You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 22:10)
You shall not muzzle an ox while it is threshing. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 25:4)
These two lines from this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (“When you go forth”), are often cited as examples of biblical injunctions to minimize the suffering of animals. If two animals of unequal strength are yoked together, the weaker animal is likely to stumble or strain itself to exhaustion. If an ox is muzzled while it is trampling grain to thresh it, the ox is tormented by the sight of food it cannot eat.
The Talmud (in Bava Metzia 90b) explains that both prohibitions also apply more generally. Two different kinds of animals must not be made to work together at any task, whether they are yoked or not, even if they are merely driven by a shout. Similarly, an ox must not be restrained even by a shout from eating as much grain as it wants while it works.
Ki Teitzei is also the Torah portion that insists an employer may not delay paying an employee’s wages.
You shall not oppress a poor or destitute hired laborer, from among your brothers or from among your stranger who is in your land, within your gates. Each day you shall give him his hire and the sun shall not set on him, because he is poor and it is supporting his life … (Deuteronomy/Devarim 24:14-15)
Thus the general principle of acting with consideration toward the animals who work for you also applies to the human beings who work for you. We should be considerate toward human laborers by paying them promptly.
I believe we should also treat them at least as well as our laboring animals.
That means we should not ask two people with different strengths to do the same job, any more than we should ask an ox and a donkey to do the same job. And we should not make people slave away without any breaks to refresh their spirits, any more than we should make an ox trample grain without taking any grain for its own refreshment.
And, following the Talmud, we should not shout at anyone who works for us: employees, students, or family members. Nor should we insult them.
In an even larger sense, the laboring animal and the human master are two parts of a person’s psyche. Sometimes I browbeat myself into finishing a project even when my body is sore or my brain is tired. This is cruelty to my animal aspect.
After studying this week’s Torah portion, I have three new rules for myself. I shall not expect to do the same job as someone else, or even the same job that I did on another day. I shall not put my nose to the grindstone, but instead snatch what spiritual nourishment I can from every job. And I shall reward myself at regular intervals for my own hard work.
These are not easy rules for a conscientious perfectionist to follow. But I need my inner ox. I must not muzzle it!