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Thought for the Day: Damage Done by a Rented Ox

Nature vs nurture is an ongoing argument; in fact, it is actually a machlokes ta'na'im.  Which means, of course, that both positions are true and it will always be a struggle to determine how much of each is responsible in any given situation.  The situation we'll consider (Bava Kama, 40a) is an ox that is owned by one party, let's call him Leon the lender, and rented by, oh heck... let's call him Ralph.  Before we go further, we need some background on payment due for damage done to one ox by another.

Your standard issue ox is known as a "tahm"/innocent.  Oxen, being big and not so bright (hence the expression, "you dumb ox"), sometimes do damage; even the most docile ox can do pretty hefty damage (hence the expression, "bull in a china shop").  The Torah says that the one in control of the ox will have to pay half the damages incurred, limited by the worth of the animal.  This is know as "chatzi nezek mi'gufo".  The owner of an ox worth $500 who kills an ox worth $800 will be required to pay $400; if it the victim was worth $1000 or more, he would have to pay $500.  Once an ox has killed three times in three days (as verified by witnesses in court), however, he becomes a "mu'ad"; the owner will henceforth be required to pay full damages with no limiting cap.

So Ralph goes to Leon to rent an ox.  He sees one that looks very energetic (aka lebadich) in the "tahm" coral and rents him for a week.  During that week, the ox kills Ralph's neighbor's ox.  Leon then reveals that the ox he rented to Ralph is actually a mu'ad!  Ralph is incensed.  When the dust settles, Ralph is obligated to pay half (limited by the value of the attack ox he rented) and Leon will have to make up the difference.  The fact that the ox was under the control of Ralph when he attacked does not seem to make any difference; his violent nature is responsible.
Nature 1; Nurture 0.

Next time, Ralph is a more educated consumer and confirms that the ox he rents from Leon is a tahm (though still lebadich).  Ralph, however, is not such a straight shooter either; the ox gores three times in three days while rented by Ralph and certified mu'ad by a court of law.  Ralph returns the animal, which a week or two later kills another ox.  The victim wants full damages.  Nope.  When the ox left Leon it was a tahm, when it was under the control of Ralph, it became a mu'ad, when it was returned to Leon it reverted to its tahm status.  The change of control in leaving Ralph and returning to Leon also changed the status of the ox from mu'ad (back) to tahm.
Nature 0; Nurture 1.

So which is it?  The beginning case says nature (aka, r'shus eina m'shana), the ending case says nurture (aka, r'shus m'shana).  You are welcome to check out the gemara (Bava Kama 40b), Rashi, Tosofos, Me'iri, Rashba, and Art Scroll; all of whom weigh in.  Or you can check back here tomorrow, b'ezras HaShem; of the next few days if there is lesss heavenly help coming that I hope for.


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