This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Exploding Cow and the Jewish Question *

For several years now, my better-paid colleague Dave Barry has been trying to alert the world to the dangers of exploding cows. In his columns, the Pulitzer prize-laureate has reprinted several newspaper reports about the imminent dangers posed by spontaneous bovine combustion.

Like many, I initially reacted to those articles with smug complacency. As an urban dweller and as a responsible citizen--even in a purported "Cow-town"--I considered myself immune from that particular plague. Now, to my chagrin, it turns out that the phenomenon has had a pernicious and divisive effect on the world Jewish community.

The current crisis originates in the digestive systems of the cow, in a condition known to veterinary medicine as "displaced abumasum." What this means is that acids released by the displacement of one of the cow's stomachs can lead to its being filled with gasses. The potentially lethal consequences of this condition are best left to the imagination.

Before you call in the bomb squad, be assured that the problem only affects one cow in 250.

Fortunately for the gentle beasts and for anyone who might find themselves in close proximity to them, there is a medical solution to the problem in a surgical procedure that attaches the errant stomach to its proper place.

Thus, all would have lived happily ever after were it not for the hyperactivity of the New York Jewish rumour-mill. In the middle of August this year--which coincides with the penitential month of Elul, word had it in Monsey and Boro Park that the surgical process included the stapling of the stomachs. This, argued the pious gossips, would place the cows in the halakhic category of "tereifah," suffering from a life-threatening injury. Therefore the animal itself could not be kosher, nor could any of the dairy products that were derived from it.

As you might well imagine, this rumour ignited udder panic in the observant Jewish marketplace. No dairy item that was certified "kosher" could now be trusted to be so. Shops and restaurants that depended for their livelihoods on the sale of these products suffered severe financial losses.

On the other hand, dairies that could produce special certification that they used only non-volatile cattle that had not been subject to the offending medical treatment might now charge premium prices for that valuable assurance.

The Jewish religious community was set astir. The August 26 issue of the Yiddish weekly Algemeiner Journal devoted to the crisis a front-page headline, two editorials and a cartoon--not to mention the paid official pronouncements by the Orthodox Union and other rabbinical organizations that decorated the pages. This, I might add, was in a newspaper that included not a single reference to the lesser crises in Rwanda, Bosnia or Cuba.

At the convention of the distinguished Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists many important topics were discussed--but the one that attracted a packed house was a clinical discussion by Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler (who is considered to be the leading authority on medical halakhic matters) about--you guessed it--the Cow Controversy.

Rabbi Tendler assured his audience that this was a non-issue, a problem that had been discussed and resolved by Jewish legal authorities hundreds of years ago. The farfetched allegations could only be accounted for as the results of sheer maliciousness, profound ignorance of the workings of Jewish law, or a blind determination to seek novel stringent rulings in the halakhah.

I am informed that the Jewish public is still suffering from shortages of certified kosher milk and dairy items.

Thus we are provided with yet another reminder of how intricately our spiritual fates are entwined with those of our ruminant friends and their digestive problems, as was observed by the wise Solomon: "For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them."

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is:


First Publication: Jewish Free Press, Sept. 29 1994.