By RABBI JOSEPH H. PROUSER
The Biblical law of personal damages (Exodus 21:28-29), codified by the Rabbis (Baba Kamma Chapter 1), teaches that an ox which fatally gores a person is itself put to death. Its flesh may not be consumed… but its owner is not otherwise punished. If, however, the ox has a history of such lethal behavior… if it is “mu’ad” – known as a “goring ox” – and (though its owner was warned of this danger) the ox goes on to kill… the owner’s negligence in not restraining the beast constitutes a capital offense. Such an owner shares moral and criminal culpability for a death caused by his animal.
In contrast, Mishnah Baba Kamma 2:1 states: Adam mu’ad l’olam – “Human beings are considered inherently fore-warned.” What makes us human, distinguishing us from the beast, is our moral capacity. The human moral load is constant. We know: our actions affect those around us. There is no excuse for a first offense. Even if we cause damage by accident or mistake. Even, the Mishnah insists, if we are asleep at the time! We are “on notice” (mu’ad) by virtue of our very humanity.
Moral literacy – especially in matters of life and death (and safeguarding health) – means being constantly alert and on guard.
Even if that requires the strength of an ox.
(Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey and the former National Chaplain of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting.)