August 7, 2008
The Babylonian Talmud features a lengthy, oft-quoted discussion of the liability incurred by an individual whose ox gores another person’s livestock. If the ox has never gored before, the owner may claim it was an unforeseen accident and pay only half the injured party’s losses. Likewise for the second and third offense. With a fourth attack, however, the ox is deemed mu’ad, or “forewarned.” The owner is then fully liable. He can no longer claim he didn’t know.
The lesson of the recidivist ox is one of the first and most memorable taught to schoolchildren when they begin their Talmud studies. The narrative is easy to follow, and the moral is clear-cut. It teaches, or should teach, that individuals are responsible for their actions — not just in principle, but also directly and quantifiably liable; not only for what they do, but also for what they fail to do and what they fail to anticipate. No one may traffic with a mu’ad and claim not to have known.
A memorable lesson for most, but seemingly forgotten by the distinguished rabbis and communal functionaries who paid a quick visit last week to Postville, Iowa. They had come to inspect the controversial kosher slaughterhouse owned by Agriprocessors, Inc., which faces widespread allegations of abusive and dangerous working conditions. The rabbis spent three hours touring the plant, met briefly with local Christian clergy and social activists, and gave the operation a clean bill of health. They found no evidence, as one rabbi put it afterward, to suggest that “someone should not buy things from Agriprocessors.”