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What Is A Sheep?
‘If It…Does Not Possess Three Vertebrae’
(Bechoros 40b)



Our mishnah lists various animals and discusses their fitness as sacrifices if they are missing various organs. It states that sheep without tails and at least three vertebrae are considered defective.


A Merino Lacks a Fat Tail

The sheep of the Torah have tails and are often offered as sacrifices. We read, for example, “If he offers a sheep…and he shall offer from the shelamim…the whole tail” (Vayikra 3:7-9). Today, however, some species of sheep lack a tail (alyah). One of the most prevalent species is the Merino, which originates 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, the Merino lacks a tail. So is it a sheep according to the Torah? Can we weave tzitzis from its wool? Can we observe the mitzvah of the “first shearing” with it? Does the prohibition of shaatnez pertain to it? Can it be offered as a sacrifice?


Environmental Changes

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt”l (Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 4:123), proves from the Gemara (Bava Kama 55a) that changes that occur in animals due to changes in location and climate do not change their identity. Rabbi Shmuel HaLevi Wosner (Shevet HaLevi 8:236) reaches a similar conclusion.

Sheep Taller than Camels

He adds that in Tosafos (Menachos 87a, s.v. She’gov’han) we find mention of sheep offered for the korban tamid that were taller than camels! We thus see that even sheep differing from the norm are considered sheep in every respect.

He wonders, though, if a sheep is called a sheep if it doesn’t have a tail considering the mishnah’s statement about a sheep without a tail being defective. Perhaps, he writes, a sheep is only defective if it uniquely doesn’t have a tail. If its entire species, though, doesn’t have a tail due to changes in its nature, perhaps it isn’t defective.

He concludes his discussion by citing a wonderful comment of the Malbim. In the Torah, a sheep is sometimes called a “keves” and sometimes a “kesev.” The Malbim says it is called a keves because its wool can be laundered (kovess) and is used to produce cloth, and it is called kesev because it is strong (“kes av” – “you have grown fat,” owing to its tail, which is big and fat).

The Malbim points out that it is called a kesev only where the Torah indicates that one should offer its tail. In other contexts, the word keves is used. That indicates, says Rabbi Wosner, that the name keves also befits a sheep without a tail. Therefore, for all matters other than sacrifices, a sheep without a tail is a sheep in every respect.


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Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at