What level of care does the owner of an animal need to provide in order to be perceived as having done what is required of him?
The Mishna presents situations where basic precautions were in place – the animal was tied up or was in an enclosed area – situations where the animal would ordinarily be kept from getting loose, but can get loose if it tries. In those kinds of situations we find three opinions on this matter if the animal escapes and causes damage:
- Rabbi Me’ir rules that the owner of both a shor tam (an animal with no violent history) and a shor mu’ad (an animal that has been violent in the past) would be held responsible.
- Rabbi Yehuda rules that only the owner of a shor tam will be held responsible; the owner of a shor mu’ad will not have to pay
- Rabbi Eliezer states that the only appropriate precaution for an ox is a knife (i.e. a shor mu’ad is always considered dangerous and a responsible owner should arrange to have it slaughtered).
In explanation of these positions, Rabbi Me’ir is understood to demand a high level of shemira – guarding the animal – and the standard precautions taken in the situation presented by the Mishna are not adequate to be considered a full shemira. Thus, the owner is held fully responsible. Rabbi Eliezer appears to be even more demanding, although one explanation of his opinion suggests that he would agree that a high level shemira would be sufficient to free the owner of a monetary obligation; he is concerned with heavenly issues – beyond simple issues of payment and restitution – when he suggests that the animal must be killed.
Rabbi Yehuda’s position is the most challenging to explain since he rules that the owner of a non-violent animal will be held responsible even more than a violent one. The Gemara explains that this ruling is based on the passage that states that the owner of a shor mu’ad will be held responsible if the animal was not guarded (see Shemot 21:29), implying that even minimal shemira will suffice. In way of explanation, the Me’iri suggests that since people recognize the shor mu’ad as a dangerous animal they know that they must stay away from it, which lowers the owner’s responsibility as far as shemira is concerned.