Screen Time – Shtisel – and An Ox that Gored a Cow

There is a lot of buzz lately about the dangers of screen time, too much social media, its connection to anxiety and depression and even suicide and beyond. (I know for myself, I took the Facebook app off my phone (one month today) requiring me to either go onto Facebook on my browser, slow and glitchy, or do it on a PC or IPad, and I simply don’t get around to it much. Hours have been added to my day and life. Here is the greatest shocker, I don’t think I’ve missed much. (If I’ve missed your birthday another significant event, and you only posted it to Facebook, please don’t be offended, I most likely didn’t see it.)

You’d wonder what the Talmud written over 1500 years ago might have to say on the topic. The truth is, as our sages say (Ethics of our Fathers), “Delve into it, delve into it (referring to the Torah) for everything is in it” rings very true here as well.

If you’ve ever peeked in on a yeshiva or cheder classroom, (or if you’ve been watching a little too much Shitsel) you may have run into the a few students singing to one another, about a Shor Shenogach es Haparah – if an ox gored a cow, and the ensuing tort laws.

However, as outdated as these laws may seem, the laws of an ox goring a cow actually have some deep lessons to teach us. How? Follow me here a bit…

Here is a concise summary of the laws. (Bava Kama 37a) A normally docile animal – an ox for example – has a presumption of being docile, domesticated and safe. As such, if it breaks from its normal habit, and attacks and maims/kills another animal – a cow for example, it is not considered the full fault of the owner (different from American law where you are always responsible for damage done by your possessions)) for what should he have done different? Put it on a leash? Lock it up in a pen? There was no reason to assume it would commit any damage. It’s bad luck for both parties, and the law is they must divide the pain. They split the cost of the damages.

If, however, the ox gored 3 times, it is now considered a muad, a violent animal, and it loses its presumption of docility. Now the owner must put it on a leash, or lock it the barn or whatever is needed to keep it from maiming/killing other animals. If he does not put adequate protections in place, and it goes out and harms another animal/property, the owner is considered to be negligent and must pay the entirety of the damages. 

This is the gist of the laws. 

There is however an interesting exception. You can have a scenario where the ox can be docile all week, but be considered a violent and dangerous animal on Shabbos. This would happen, if it gores three times, and each time is on Shabbos, then it is now considered a muad, a violent animal but only for Shabbos. Thus, Sunday through Friday it is a docile animal, and on Shabbos it is now considered a muad/violent animal.

Why? What could be the meaning and reason for such a strange exception to the general law?

There are many commentaries that explain this, however Rashi, the quintessential commentator,  explains, that the reason is boredom. Since a Jewish animal owner must let his animal rest on Shabbos, and it cannot plow or do other things to allow it to blow off steam and express its animal self, the animal is bored. When it is bored and doesn’t know what to do with itself, it acts out, and often violently.

Thus you have an animal can be considered docile all week, except for Shabbos when it is bored.

Do you see where this is going?

Let me help: All of us has a little animal inside of us. It is often known as the animal soul. Not a bad soul, but a self-centered and self-oriented, self-aggrandizing part of ourselves. It has a proclivity towards bad things, but doesn’t necessarily act on it.

We also have times when we suddenly find ourselves bored and often that causes us to act out.

Try this experiment at home. Take your teen’s (or younger -oy vey) cell phone away for an hour at any random time. See what happens?

If you get lucky, they will start to do the dishes, or perhaps fold some laundry. OK or Okay Ok, just kidding, that is not happening, no fantasies here, but perhaps they may draw, read a book or some other healthy way to spend this sudden free/bored time.

More likely they will start to flip out.

Confession time: When I inadvertently leave home without my phone, it feels like I left a limb at home. It takes a long time for me to rid myself of that feeling that I left a limb at home. Why? Why is this? The simple answer is, that we’ve lost the art of just being. 

Just being present, mindful with ourselves and our thoughts. If I, who remembers a time pre-cell phones, struggles with this, then children who have no recollection of a time before phones, Facebook and the all-knowing Google, who can blame them?

So what then is the solution? And how do we manage every Shabbos, going offline for 24 25 hours?

I believe the answer is the same. 

Let’s get back to the ox that gored the cow. Can it regain its status as a docile animal once it earned a title of damager? 

The Talmud teaches us that it required intense re-training. Animal anger-management classes. Thorough behavioral modifications, to the point that it loses that angst within and can become calm again. Teaching it to find something productive to fill those empty spaces of time and times of angst so that it can find another healthier outlet for that overwhelming passion flowing through its veins.

Similarly, us with our inner-animal and our inability to free ourselves from our screen time. We must put our inner-animal through intense retraining. More importantly, to teach ourselves to replace the device with something else that fills that hole of existence that exists within all of us.

For myself, personally, I began a study regiment of the Talmud nearly 5 years ago, that requires me to study a designated amount every day, so that I can finish the Talmud in just under 8 years. It is burden, but one that keeps me focused. I have a default, go to position when my device is unavailable. 

Apple phones, now have a feature called screen time, where you can monitor your usages of each specific app, and more importantly, you can put limits on each of them. Allow yourself some time, but then, like any good diet, put restrictions on yourself. 

Replace that time with something filling.

You can’t stop smoking, without replacing that time and feeling with something else, like exercise.

You can’t stop eating unhealthy, without replacing that garbage food with good and filling healthy food.

You can’t replace that device (which feels like your best friend, that only smiles at you and tells you good things about yourself, (it is better than a dog, it doesn’t need to be fed or cleaned-up after)) without replacing it with something meaningful that helps you feel just as good.

For us, it is Shabbos. Yes, there is some detox time and pain. There are times when Shabbos observers struggle without their technology on Shabbos, but with time, they learn to make it habit and even enjoy it.

And so, when you think about an ox goring a cow and all its associated laws, and think this is an outdated useless piece of data, you can now realize that everything in our eternal Torah has a practical application. 

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