The Mystical Magic of “When The Ox Gores the Cow”

The following story appeared in Rabbi Frand’s parsha archives:

I will tell you over a story that I heard from a prominent individual who works in Jewish Outreach.

When he was he was newly married, and studying at a Rabbinic seminary in Israel, he couldn’t afford an apartment in the desirable sections of Jerusalem. Therefore he bought one in what was then an outlying section, in a building where he was the only observant, religious Jews. All of the other residents were Israelis who were not religious. He went over to them and started building relationships. He invited every one of them to come once a week to his apartment to learn. After trying, he finally got several to come to learn, but he had not picked a topic.

What would he learn with non-religious Israelis? In a certain sense non-religious Israelis are even more removed from Judaism, and have more negative attitudes towards Jewish learning, than unaffiliated Jews in America. So he deliberated his options: something philosophical, like Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed, or a work which discusses the Jewish faith in comparison to others, like the Kuzari… he didn’t know what he was going to learn.

He went to morning prayers and there, as Hashgocha (Divine Providence) would have it, he met the famous Uri Zohar. Uri Zohar was Israel’s foremost entertainer: comedian, television game-show and radio talk-show host, social satirist, movie star, and film producer, and an icon of modern Israeli secular society. Then, in the midst of his career, he turned towards religion, eventually becoming fully observant. [For more information, read Waking Up Jewish by Uri Zohar, which is available through Genesis Judaica.]

He asked Uri Zohar what he should learn with these neighbors. R’ Uri asked him, “What are you learning in Yeshiva?” The Rabbi responded that he was learning Bava Kamma. Uri Zohar told him “Learn with them tractate Bava Kamma”.

The Rabbi looked at him incredulously and said “Bava Kamma? The ox that gores a cow; The Pit; The Ox; Fire that damages?… This will turn people on to Judaism?”

To which Uri Zohar responded “My dear friend, you don’t believe in Torah! If you can question and doubt that learning with them tractate Bava Kamma is going to bring them back — then you don’t fully believe and appreciate the power of Torah.”

Learn pure, unadulterated, “the Four Major Types of Damages” (Arba avos nezikin). You do not need to learn philosophical works such as Kuzari and Moreh Nevuchim. Learn about the Ox that gores the cow. It does something to the soul. It is mystical. It is magical. It is the nourishment that the soul thirsts for, and a teacher needs nothing more.

To this day, what does the Rabbi learn with beginning adult students? Tractate Bava Kamma.

That is what this Medrash says about Aharon. He returned sinners to Torah study. The power of Torah will prevail.

Ad kann l’shono (end of his story).

I am afraid that I share the same doubts with the Rabbi in this story. Having grown up on the Talmud since grade school, I don’t have the perspective of being exposed to it for the first time as a thinking, questioning adult, and it does surprise me to hear that learning “Arba Avos Nezikin” as someone’s first exposure to learning Torah would stir their soul. This represents a significant paradigm shift for me. So I would love to hear corroboration, comments or otherwise from those coming from a different perspective than me.

Originally published on Feb 19, 2009

21 comments on “The Mystical Magic of “When The Ox Gores the Cow”

  1. 1. In this case, the person had already attracted a few students and just needed to decide what to teach. So my recommendation was for that particular situation. Most of the teachers I know become passionate when teaching something they truly love, even if they are not seen as “passionate” people in their daily lives. So rather than trying to choose something to match the student, I think you can choose something to match the teacher in this particular instance.

    2. The text itself is more than a gateway to the human relationship but in the beginning, I think people connect more to the teacher and less to the text. So my point is that the most important thing you can do is to establish the human relationship. Choose something that you think is a good vehicle for establishing a connection. Once people are more committed and more interested, they will begin to connect to the text independent of the teacher.

  2. SDK, thanks for the great comment. I have 2 questions:
    1. In my experience, many teachers are not necessarily outwardly passionate. What would be the path for a more reserved teacher to attract and engage students?

    2 You said that “The text is a gateway to a new kind of human relationship — intellectual, spiritual, emotional — one that is uncommon in the secular world.”.
    I’m not sure what you mean as the text being the gateway. Do you mean it’s a tool for a deeper human relationship?

  3. I think that what draws people in is the passion and integrity of the teacher. If the teacher is genuinely excited by Bava Kama, then he should teach that. If he is genuinely excited by Chassidus, he should teach that. People recognize authenticity and passionate engagement.

    Those who seek to hide from authenticity are embarrassed by that quality in others. But those people are very, very unlikely to change their lives. For that group, if you choose something interesting to them, they might be be open to learning it intellectually. But you are spending your time and energy on someone who will not return the favor.

    People who seeking “more” from life are excited by the example of someone who is living passionately and authentically. These are the students who will really engage. And what they are engaging with, at first, is not the text, but the teacher. The text is a gateway to a new kind of human relationship — intellectual, spiritual, emotional — one that is uncommon in the secular world.

    For this set of students, it really doesn’t matter what you teach, as long as you are passionate about it. Choose something that allows you to reveal yourself to the student, because you are the first thing they will really see.

