The Goast as Armed Robber in the Ancient Land of Israel  Nogah Hareuveni

graphic Hebrew text

"R. Hanina ben Dosa had some goats and was told,
'Your goats are damaging people's property.'" [1]


Although goat's milk was widely used as a remedy for a chest cold (Proverbs 27:27), the rabbis frowned upon the rearing of goats. Goats were regarded as "armed robbers who would jump over people's fences and destroy their plants (see illustration below).[2] Although sheep and goats both belong to the category of small cattle called (tzon) in Hebrew, there is a marked difference in the grazing habits of each species. Sheep crop at an even height several centimeters above ground level. The goat, on the other hand, not only crops much closer to the ground, but also tears leaves, buds and fruit off trees.

A Greek inscription prohibiting the breeding of goats has been uncovered at Heracleas. So, too, is the goat's unsavory reputation clearly expressed in the New Testament: According to a reference to the Day of Judgment in Matthew 25 – "When the Son of Man comes... he will separate men into two groups, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left...."

During the destruction of the second Temple (70 CE) and the terrible wars that devastated the Land of Israel in the ensuing years, much of the fertile land was turned into desert wasteland. Unavoidable conflict arose between the shepherds who took advantage of the increase in thickets and forests, and the landowners who wanted to reclaim their fields for cultivation. The rabbis issued strict injunctions regarding the grazing of both sheep and goats to help overcome these conflicts and to restore the destroyed agricultural base. "Sheep and goats are not to be raised in the land of Israel but are permitted in the desert located in Judea and in the desert bordering Acco [Acre]." [3] Acco is located in the lower western Galilee, an area not familiar to us today as being associated with desert; clearly during the period after the destruction of the Second Temple, this once-fertile area had been transformed into desert, fit only for grazing.

goats
Detail from David Roberts' painting of Nazareth, 1830s
Click to view detail enlarged

An incident related in the Talmud vividly illustrates how meticulous the sages were in following the ruling concerning the raising of sheep and goats only in the desert and thickets.

His disciples asked Rabban Gamliel [of Yavne, Land of Israel, late first century] whether it is permitted to breed sheep or goats. He replied: It is permitted. But did we not learn: It is forbidden [outside the specified regions]? What they actually asked us is this: May it be kept around temporarily for an immediate need? He said to them: It is permissible, provided it does not go out to pasture with the flock, but is fastened to the bedpost.

Our rabbis taught: There was once a certain pious person who suffered from heart trouble, and the physicians said the only hope for his recovery was for him to suck warm milk every morning. A goat was therefore brought to him and fastened to the leg of the bed, and he sucked from it every morning. After some days his colleagues came to visit him, but as soon as they noticed the goat fastened to the legs of the bed they turned back and said: An armed robber is in the house of this man, how can we come to see him: They thereupon sat down and inquired into his conduct, but they did not find any fault in him except this sin of the goat.... [4]

goat tied to the bed

In a later passage in the Talmud, Rav Yosef (early fourth century, Babylon) said: "He who dreams of a goat, his year will be blessed; he who dreams about goats, his years shall be blessed, as it is written (Proverbs 27:27): 'The goats' milk will suffice for your food.'"[5]  Rav Yosef, who taught in Babyon more than 200 years after Rabban Gamliel, has no negative associations with the goat. Focusing on the Biblical verse in Proverbs, he has no reason to infer anything relating to daily livelihood problems in the Land of Israel.

Epilogue

After the destruction of the country's agriculture, especially following the Muslim conquest, goats were imported to Erez Yisrael, and they increased in number. Some maintain that they were responnsible for the erosion of the land by ruining the terraces, destroying the natural vegetation, and creating fissures on the slopes. The eroded soil was deposited in the valleys, blocking the flow of rivers to the sea and forming marches such as those of the Valley of Jezreel, which were drained by Jews only in the 20th century. Even now, goats, still kept in large numbers by the Bedouin population, cause great damage to Israel natural woods by chewing the young shoots, thereby preventing them from growing to full height. In the 1940s, the Jewish settlers introduced into the country the white European goat, distinguished for its yield of milk.

(From the Encyclopedia Judaica, Keter Publications, 1973)

footnotes

[1] BT Taanit 25a [back]
[2] BT Baba Kama 80a,b [back]
[3] BT, Baba Kama 79b [back]
[4] Baba Kama 80b [back]
[5] Berakhot 57a [back]

excerpted
From Nogah Hareuveni. Desert and Shepherd in our Biblical Heritage. Translated from the Hebrew and adapted by Helen Frenkley. 1991 by Neot Kedumim, the Biblical Landscape Reserve (Israel). By permission of the publisher.

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