“Isn’t there the matter of the suffering of a living creature.”
Today’s Daf Yomi is a welcome relief after days of reading about death and dying. We have entered the final chapter of the Shabbat Tractate which is focused on the treatment of animals. There are many troubling portions in this Tractate, including the depiction of women, and those with physical and mental challenges and non-Jews. But what has been consistent reaching back to the Berakhot Tractate, is the moral obligation to take care of our animals. We have been reminded on several occasions of the duty to feed our animals before ourselves.
We have learned in the Shabbat Tractate that the Sabbath applies to animals as well as their caregivers and we have a responsibility to ensure that we do not overburden our animals on any day of the week and especially not on Shabbat. Domestic animals played an important role in households 1,500 years ago and there were practical reasons for not exhausting them as well as moral ones.
The consequences for over-burdening one’s animal on Shabbat were quite severe: they involved a sin-offering if it was an unintentional oversight, and stoning if one knew better, but still burdened his animal with heavy loads. Rami bar Ḥama said: “With regard to one who drives his laden animal on Shabbat, if he does so unwittingly, he is not liable to bring a sin-offering, and if he does so intentionally, he is liable to be executed by stoning.”
We are told a story about Rabban Gamliel who burdened his donkey with so many jars of honey on Shabbat that the poor creature collapsed and died from exhaustion. The voice of the Gemara tells us that Gamliel should have untied the packs of honey from the donkey’s back and allowed them to slide off his sides; in essence, the care of his animal should have been his priority.
If Gamliel was concerned about so many valuable jars of honey becoming cracked from their journey off the sides of the donkey, he should have laid pillows and blankets on the ground to cushion their fall. The Gemara questions Gamliel’s decision to burden his donkey: “Isn’t there the matter of the suffering of a living creature? He should suffer monetary loss rather than cause the animal to suffer.”
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. 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.
I have written before about my two Siamese cats, Colette and Pasha, who have kept me company as I have worked from home since early March. If anyone has known what it is like to live with Siamese cats, they know the type of shenanigans they can get into. When they wake up from one of their languid naps, they enter my living room when I am working with what I call the Siamese “call and repeat.” One cat lets out a loud meow and the other responds even louder, until I can barely hear the voices on the other end of my conference call. I like to think their chorus is thanking me for taking such good care of them and feeding them first, but I suspect instead they are asking about what I have done for them lately.
Colette and Pasha saunter through my apartment looking for something to knock down with their paws in a type of feline experiment like the one we read about today involving the sliding jars of honey down a donkey’s back. They then zoom from one end of the apartment to the other until they finally settle down. Left in their wake are over-turned placemats, books and chair cushions. And then they return to their cat bed and resume their meezer dreams. Maybe they are dreaming of Gamliel’s jars of honey or more likely, the birds who have roosted on my balcony.
Rabbi Adin Even Yisrael Steinsaltz, who made the Talmud accessible for so many of us, died today at 83 years of age. This Daf Yomi journey would not have been possible without his life-long effort to democratize the Talmud. We were told yesterday in Shabbos 153 that if one established a path for others to follow, “he must have a share in the World-to-Come.” We were told to do things during the course of one’s life that will be remembered by mourners when they stand beside one’s grave. He will be remembered and deeply mourned.