“Ostriches are common, whereas elephants are not common.”
There are a lot of contradictions in the Talmud, but the respect for one’s animals appears consistently throughout the text (although admittedly, there are places where this is less evident.) We were told in Berakhot that one must feed animals before oneself. We learned in the Shabbat Tractate that like people, working animals are afforded a day of rest on Shabbat. The text today examines varying types of food that is allowed to be carried on Shabbat for the purpose of feeding animals.
Rabbi Gamliel tells us that one may move glass shards because they are food for ostriches. This seemed quite strange to me and I wondered why Ostriches would be fed glass shards. They surely would not have had access to glass shards on the savannahs of Africa. I did some research and discovered that although it is not something that Ostriches eat, their cousins Emus who are from Australia, have unusual digestive systems and ingest stones, glass shards and even small bits of metal.
The discussion moves to elephants and an inquiry is made if one can move bundles of grapevines on Shabbat, because it is food for elephants. Rabbi Gamliel comments that this may have gone a bit too far, because Ostriches are common while elephants are not. He further adds that one can only move glass shards if he in fact owns an Ostrich. Rav Ashi, says one does not need to actually own an elephant to move his food on Shabbat and that the guiding principle is if the food is suitable for an elephant it can be moved. And by extension, the same applies to glass shards – if the food is suitable for an ostrich it can be moved regardless of whether one actually has an Ostrich.
I had expected the stance on food fit for elephants and ostriches to encompass all animal food, but the Talmud does not go there. Instead, it returns to discussing the specific circumstances in which one can move animal feed on Shabbat. We learn that bundles of straw, wood, and twigs can be moved if they are prepared on Shabbat Eve to feed animals. Rabbi Gamliel offers further clarification by saying these foodstuffs can only be moved if it is possible to do so with one hand. If they require additional exertion as evidenced by the required use of two hands, they cannot be moved.
We are provided with additional examples of foodstuff that can be moved on Shabbat: bones for dogs, meat that is suitable for non-domesticated animals, and here is an odd one which I definitely do not recommend: snake meat that is suitable for cats who we are told are immune to its venom. I found a study from Australia that said cats have a much better chance of surviving snake bites than dogs because the venom’s effects act slower on their systems and there is more time to administer an antivenom treatment. But the venom is poisonous and if a cat is attacked by a snake – let alone ingests one – immediate medical attention is required.
Today’s text reminds us, as we learned in previous readings, that we should take care of our animals and ensure they are fed properly. The Talmud advocates for respecting the animals we live with. 1,500 years ago, they may have been working animals that provided important support to one’s household. Today they provide support of a different kind. We need the love of every being around us in order to soldier through these difficult times, including our companion animals.
I am grateful during this difficult time to have the companionship of my two needy Siamese cats who are very talkative, participate in my conference calls, walk on my keyboard, drag every plastic bag they can pilfer through my house, and always demand to be fed first thing in the morning before I do anything else.
I have included a photo of my two cats, Colette and Pasha, who I have been sheltering in place with since March.