Latest update: May 27th, 2013
What Is A Sheep?
‘If It…Does Not Possess Three Vertebrae’
Our mishnah lists various physical defects which make certain animals unfit to be brought as sacrifices in the Beit Hamikdash. One of them is a sheep lacking a tail and possessing less than three vertebrae.
A Merino Lacks a Fat Tail
The sheep we are familiar with all have an alyah, which the Torah commands us to offer on the altar (Vayikra 3:7-9): “If he offers a sheep…and he shall offer from the shelamim…the whole alyah.”
One of the most prevalent species of sheep today is the Merino, originating in Spain. It constitutes about 20 percent of the sheep population in the world and is very much in demand due to the fine quality of its fleecy, curly wool. However, these sheep lack an alyah. We might ask, then, whether this sheep is included in the Torah’s discussions of sheep. For example, can we weave tzitzis from its wool? Can we observe the mitzvah of the first shearing with it? Does the prohibition of sha’atnez pertain to it? Can these sheep be offered as sacrifices?
Changes Due to the Environment Do Not Alter an Animal’s Classification
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt”l (Igros Moshe, O.C. 4:123) proves from a gemara (Bava Kama 55a) that changes which have occurred in animals due to changes in location and climate do not change their classification. Rabbi Shmuel HaLevi Wosner (Shevet HaLevi 8:236) reinforces this argument by pointing out that the Torah only mentions three species of pure domestic animals: sheep, goats and cattle. Since these animals are pure and most of their features resemble those of sheep, they are considered sheep in every respect though their nature has changed because of the environment or the like.
Sheep Taller than Camels
Rabbi Wosner adds that Tosafos (Menachos 87a, s.v. “She’gov’han”) note that the sheep offered for the tamid sacrifice were taller than camels! We thus see that even sheep differing from those we are familiar with nowadays were considered sheep in every respect. He writes, however, that one could argue that sheep without an alyah might still be unfit for the altar since our mishnah explains that a sheep without an alyah is defective. On the other hand, he writes, it could be that only individual sheep differing from their entire species in not having an alyah are considered defective. Sheep, on the other hand, that do not have an alyah because the nature of their entire species has changed might not be considered defective.
Rabbi Wosner concludes his responsum by citing a wonderful and exact study by the Malbim. Sometimes the Torah calls a sheep a keves and sometimes it calls it a kesev. The Malbim says it is called a keves because its wool can be laundered (kovess) and used to produce cloth. On the other hand, its name kesev derives from the strength of its body: kes av, as in “you have grown fat” (avisa kasisa), and this is owing to its alyah, which is big and fat. The Malbim says we should notice that it is called a kesev only where the Torah indicates that one should offer the alyah. Rabbi Wosner says that we thus learn that the name keves befits a sheep without an alyah whereas the name kesev only befits a sheep with an alyah. Therefore, regarding other halachos other than sacrifices, where there is a doubt, a sheep without an alyah is considered a sheep in every respect.
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