Daf Yomi Berakhot 9: Wolves, Dogs, and Wild Donkeys: Shema and Aesop’s Fables

From when may one recite Shema in the morning? (Berakhot 9b)

The Talmud cites a baraita that adds two answers to the Mishna’s question above: “It has been taught: R. Meir says: [The morning Shema is read] from the time that one can distinguish between a wolf and a dog. R. Akiva says: Between a [donkey] and a wild [donkey].”

Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Akiva determine the earliest time when Shema can be recited in the morning based on a person’s capacity to distinguish various species of animals from one another. But why would they choose this criterion for arriving at the time for Keriat Shema? It turns out that there is special significance to these two pairs of animals, which are also mentioned alongside each other elsewhere in the Mishna, in Tractate Kilayim (1:6):

The wolf and the dog, the village dog [bred by villagers] and the fox, goats and deer, mountain goats and ewes, the horse and the mule, the mule and the donkey, the donkey and the wild donkey, although they are similar to each other, they are kilayim one with another.

The Mishna lists five pairs of species that should not be crossbred despite the basic similarities they share. We can gather from this mishna that the Sages considered these pairs of animals similar to one another, which would explain why in Berakhot, Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Akiva would use them as signs for defining the amount of light needed to tell similar things apart: When there is sufficient light to distinguish between these similar animals, the time for the morning Keriat Shema begins.

But still, there is a problem. If the Sages indeed wanted to find a relevant example of the ability to tell similar things apart, would it not have made more sense to choose pairs of animals that a person would be more likely to encounter in the morning, such as a horse and a mule or a mule and a donkey? Indeed, wolves and wild donkeys are not exactly commonplace in areas settled by humans.

The question takes on even greater weight when we take into account the opinion of the Yerushalmi’s opinion (Y. Berakhot 3a), which determines the time for Keriat Shema based on the capacity to distinguish tekhelet from leek-green – two similar colors. What stands behind the choice to define the time based on the differences between animals rather than colors, which are seemingly more accessible and recognizable?

It seems that the Sages were not out to find a practical definition of the time for Keriat Shema, but rather one that relates to the meaning of the mitzva. The essence of Keriat Shema is accepting the yoke of heaven. Each pair of species mentioned by Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Akiva consists of one wild and one domesticated animal. Symbolically speaking, this means that the time for the mitzva whose import is accepting the yoke of heaven is based on the time when one can distinguish between animals that appear similar but have an essential difference: One has a master and the other does not.

The use of domesticated animals as an analogy for the relationship between humanity and God goes as far back as the prophets: “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib; but Israel doth not know, My people doth not consider” (Isaiah 1:3). The domesticated donkey appears here as a symbol of knowing its master. In the book of Daniel, in contrast, the donkey is a symbol of rebellion against heaven.

Daniel explains to King Nebuchadnezzar the meaning of his dream: “and he was driven from the sons of men, and his heart was made like the beasts, and his dwelling was with the wild asses… until he knew that God Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men” (Daniel 5:21).
Still, it appears that there is further significance to the specific pairs of dog-wolf and donkey-wild ass. Perhaps unconsciously, the words of Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Akiva are a response to Aesop’s Fables, where we also find stories that note the differences between the dog and the wolf and the domesticated and wild ass:

Once upon a time the Wolves said to the Dogs, “Why should we continue to be enemies any longer? You are very like us in most ways: the main difference between us is one of training only. We live a life of freedom; but you are enslaved to mankind…” (Aesop’s Fables, 139)

The Mishna in Kilayim and the above fable deal with the similarity between dogs and wolves. According to the fable, the source of the difference is not external appearance but rather internal essence, or “training”: The dogs are enslaved while the wolves are free. According to the fable, the wolves are superior, because freedom is preferable to bondage. This idea is also appears in another fable, about a pack ass and a wild ass, i.e. a domesticated and a wild donkey:

A wild ass, who was wandering idly about, one day came upon a pack ass lying at full length in a sunny spot and thoroughly enjoying himself. Going up to him, he said, “What a lucky beast you are! Your sleek coat shows how well you live: how I envy you!” Not long after the wild ass saw his acquaintance again, but this time he was carrying a heavy load, and his driver was following behind and beating him with a thick stick. “Ah, my friend,” said the wild ass, “I don’t envy you any more: for I see you pay dear for your comforts.” (ibid 148)

According to this fable, too, it is better to forgo comfort than live in bondage.

Love and Commitment

It seems to me that modern society identifies more with the wolf and the wild ass, who are free, than with the enslaved animals. Most Western people find the notion of “accepting a yoke” abhorrent.

In his song “My Freedom,” the French-Jewish singer-songwriter Georges Moustaki sings of a man who mourns the loss of his freedom. Only toward the end of the song does it emerge that the power that binds him is “love.”

In Keriat Shema as well, in which we accept the yoke of heaven, the key word is “love.” The verse that immediately follows “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4) is “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart…” (6:5). It is a mutual love, as we can see in the blessing that precedes the Shema, which ends, “who chooses His people Israel in love.”

True love requires commitment – to fulfill our promises even when we do not feel like it and even when we do not really want to. A woman once told me that she did not understand the significance of commitment to halakha. She maintained that, no matter what she did, God would love her. I replied that I too believed that God’s love for us is unconditional. The real question, I said, was not the extent of His love for us, but of our love for Him.

One can look at commitment as a loss of personal freedom. Or, one can see the absence of commitment as alienation, not liberty. As the Israeli singer-songwriter Berry Sakharof says in his song “Avadim” (Slaves), “Everybody wants to be free, but from what, God, from what?! We’re all slaves…”

According to Rabbi Judah Halevi, in contrast, freedom is attained by accepting the yoke of heaven. Submission to that which lies beyond reality sets one free from enslavement to forces within reality:

The slaves of Time are slaves of slaves;
The slave of God alone is free.
And so when others seek their lot,
God is lot enough for me

About the Author
Yakov Nagen is a Rabbi at the Yeshiva of Otniel, located near Hebron. His book "Be, Become, Bless - Jewish Spirituality between East and West" was recently published by Maggid.
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