If Your Ox is Known to Gore

A week after we read the 10 commandments, we read Parshat Mishpatim which seems to spell out many details that the “big 10” may have glossed over. One of those details reads like this:

If, however, that ox has been in the habit of goring, and its owner, though warned, has failed to guard it, and it kills a man or a woman — the ox shall be stoned and its owner, too, shall be put to death.
(Exodus 21:29)

Not terribly relevant to our lives today, right? Even if I extrapolate it down to a dog who is known to bite, this commandment still lacks modern relevance. A dog – even my favorite breed – is not an ox. And nobody expects an owner to be physically punished for their animal’s behavior. (That’s probably not completely true. According to some statistics, there were 32 fatal dog attacks in 2009, with 20 of the victims being children. I can only imagine what the parents of those children would feel is proper punishment.)

However, a year ago this article caught my eye and stuck with me:


ORLANDO, Fla. — A SeaWorld killer whale snatched a trainer from a poolside platform Wednesday in its jaws and thrashed the woman around underwater, killing her in front of a horrified audience. It marked the third time the animal had been involved in a human death.

Now just to be clear, I’m not blaming the animal – neither the ox nor the dog nor the whale. Animals aren’t usually responsible for the situations they find themselves in, especially when that situation involves humans. And usually it boils down to the animal acting like an animal and not a character out of a Disney movie, which is what we humans sometimes believe.

For that matter, Torah doesn’t blame the animal either. The punishments are leveled either to remove a potential threat to other humans, or to hold the owner responsible.

So what were the owners of Sea World doing, showing off a whale that had been involved in human deaths twice before? What should they do after this third tragedy? With a year now past, we can also ask: what have they (Sea World) done?

  • According to this article, trainers the Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio locations were barred from swimming with the whales
  • They announced a completely reworked “show” coming this spring which emphasizes the bond between whale and trainer while de-emphasizing the in-water interactions.
  • They have investigated additional security measures that could be used to protect trainers if they were to get back in the water in future shows
  • That aside, OSHA has fined the park $75,000 for safety violations (which Sea World has said it will dispute), and the family of the deceased have hired a law firm to represent them. I haven’t found any information on any other legal actions which are being pursued (Aside from one case which involved spectators).

And what of Tilikum, the whale himself?

  • He remains a part of Sea World’s breeding program. As recently as October, he sired an orca pup.
  • He is not participating in any of the shows to the public at this time.

It’s worth noting that Torah legislates death for willful negligent homicide. Had Sea World killed the animal or returned it to the wild after the first death, they (at least in Torah’s view) would not have been liable and would have done the responsible thing. Would it have been cruel to the animal (who most likely would have died either way – by human hand or in the wild)? Of course.

Also noteable is how Torah doesn’t suggest keeping the ox “far away from other people”. Here in our modern world, we might think that we had it all covered – the whale is, of course, confined to the water; we can build stronger tanks; we need to keep this fine specimen around for breeding.

Not so, says Torah. Accidents happen. Gates are mistakenly left open, fences can fail. Trainers can wander too close to the rail, or slip and fall. Animals can be expected to behave like animals, which includes becoming anxious and doing anything to break free.

So in Torah’s view, once is an accident, but twice is criminal negligence. While it may be anthorpocentric, Torah views human life as more important than animals. If one must die to protect the other, then old Bessie is going down.

Still, what does this have to do with me? Most of us own neither oxen nor whales.

As my friend Rabbi Pepperstone puts it:

“It is also important to see the ox as a category and not an instance. What are the features of an ‘ox’?

  • Potential to cause life threatening damage.
  • A history of causing such damage.
  • Having an owner.
  • The potential of being properly guarded from causing said harm.

This could apply to a car that is faulty in a lethal way. Think recent recalls of cars that have had brakes fail. Whose fault is it when those brakes first fail? It seems to have fallen on the original owner of the ‘ox’, i.e. the car company. They have no history.

But if someone owns a car, knows that it has major brake problems, and continues to drive it, and kills someone (their ox that is wont to gore kills someone), they are liable for all of the damages, and the car should be taken off the road. “

As you look around your home for potential “oxen” (a slippery sidewalk, an unstable pile of wood, an electrical socket that sparks sometimes, a dull knife) I also urge you to look inward. How often has your temper run away and cause pain to those around you? Has your eagerness to share “information” (gossip, really) gotten you (or someone else) into hot water? Have you put off unpleasant tasks (like paying bills) only to be penalized later?

Don’t make the mistake that Sea World made, believing those oxen to be valuable as long as as they are carefully watched. Stone them to death before they do more damage, and find better helpers to grow and build in this world.