  4. As someone with experience in this area, I don’t think there is any template that will work for every case. If the mekareiv focuses on building a relationship with a person, he will learn over time what approach works best. Neither Bava Kamma nor whatever he happens to be learning will work with every individual right off the bat.

    Regarding the other 51% of the population, the same is true. There is nach with hundreds of fascinating peirushim, chasidus, hashkafah, and so on. A lot of women also are fascinated by the sheer variety of halachos which bring meaning, simplicity and order to a chaotic life. Again, it all depends on how well you choose to get to know the person as you go along.

  5. Perhaps the idea was not to learn davka that tractate, but rather to learn with the beginner whatever it was this Yeshiva student happened to be learning. The beginner’s different perspective and different assumptions will challenge the more experienced one and engage him more deeply in his own studies. He will find the studies fresh and interesting, and his excitement will be transmitted to the beginner — who may have felt it from the beginning anyway. And if you learn *with* someone, rather than just teaching them, you are likelier to relate to them with respect. And if they feel respected, they are more likely to be open to your influence.

    FWIW, older secular Israelis *generally* know much more than younger ones. There used to be much more pride in knowing about Jewish texts and culture. Secular kids today are more ignorant about Judaism than secular kids were a couple of generations ago.

  6. secular israelis have an interesting melange of educational experiences. their school studies often make them more knowledgable than the average north american unaffiliated type, while at the same time,the polarization of israeli society (charedi vs. non-chareidim) often leaves them less open to hearing what “the other side” actually has to say. there’s a lot of charedi bashing. if you don’t believe it, that’s because you are likely a north american and can’t conceive of how ugly internecine warfare can get. the land of “live and let live” it ain’t…

    so it’s a whole different dynamic and teh elements need a unique fix.

  7. “In a certain sense non-religious Israelis are even more removed from Judaism, and have more negative attitudes towards Jewish learning,”

    I read this often, that secular israelis are more distant from judaism than secular jews elsewhere, but is that true? I can understand that they might have more negative attitudes to jewish learning, but are they really less knowledgeable?!

    At the same time, i also run into stories that demonstrate that even the unaffiliated in israel know more, for example one where a secular israeli told two secular kids to take their feet off a table, and when asked why, gave as one of his reasons “shulchan domeh lemizbeach”

    I’d have thought they pick something up. is that not true and are they really so ignorant?

  8. I have found it helpful to explain that the examples in the Gemara really represent a more abstract principle, and these principles are relevant to our daily lives. When discussing the ox goring an intruder, stop for a moment and ask, “Would you have to pay if your dog chewed up the mail-man’s pants?” It’s the same principle. I was in a class once discussing the “pit,” and the Rav stopped to ask what would happen if somebody tripped over Mr. so-and-so’s brief case which was sticking out into the aisle; a pit is not just a hole in the ground; it is any obstruction.

    Also, there’s more going on behind the scenes with Gemora on a spiritual level. We need to have a little emunas chachamim for this (and a read of the 4th section of Nefesh HaChaim). For example, we don’t really understand how a car works–given a hundred years we probably wouldn’t be able to build our own car from scratch. Yet, we do understand that turning the ignition key will make it go. So too, the Gemara, somehow, is the ignition key to start up a person’s soul–and more so than anything else.

  9. I recommend the writings of RABBI ARYEH KAPLAN (of blessed memory, may his merit shield us) for kiruv rechokim and new Baalei Teshuvah.

    FFBs could also benefit from his writings.

  10. i think a large part of the bounty in Rav Zohar’s remarks has perhaps gone unnoticed here: the idea that one needn’t neccessarily go to something esoteric per se when trying to enlighten newcomers to the beauty that is torah.

    many FFB’s have the notion – and it’s unfortunately been institutionalized too often by specific programs and orgs – that torah, by itself, is not exciting enough, kaviyachol, to be interesting or enticing to a casual student. many bt’s i know recall with distaste all the times frum people tried to meet them where they thought they were – by trying to come off cool, relevant, and hip. by trying to, effectively, lure them in with something which they’d make seem shallow enough for the outside world to appreciate. but inside, they were searching..and they recognized that what they were being given was a bad take-off on emes, but not the whole truth on its own. already, innately, they knew better.

    simply put, people recognize emes. a very choshuve mekarev once told me the sage advice he had received on the subject from his rosh yeshiva: people who haven’t learned can hear emes. don’t think you have to dress it up. you just have to go slow, but they can hear…

    kabbalah for dummies – or meditating with maimonides – might sound better on a program ad, but it has done us the disservice of making ffb’s think that chumash just isn’t exciting enough. more’s the pity.

    (or did said ffb maybe think that anyway, in his heart of hearts?…let’s daven for him.)

  11. IIRC, RMF thought that learning either Elu Mtzios or Hamafkid was very important as a starting point because if one starts and focuses solely on Brachos and Seder Moed, one can mistakenly think that the sole message of the Torah is Bein Adam LaMakom, as opposed to the huge amount of Talmud in Seder Nashim and Nezikin that focuses on Bein Adam LChavero. R D Feldman has a shiur on “Nezikin” at YuTorah that explains the significance of this very critical area of halacha.

