There are many reasons we have difficulty relating to the mitzvot that are given in the Torah. Simply put, most of us grew up in urban areas whereas the mitzvot in the Torah were given to people who lived on farms and worked the land. We city dwellers are quite detached from the source of our food. The farmer gets his eggs from the nest and his milk from the barn. He harvests his wheat, and grinds it into flour from which he makes bread. We buy our milk and eggs from the dairy case and our bread comes packaged on the supermarket shelf. I for one have not had personal experiences with agriculture and therefore find the mitzvot related to agriculture in the Torah often difficult to understand. For example, in this week’s parsha we are told that we are prohibited from yoking together a mule and an ox. Do you know what an “ox” is, and how it differs from a cow, a bull or a steer? I needed to go to the internet to learn that an ox is any cattle over four years old that is trained to do work. An ox can be a cow or a bull, that is, a female or a male, but most often they are “steer”, which is a castrated bull. Farmers castrate the male cattle to make him less aggressive and more amenable to training. I also learned that the farmer needs to teach the ox how to pull a plow and that oxen work in teams. They are trained by a “teamster” who teaches them to follow five verbal commands. Did you know oxen can learn to follow basic verbal commands? I surely did not know this. I also learned that several teams of oxen are used to pull one plow. And that “oxen” not “oxes” is the plural form of ox.
That still leaves open the question — what is wrong with yoking an ox and a mule together? Why would the Torah prohibit that? Having no personal experience in this area I turned to our Biblical commentators. They offer a number of reasons why the Torah prohibits the yoking together of an ox and a mule.
The anonymous author of Sefer HaChinuh a the 13th century book, which systematically discusses the 613 commandments, notes that the ox, an animal that chews its cud and has a cloven hoof, is a kosher animal and the donkey, an animal that does not chew its cud and does not have a split hoof, is not a kosher animal. Therefore, G-d does not want these animals, the “pure” and “the impure” working together.
Sefer Chinuch also points out that the ox is a stronger animal than the donkey, and better suited to the task of plowing. G-d therefore takes pity on these animals, who both might suffer from being yoked together to pull a plow. The ox, having to share the burden of work with the weaker creature, would have to work harder than were he to be joined by a fellow ox. And the donkey, having to work with his far stronger companion, would exhaust himself trying to keep up.
Sefer Chinuch then delves into more psychological reasons for not plowing with an ox and a mule. The author says that animals prefer their own kind. It is not only “birds of a feather that flock together” but all animals prefer to be with their own species. He goes on to extend this insight to human beings. Two people, he says, who are far apart in their temperaments and opinions should never be appointed to perform a task together. It is simply too difficult to get along, to cooperate, to collaborate, in completing the job at hand. Sefer Chinuch writes, “If the Torah was strict about the suffering caused for two different species of animal working together that do not have a thinking mind, the same is certainly true for people, who have a thinking soul with which to understand their Creator.”
A third reason for this prohibition is the sensitivity we need to show animals. Have you ever noticed that when you see a cow it always seems to be chewing something? The reason is that cows must chew their food twice in order to digest it properly. Cows spend nearly eight hours out of every day chewing their cud. (I did not know that either, having never spent 8 hours around a cow).
The farmer would of course feed both animals before they went out to work. But the ox would be chewing all the time, which would lead the donkey to think that the ox got more food than he did, or, alternatively, that the ox was always eating on the job! The donkey would think that this was unfair, that the ox was being treated better than he was, and this would demoralize the donkey.
There are 74 commandments in this week’s Torah portion, more than any other week in the year. And there are so many commandments in the Torah as a whole that it can be overwhelming. So it is understandable that we focus on the mitzvot that we can relate to: Love your neighbor as yourself, return a lost object when you find it, pay your worker before the sun sets, help the poor and the needy, for example. We therefore tend to ignore or pass over the mitzvot that we cannot relate to, as the one prohibiting plowing with an ox and a donkey together. It is easy to dismiss them or to think they are irrelevant since tractors have long replaced animals for plowing. Or to think they only apply to farmers and not to us suburbanites. But what we find when we study them is that they do relate to us. This mitzvah teaches us about G-d’s compassion for animals and their feelings. This teaches us that even as we need to be sensitive to the needs and feelings of animals, how much more so do we need to be sensitive and compassionate to the needs and feelings of our fellow human beings.