After the 9th of Av

The ox and the donkey are both intimately connected with redemption.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Marble floor fragments from 2nd temple discovered
Marble floor fragments from 2nd temple discovered

Another Tisha be-Av has come and gone. Again we have wept uncounted bitter tears, repeated the litany of disasters which have been visited upon us this day throughout the long centuries, poured out our pleas for redemption, sat on floors throughout the world, unwashed and unkempt in mourning over our lost Land, lost Temple, lost kingdom.

And again, the sun has set on a Temple Mount as yet unredeemed.


After so many disasters which all occurred on this most terrible of days:

  • 3,330 years after the sin of the spies that started it all;
  • 2,441 years after the Babylonians destroyed the Fist Temple built by King Solomon;
  • 1,946 years after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple;
  • 924 years after Pope Urban II declared the first crusade, in which 10,000 Jews were massacred in the first month alone;
  • 827 years after King Edward I expelled the Jews from England;
  • 527 years after King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain;
  • 105 years after the outbreak of World War I;
  • 77 years after the first mass deportations of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka began;
  • and fourteen years after the extirpation of all Jewish communities in the Gaza region and northern Samaria –

After all these tragedies which occurred on the 9th of Av, we are still awaiting the morning of redemption.


And as every year ever since the yearly cycle of Torah readings was standardized towards the end of the Second Temple era, and the fixed calendar as calculated by Hillel II (Hillel ben Yehudah, Nasi or head of the Sanhedrin) was adopted in 4119 (359 C.E.), on the first Shabbat after the 9th of Av we have just read Parashat Va-et’chanan.


“An ox knows his owner, and a donkey his master’s trough; Israel does not know, My nation does not consider” (Isaiah 1:3), as we read in the Haftarah (the prophetic reading) last Shabbat, Shabbat Hazon, the Shabbat which introduced the 9th of Av.


The prophet laments that even these dumb animals – the ox and the donkey – are aware of who owns them and who provides their sustenance; whereas the nation of Israel, created and destined to keep G-d’s Torah and mitzvot, seems unaware of their Owner, do not recognise He Who provides their sustenance.


As we read in Parashat Va-et’chanan this past Shabbat, “You will keep and do [what G-d has commanded], because that is your wisdom and your understanding in the eyes of the nations who, when they will hear all these laws, will say: This great people is assuredly a wise and discerning nation!” (Deuteronomy 4:6).


Yet this potentially “wise and discerning nation” has not yet shown sufficient wisdom and discernment to liberate its own holiest sites and rebuild its Holy Temple.


It is truly frustrating.


If we cannot learn from our Torah, maybe we can at least learn from the ox and the donkey.


These two animals seem to have little in common: the ox is kosher, the donkey impure. The Torah forbids us to plough with an ox and a donkey together (Deuteronomy 22:10); from this basis we extrapolate that we are forbidden to combine any two animals on a single plough (Targum Yonatan, Rashi, and Ramban ad loc., following Sifri Deuteronomy, Ki Teitzei 231:1).


Apparently the ox and the donkey serve as a paradigm for something greater than themselves, which was why Jacob could tell his brother Esau of his great wealth by saying that “I have oxen and donkeys” (Genesis 32:6), and G-d could command us to keep Shabbat “so that your ox and your donkey will rest” (Deuteronomy 5:14), and “not to covet your neighbour’s ox and donkey” (5:18), both in the Ten Commandments which we will hear this Shabbat. In all these cases, the ox and the donkey indicate general principles.


The ox and the donkey are both intimately connected with redemption.


Let us begin with the ox:


“It happened that a certain man was ploughing, and one of his oxen lowed. An Arab was passing and said to him, What are you? He replied, I am a Jew. [The Arab] said to him: Unharness your ox and untie your plough [as a sign of mourning]. [The Jew] said to him: Why? [The Arab] said to him: Because the Holy Temple of the Jews has been destroyed! He asked him: How do you know? [The Arab] said: I know it from the lowing of your ox. While he was still talking to him, the ox lowed again, and [the Arab] said to [the Jew]: Harness your ox, tie up your plough, because the Jews’ redeemer has been born” (Eichah Rabbah 1:51).


