AGADAH: Rebbi Zeira asked Rav Yehudah a number of questions about worldly
(a) First he asked why, when the flock walks along, the goats go before the
sheep. Rav Yehudah answered that since goats are dark-colored and sheep are
white, it is appropriate for them to go first, because darkness preceded
light at the Creation of the world.
(b) Second, Rebbi Zeira asked why the tails of sheep cover their private
parts, while the tails of goats do not. Rav Yehudah answered that since the
wool of sheep is made into clothing to cover man, it is appropriate that
the sheep themselves be covered.
(c) Third, he asked why camels have short tails, while oxen have long ones.
Rav Yehudah answered that camels have short tails because they eat thorns,
and oxen have long tails because they frequent the swamps and they need a
long tail to swap away the bothersome flies.
The MAHARSHA explains that these are more than physical explanations for
natural phenomena. They allude to spiritual realities, which the sages
wisely disguised in worldly terms.
(a) In the first question, the goats allude to the nation of Yavan, as the
verse in Daniel (8:8) says. The sheep allude to the Jews (Yirmiyah 50:17).
Rebbi Zeira was asking why did the Yevanim rule for many years, first under
the reign of Alexander the Great and then under the reign of other Greek
kings, before any Jewish kings came to power, in the times of the second
Rav Yehudah answered that this historical progression was already hinted to
in the account of Creation. The Torah tells us that darkness preceded light
("v'Chosech Al P'nei ha'Tehom" precedes "va'Yehi Or") when the world was
created. The Midrash teaches that "v'Chosech Al P'nei ha'Tehom" ("darkness
was on the face of the depths") refers to the Yevanim, who "darkened" the
eyes of the Jews with their persecution, and "va'Yehi Or" ("there was
light") refers to the Chashmona'im, who took power at the time of the
miracle of light (Chanukah).
(b) Next, Rebbi Zeira asked why the generation that was exiled with the
destruction of the first Beis ha'Mikdash merited to be informed when the
end of their exile would be, while we have not merited to be informed when
the end of the present exile will be. Why was our end not exposed/revealed?
Rav Yehudah answered that since the first generation did not cover up their
sins (but they sinned openly), they merited that the end of their Galus was
revealed to them and was not covered up. During the times of the second
Beis ha'Mikdash, though, the people sinned in secret. Therefore the end of
this Galus is kept hidden and covered from us, as the Gemara tells us in
(c) Third, Rebbi Zeira asked why the tail of the camel is small. The
Midrash says that the camel, "Gamal," alludes to the kingdom of Bavel. The
ox (or cow) is a symbol of the Jewish people ("Bechor Shor Hadar Lo...").
Rebbi Zeira wanted to know why the downfall and end (tail) of Bavel came
abruptly, and they were punished at once for all of their sins, while the
punishment of the Jews comes slowly, little by little (the tail represents
lowliness and being humbled by punishment).
Rav Yehudah answered that since Bavel ate the thorns -- that is, they
consumed the Tzadikim who are referred to as "thorns" (Eruvin 101a), Hashem
punished them at once, completely obliterating them. The Jewish people, on
the other hand, are never punished at once for all of their sins. Rather,
Hashem has mercy on us and each sin -- represented by the fly, which is a
symbol of the Yetzer ha'Ra -- is punished by itself. Thus, the tail of the
ox is long; the punishments for the sins of the Jewish people occurs over
an extended period of time, in order to enable the Jewish people to
maintain their existence.