Goring Oxen and Marriage

V’chi yigof shor ish es shor rei’eihu (Shemos 21:35)

In Parashas Mishpatim, the Torah discusses the laws governing damage caused by a person’s animals. In the event that a man’s ox strikes the ox of his fellow man and kills it, the two men must sell the live ox and divide the proceeds, and they also split the carcass of the dead ox.

Although the words “v’chi yigof shor ish es shor rei’eihu” are normally translated as, “If a man’s ox strikes the ox of his friend,” the Ibn Ezra quotes the opinion of Ben Zuta, who instead interprets it, “If a man’s ox strikes its friend,” understanding “shor rei’eihu” as referring not to an ox that belongs to the owner’s friend, but rather to an ox that is friends with the violent ox.

However, the Ibn Ezra sharply dismisses this reading in his inimitable style, writing, “The only friend of the ox is Ben Zuta himself,” meaning that somebody who mistranslates the Torah so egregiously would make a good companion for an ox.

Harav Yissocher Frand explains that the concept of rei’us — friendship — does not apply to animals, who are capable of having companions and even mates, but not friends. Friendship requires an emotional connection that is uniquely human, as the Torah commands us (Vayikra 19:18), “V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha — You shall love your friend as yourself.” Accordingly, the Ibn Ezra rejects Ben Zuta’s interpretation, which he finds ludicrous for implying that it is possible for an ox to have friends.

Harav Yitzchok Hutner, zt”l, points out that the word “teruah” the sound of the shofar that we are commanded to blow on Rosh Hashanah (Bamidbar 29:1), has the same root as the word rei’ah — friend. What is the connection between these two seemingly unrelated concepts? Unlike a tekiah, which is uninterrupted and represents being perfect and whole, a teruah is a broken sound that connotes the concept of being deficient and lacking. How does this insight apply to the Torah’s use of the word rei’ah to connote a friend?

Rav Hutner explains that the essence of true friendship is for friends to feel so close to each other that they are willing to rebuke and break one another over their shortcomings. While the term “friend” is colloquially used to describe any person with whom we enjoy spending time, the Torah’s definition of true friendship encompasses much more. Although it is natural to be drawn to people who are always complimentary and make us feel good about ourselves, the Torah teaches us that this is flattery, not friendship. Real rei’us involves a component of teruah, of emulating the shofar by chastising and “breaking” the other person for his faults and misdeeds.

Rav Frand extends this idea to marriage, noting that the fifth blessing recited during sheva brachos (the seven blessings said in honor of the bride and groom) begins: “Samei’ach t’samach rei’im ha’ahuvim k’samechacha Yetzircha b’Gan Eden mikedem — Grant abundant joy to the beloved companions, as You gladdened Your creation (Adam) in the Garden of Eden of old.”

Why do we specifically describe the bride and groom as rei’im ha’ahuvim — beloved friends? We are giving them a brachah that they should become true friends, in the sense that they feel comfortable calling each out for their mistakes.

Obviously, such rebukes must take place in the context of a balanced relationship that is normally positive, as a friendship or marriage in which one party is frequently criticized will not succeed and endure. However, it is essential to understand that the ability and willingness to give constructive criticism is an integral component of the purpose of all friendships, and certainly of marriage.

Indeed, the Netziv explains that when the Torah describes (Bereishis 2:18) Chava’s function as being an ezer k’negdo (a helpmate opposite Adam), it is teaching us that there are situations in which the best way to be an ezer is to stand k’negdo. As the Ibn Ezra noted, it is this uniquely human capacity that elevates us above animals and enables us to rise to the level of rei’im ha’ahuvim.

Q: Do animals, which lack intelligence and free will, receive reward and punishment for their actions?

A: The Ramban questions how animals can be rewarded or punished when they lack the intelligence and judgment required to be held responsible for their actions. At the same time, he notes that the Torah commands us (Shemos 21:28) to kill an ox that gores a person, and he suggests that this is an exception to the rule, explaining that Hashem decreed that an animal that harms a person must be punished even though it seems to defy logical understanding.

The Rambam also maintains that animals do not receive reward and punishment. However, the Midrash teaches that if a dog or wolf unjustly injures a person, it will be held accountable. Similarly, Rashi explains that the requirement to give certain non-kosher meat to a dog is a reward to dogs for not howling at the Jewish people on the night of the Exodus (11:7).

Rashi also writes that in exchange for assisting the Jews during the Exodus by carrying the gold and silver of the Egyptians, donkeys were rewarded by becoming the only non-kosher animal whose firstborn possesses holiness that must be redeemed onto a lamb.

To resolve this apparent contradiction, the Malbim suggests that although animals do not intrinsically deserve remuneration, the Torah nevertheless instructs us to reward them so that we will deduce that if animals that lack intelligence and free will receive such reward, all the more so will we receive even greater honor if we act properly.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.