The Matanot Kehunah (commentary to Midrash Rabbah composed by Rabbi Yissachar Ber ha-Kohen Katz, Poland 16th century) adds that “the Jew was so far from Jerusalem that he did not know what was happening”.


That is to say, the ox knew what his Jewish owner did not know, and the Arab could understand the Jew’s ox better than he Jew himself could. And the Jew’s ox and the Arab together knew both of destruction of the Holy Temple and of the birth of mashiach immediately after.


The ox heralded both destruction and redemption – and needed the Arab to interpret. Indeed, “An ox knows his owner...”.


And what about the donkey?


“The donkeys helped Israel when they left Egypt: every single one of the Israelites had ninety Libyan donkeys laden with the silver and gold of Egypt” (Bekhorot 5b).


“...and a donkey [knows] his master’s trough”.


The Mishnah asks: “From when can we read the Shema of the Morning Service?” And it answers: “From the time that one can distinguish between techelet [sky-blue] and white; Rabbi Eliezer says, between techelet and light green” (Berachot 1:2).


This was a reasonable working definition of the earliest time for reading the Shema back in the days when the techelet dye was being synthesised. But in later generations, after the Romans had destroyed the facilities to manufacture techelet, it became necessary to find alternative definitions which did not depend upon the now-defunct techelet. Hence Rabbi Akiva offered a new definition: “When there is sufficient light to distinguish between a domesticated donkey and a wild donkey” (Berachot 9b).


As much as night symbolises exile, so morning symbolises redemption. Hence the seemingly-technical question that the Mishnah poses – “From when can we read the Shema of the Morning Service?” – is actually an allusion to redemption:


From when can we declare faith in G-d in the light of the morning of redemption? – When there is sufficient light to distinguish between a domesticated donkey and a wild donkey, implying that the donkey is one of the harbingers of redemption.


It is therefore entirely appropriate that the mashiach will come on a donkey: “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion, shout for joy, O Daughter of Jerusalem: Behold your king will come to you...impoverished and riding on a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9).


“An ox knows his owner, and a donkey his master’s trough”. The ox and the donkey both recognise the redemption; yet “Israel does not know, My nation does not consider”.


Last week, Parashat Devarim concluded with Moshe reminiscing about the comparatively recent battles in which he had led the Children of Israel to victory against the Amorites, Bashan, the Argov region, Heshbon, Gilead, Ammon, and the general vicinity of Transjordan.


This week, Parashat Va-et’chanan continues with Moshe reminiscing: “וָאֶתְחַנַּן – I pleaded with Hashem at that time...” (Deuteronomy 3:23). What did Moshe plead for? In these final days of his life, what was Moshe’s most burning desire?


– “Please let me cross and see the good Land which is across the Jordan, this good mountain and the Lebanon” (v. 25).


That was Moshe’s last, desperate plea. To cross the River Jordan and to enter the Land of Israel.


And he continued: “But Hashem was furious with me because of you, and did not listen to me. Hashem said to me: Enough of you! Don’t talk to Me any more about this!” (v. 26).


Moshe was willing to risk Hashem’s fury in order to enter the Land of Israel! At the end of his life, having led his nation into victory against Egypt – the world's mightiest superpower – and brought them out into everlasting freedom; after giving them the Torah; after leading them through the desert for 40 years; after having the entire Torah called by his name – his one bitter regret was not to enter the Land of Israel.


The confluence of the 9th of Av and Parashat Va-et’chanan is no coincidence. Parashat Va-et’chanan is Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation.

After the Destruction comes G-d’s consolation – if we but want it.  The consolation of returning to our Land – if we but want to. The consolation of rebuilding our Holy Temple in Jerusalem – if we but want to.