  12. I have heard this advice many times, too, and I know that certain BT beginners’ institutions were founded on the premise that this, and not essentially philosophical inquiries such as are the entry points at a place such as Aish HaTorah, is really the way to go. On the other hand, without some kind of philosophical challenge, inquiry or connection — and in this story it was entirely personal, which is ideal — folks aren’t sitting down to do the learning.

    By the way, what do we do for the other slight-more-than-half of the population?

  13. CB Spira makes an excellent and very important point, which I would like to elaborate upon.

    The circumstances and surroundings of youngsters in large urban centers, where so many of us live, are so different now than in Talmudic and Mishnaic times, that kids (and adults) can have great difficulty understanding and appreciating certain Torah teachings that relate to circumstances that do not exist in their typical daily lives. Therefore, those that teach should make an extra effort to explain them and make them relevant, e.g. as the poster says, with a trip to a farm, and explaining what oxen and cows were used for in the past.

    There is also a museum in Brooklyn, the Living Torah Museum, that tries to address some of these issues.

  14. As an FFB gal who has never learned Gemorah I really do not relate to this, but my husband (an FFB guy) says that he never really understood the whole ox-cow topic. He was always caught up on the “why would a cow want to kick the other one?” to actually pay attention to the laws. The lightbulb only went on in his head umpteen years later when he went to a farm and observed the cattle. It was only then that he was able to relate to the subject matter and process the technicalities. Maybe a field trip would be in order before starting to learn this topic?

  15. Bob Miller:

    “1. Mordechai,

    It’s not fair to FFB’s to assume that they’re typically jaded and force-fed. Possibly, you meant something else. In any case, the Gemara, as with all holy texts, works on many levels. A mature person (whatever that is!) can look at a familiar work in a new way, repeatedly, as he progresses.”

    Bob –

    Thanks for your comments.

    I did mean what I wrote though. I wrote from extensive personal experience (ffb here – oops, will that admission boot me from this site? ;-).

    Re mature people looking at familiar works in new ways – true, it is possible. However, first impressions are quite strong and cannot be so easily washed away.

  16. I’m wondering what R’ Uri Zohar would have said if the man was learning Zavachim in Yeshiva or is there something about Bava Kama (and Bava Metzia and Bava Basra).

    I’ve been learning with my Partners in Torah Chavrusa for about 3 years. The first year we learned the basics using Rabbi Mordechai Katz’ Understanding Judaism and the next 2 years we learned Chumash with Art Scroll.

    My chavrusa told me that he wants to learn Gemora now, so this week we will start to learn Eilu Metzios in Bava Metzia on the recommendation of Rabbi Welcher. Both my chavrusa and I are extremely excited. I’ll let you know how it goes.

  17. 1. Mordechai,

    It’s not fair to FFB’s to assume that they’re typically jaded and force-fed. Possibly, you meant something else. In any case, the Gemara, as with all holy texts, works on many levels. A mature person (whatever that is!) can look at a familiar work in a new way, repeatedly, as he progresses.

    2. Regarding the theme of the article, some seeking Jews can be motivated by immediate exposure to Bava Kamma, and others may need a different way in. Or more than one way at a time. What works specifically for Uri Zohar may work differently or more gradually for someone else. The teacher has to have some knowledge of the student to judge how best to approach him. That’s why, in the really good old days, fathers educated their sons.

  18. I guess “You can’t argue with success” but I’m not so sure that this will always be the right course.

    What will interest a newcomer depends, I would think, on that person’s likes, dislikes, proclivities, interests, etc. What interests one will not interest another. In the post, it also makes sense because you are dealing with a group so it would be impossible to individualize. I also think that part of Rabbi Zohar’s advice was teach what you know, that is why he first asked “What are you learning in yeshiva”?

  19. I salute the writer’s honesty in expressing his doubts about this. By the way, I seem to recall another similar story where R. Mordechai Gifter z”l confidently encouraged someone to learn ‘regular’ Torah such as the tractate dealing with torts mentioned with beginners, and not philosophical type stuff.

    In response to the doubts –

    1) As he implies, the effect it might have on the minds of newcomers may be very different than that on jaded FFB’s. To elaborate, the newcomers, coming from a world greatly lacking in absolute ethics, may be wowed by the focus on ethics, accountability, and not wronging your fellow man, things which a jaded FFB who may have been force-fed the same gemara at too young of an age to properly appreciate it, with insufficient explanation and context, and too much focus on minutiae, might not appreciate.

    2) Additionally, the FFB may have learned it at a young age, such as 10-12, and on a low level, from a lower level teacher while adult BT’s may be learning it on a higher level from a master teacher and scholar, presenting it in an intellectually sophisticated way that can fit into their modern backgrouns e.g. as ‘the Torah of torts’.

    While the BT’s may be enjoying learning the Torah of torts at a high level when they are intellectually developed, the young FFB’s may have experienced learning the same gemara as youngsters, before they may have been ready for it, as tortuous, hence the great discrepancy in perceptions.

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