sanitized version was probably convinced that modern readers are still unable to extend their kindness to embrace anything more repellent than a cuddly little feline.

Speaking for myself, I consider it most advisable to ensure that my dental plan is up to date.

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A Meeting-Place for the Wise
A Meeting-Place for the Wise

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