The Cow That Kept Shabbos

"Six days shall you do your tasks, and on the seventh day you shall cease, so that your ox and your donkey will have restful contentment" (Exodus 23:12). Commentary: "On Shabbos, our animals are to have contentment of the heart" (B'air Yitzchak, a commentator on Rashi).

"The Children of Israel shall safeguard the Shabbos, to make the Shabbos an eternal Covenant for their generations. (Exodus 31:16). According to Jewish tradition, we safeguard the Shabbos through refraining from various forms of creative work on the Shabbos. Through this limitation on our own power, we proclaim the following message: Human beings are not the owners of the earth and its creatures, for the earth and its creatures belong to the One Creator of all life. The specific mandate to "safeguard" the Shabbos was given to the Children of Israel; however, the message of this mandate is meant for all the peoples. An elaboration of this idea appears at the end of this letter:

Dear Friends,

In honor of Shabbos, I would like to share with you the following story from the Midrash (Pesikta Rabbasi 14). The rabbi mentioned at the end of the story was a colleague of Rabbi Akiva; thus, this story probably took place in the era right after the destruction of the Second Temple:

Once there was a Jewish man who owned a cow with which he plowed his field. He and the cow would rest, however, on the holy Shabbos, the day which is dedicated to the Creator. This Jewish man went through a difficult period where he was forced to sell the cow to a non-Jewish neighbor. The new owner plowed with it for six days. On Shabbos, he also took it out to plough, but it lay down beneath its yoke. He began to beat it, but the animal would not budge from its place. Seeing that his efforts were in vain, he went to his Jewish neighbor and said, "Come take your cow, for she grieves after her former master. No matter how much I beat her, she refuses to budge from her place."

The Jewish man realized that the cow refused to work because it had been taught to rest on Shabbos. He said, "I will get her to stand up." When he came, he whispered in her ear, "Heifer, heifer, you know that when you were mine, you plowed all week and rested on Shabbos. But now because of my sins, I was forced to sell you, and your new owner is not Jewish. Therefore, I beseech you, stand up and plough." She immediately arose and began to plough.

The new owner said, "I beg you, take back your cow. But before I leave, tell me what did you whisper in her ear? I wore myself out with her, and even beat her, but she did not get up."

The Jewish man told him what he had whispered in her ear. Immediately, the other man began to tremble when he realized that this cow, who did not have human intellect, recognized the Creator. He therefore proclaimed, "How can I, a human being whom my Maker formed in His own image and to whom He gave intellect, fail to recognize my Creator?" Straightaway, he went and converted to Judaism. Eventually, he became an accomplished Torah scholar who was known as Rabbi Yochanan ben Torsa (Yochanan, son of a cow), and to this day, our rabbis cite his rulings. Why is he called the "son of a cow"? It is because the elevated behavior of this cow led to his spiritual rebirth.

Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)

A Related Teaching:

According to Jewish tradition, we safeguard the Shabbos through refraining from performing 39 categories of "melacha" creative work. In a previous Hazon letter, we explored the deeper significance of this spiritual discipline, and a copy of this letter is available upon request.

The mandate to "safeguard" the Shabbos was given specifically to the People of Israel, as it is written:

"The Children of Israel shall safeguard the Shabbos, to make the Shabbos an eternal covenant for their generations. Between Me and the Children of Israel it is a sign forever..." (Exodus 31:16,17)

Safeguarding the Shabbos through refraining from all forms of melacha is one of the major ways in which the People of Israel - including the converts who join them - are to become a "kingdom of ministers and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6). Through safeguarding the Shabbos, this "kingdom of ministers" is to proclaim to all the nations that everyone and everything in creation belongs to the Creator. This is the universal message of Shabbos, and Rabbi Hirsch teaches that at the dawn of human history, the Creator desired that all human beings remember this message. Rabbi Hirsch finds support for this idea in the rabbinic work known as "Pesikta Rabasi D'Rabbi Kahana" (parsha 23), where it states in the name of Rabbi Yudan that the mandate "Remember the Shabbos" hearing its message - is for all the nations; however, the mandate, "Safeguard the Shabbos" - through refraining from all forms of "melacha"- was only given to Israel (Rabbi Hirsch's commentary to Exodus 20:8). Through this safeguarding of the Shabbos, we, the People of Israel, proclaim the message of Shabbos through the power of our own example. In this way, we can bring light to the nations and thereby merit the fulfillment of the following messianic prophecy: "It shall be that at every New Moon and on every Shabbos all humankind will come to bow before Me, says the Compassionate One" (Isaiah 66:23).

Hazon - Our Universal Vision