Thursday, January 15, 2009


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It is written [Breishis 30:43] regarding Yaakov Avinu: And the man increased exceedingly, and had large flocks (sheep), and maid-servants and men-servants, and camels and donkeys. It is not mentioned in the Torah that Yaakov had cattle. Why not? We see that Yaakov sent to Esav cattle, as it is written [ibid, 32:6]: And I have oxen, and donkeys and flocks, and men-servants and maid-servants; and I have sent to tell my lord, that I may find favor in your sight. A few verses later, we also see that Yaakov had cattle. It is written [ibid, v. 8]: And he divided the people that were with him, and the flocks, and the herds, and the camels, into two camps. Yaakov sent cattle to Esav, as it is written later in the same Perek. Perhaps one can answer that Yaakov acquired the cattle afterwards; if so, the question may be asked: Why didn’t he acquire cattle beforehand?

The Gemora in Yevamos (16a) relates the following incident: Yonasan the son of Hurkenas met Rabbi Akiva. He questioned him and silenced him. He asked him, “Are you the Akiva whose name is known from one end of the world to the other? You are fortunate indeed to have merited such a name, but you have not yet reached the level of an oxherd.” Rabbi Akiva replied (with humility), “I have not even reached the level of shepherds.”

It is evident from here that it is more difficult to be an oxherd than a shepherd. One does not need to be so careful when watching sheep – he has to watch that the sheep do not graze in other people’s fields. When one is watching cattle, he must be concerned that the cattle do not damage other animals or people. This is not a simple task, as the Gemora states: Rav Papa says that the half damages that an ox-owner is required to pay if his animal gores are regarded as a compensation payment, for an ordinary ox is not considered guarded in respect to these types of ‘abnormal’ damages and the owner should really be liable to pay completely for its damages. The Torah had compassion on him since his ox was not yet warned (three times) and ruled that he is only required to pay for half the damage (hence the half damages that he does pay is considered compensation).

If one takes the animals that he is entrusted to watch into a desert, a place where there are no private fields, watching sheep there is almost effortless; he does not need to be cautious at all. However, he still must be vigilant in his guarding of the cattle, lest they damage other animals or people, for it is common for there to be other animals and people in a desert.

Yaakov did not want to watch Lavan’s cattle, for he was worried that the cattle will cause damage and Lavan would not be willing to pay for the damages. He was able to tell Lavan that he does not posses the expertise necessary to watch cattle. This excuse was only possible if he did not have cattle of his own. He did not acquire cattle until after he departed Lavan’s house, for now, if his cattle would damage, he would be liable, and he would certainly compensate anyone for any damages cause by his animals. (Igrah d’kallah)