Facing the Ox

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Every so often, a complex question of Jewish law presented itself to Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz (1730-1805), the famed Rabbi of Frankfurt, Germany. The neighborhood butcher had brought before him a particularly complicated case. A defect had been discovered in the lung of a slaughtered ox, raising the possibility that it might be considered treif (non-kosher) and therefore forbidden for his Jewish community to eat.

It was a complex borderline case, and Rabbi Horowitz pored over the previous rulings of great Halachic authorities of past generations. Several rabbis had ruled the meat forbidden in such circumstances; others deemed it kosher for various reasons. Rabbi Horowitz immersed himself in the texts for hours. Finally drained and exhausted, he declared the meat to be kosher.

One of his students later approached the great Rabbi and asked, “Rabbi, why did you go to such lengths to render the ox kosher? After all, Rabbi Shabtai HaKohen (otherwise known as the Shach, a famed 17th century Halachic authority) deemed it treif. Wouldn’t it have been a better idea to just throw out the meat rather then being responsible for the violation of the kosher laws?”

Rabbi Horowitz smiled; these questions were not unexpected considering how controversial his ruling must have been.

“As you know, for every man there comes a day where he must stand before the heavenly court and account for his life. I imagine that, when that day comes for me, I shall have to defend the decision I arrived at today.

“The ‘prosecution’ will undoubtedly call a most prodigious witness to testify against me; Rabbi Shabtai HaKohen himself will probably testify that I permitted the eating of questionably kosher meat.

“I shall have to respond by citing the opinions of his lesser colleagues, who ruled that the ox was indeed kosher. I will also have to explain why I preferred their rulings over his. You can be sure that the prospect fills me with trepidation.

“But what if I had ruled that the meat is forbidden? Then I would have to contend with another accuser, the ox itself. He will take the stand against me and bellow with rage: ‘How many hungry mouths might I have fed?’ He will cry, ‘How many hours of Torah study and prayer might I have sustained? How many good deeds might I have energized? This Rabbi standing here today discarded my meat, while there were grounds for rendering me kosher.’

“All things considered, I would rather take my chances against Rabbi Shabtai HaKohen, than confront a justifiably angry ox in court…”

Sara Levy is associate editor of Kosher Spirit.

Sara Levy is associate editor of the Kosher Spirit.