By Gil Marks
Cattle ("bakar" in Hebrew), the generic term for domesticated bovine, were valued in prehistoric nomadic life as well as integral elements of rudimentary civilization, depicted in the earliest Sumerian and Egyptian inscriptions. There are two species of the Bovidae family of particular importance to contemporary humans: Bos taurus, which originated in the eastern Mediterranean area and includes all breeds of western cattle, and Bos indicus, a native of India, characterized by a hump, encompassing the zebu or Brahman. Close relatives include buffalo, bison, and yak. Another branch of the family, not as considered by some to be the ancestor of domesticated cattle, the even larger wild European aurochs (Bos primigenius), became extinct when the last one was killed in Poland in 1627.
Many urban dwellers currently think of cows as docile, even comical figures. On the contrary, they can be quite dangerous, as any cowboy or bullfighter will attest. Even among domesticated oxen, the not uncommon occurrence of being gored or trampled by them resulted in severe injury or death (Exodus 21:28). The still bigger and always fearsome wild bulls were once the largest and most powerful animals throughout many parts of the ancient world. The Midrash (i.e. Genesis Rabbah 31:13 and Midrash Tehillim 22:25) recounted several tales about the r'em ("wild bull," derived from the root "height"), probably referring to the untamable aurochs. Tradition focused special poetic emphasis on the might of its horns (Deuteronomy 33:17, Numbers 23:22,24:8, Job 33:9, Psalms 92:11, 22:22, 29:6).
The term ox ("shor" in Hebrew) refers to a domesticated bull or cow used for work. In order to yield more manageable and even larger animals, male oxen were commonly castrated, a practice forbidden under Jewish law. The average domesticated bull grows to 8 to 12 feet long and 36 to 44 inches high and weighs 1000 to 2200 pounds (90 to 110 cm).
Although most Westerners tend to think of beef, the meat of cattle over the age of nine months, in terms of dining, this was not the primary reason that these creatures were originally considered so valuable. Around 2625 BCE, Egyptians began maintaining records of cattle, including their use for milk, hides, tallow, meat, sport, and particularly for draft purposes. Humans have used very few animals in agriculture and for most of history the single most important one was the mighty ox. With the advent of rudimentary irrigation systems during the late Stone Age, which dramatically increased the amount of cultivated land, cattle became all the more significant. Oxen not only plowed the fields, but also turned the wheels that drew water from canals and wells, hauled the harvest in carts from the field, carried items on its back, and provided fertilizer for the crops.
In the warmer climates around the Mediterranean Sea and in parts of the Near East, they could be fed year round for free on the plentiful supply of wild grass. In addition, before the advent of money, cattle, along with sheep and goats, formed the earliest medium of exchange. In essence, bulls provided a low maintenance as well as self-perpetuating tractor, truck, pump, soil revitalizer, and currency. If the modern world operates on horsepower, the ancient one ran on ox power. Thus the Torah established that if someone stole an ox, thereby seriously effecting the victim's livelihood, he must pay back "five oxen for an ox (Exodus 21:37)," a fine levied exclusively for this particular animal. The ox, along with the other ancient beast of burden, the donkey, are singled out for being allowed to rest on Shabbat (Exodus 23:12). Although eventually horses supplanted oxen in a few areas and technology replaced animal power in the industrialized regions, in some parts of the world bulls remain the primary draft animals. In any case, domesticated oxen served as one of the predominant agents in the development of early civilization, while massive wild bulls inspired awe and admiration.
Considering the physical power, economic importance, and sexual prowess of cattle, it is hardly surprising that polytheistic people worshiped them. Egyptians counted the bull among its most important gods and venerated the black Apis bull of Memphis, regarded as the reincarnation of Ptah, the creator and god of fertility. Thus in Pharaoh's dream healthy cattle, the instruments of plowing and symbol of potency, represented the period of fecundity (Genesis 41:1-4) and the name Potiphar, head of the guards, meant "bull of Africa" or "massive bull" (Genesis 39:1), reflecting his powerful status. Sin, the moon-god of Ur, Abraham's home, was depicted as a bull and subsequently bull gods guarded the entrances to Babylonian temples and houses. The head of the Canaanite pantheon, El, the god of fertility, frequently called "the Bull El," was frequently pictured riding an ox. The infamous worship of the god Molech (Leviticus 18:21) involved rolling children into a fire through the hollow center of bronze statues shaped in the image of a man with a bull's head. Baal, the most popular of the pagan gods and one adopted by the Philistines, was also commonly portrayed as a bull.
Thus the additional level of meaning when Elijah produced heavenly fire to consume the water-drench bull offering, while the priests of Baal, the bull god, failed in their attempts (I Kings 18:303-40). The Mithraic cult spread from Persia to become the most popular ancient religion 2,000 years ago and the predominant one of imperial Rome. Its induction rites involved killing bulls, after which male initiates were sprinkled with and drank its blood and consumed its flesh in order to absorb its power and be reborn in the afterlife with Mithras, who created the world by killing a bull. Obviously, the association of creation and divine forces with the bull, more than any other creature, pervaded the ancient world.
The Torah, which mentioned cattle hundreds of times, contained numerous examples of the importance of these animals in ancient Israel. Indeed, alef, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, means an ox. The Patriarchs, in addition to their flocks, also owned cattle, a sign of their wealth. The tribes of Rueben and Gad opted to reside on the east bank of the Jordan River, its vast pastureland ideal for their massive herds. David pled to be delivered from, "Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me (Psalms 22:13), a praise of God despite imminent danger as represented by the bulls. (The cattle of Bashan, Transjordan, were considered stronger than other ancient breeds.) As the tribes settled in Canaan and adapted to agriculture, cattle became even more essential to them and their way of life. Thus "So he (Elijah) departed thence, and found Elisha the son of Shapat, who was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen before him, and he with the twelfth (I Kings 19:19)." In the basic civil laws of Israel laid out in the Mishpatim (Exodus 21-23), oxen are mentioned a total of twenty times.
Whereas Egyptians and Canaanites worshipped the bull, among the Israelites it was merely admired for and sometimes employed as a symbol of power and utility. Moses described the tribes of Joseph, reflecting their fertility and strength, as, "His firstling bull, majesty is his; and his horns are the horns of the wild bull (Deuteronomy 33:17)." Similarly, the force of the act of bringing the Israelites out of Egypt is compared "for them like the lofty horns of the wild bull (Numbers 23:22)."
The most noticeable feature of the bronze altar (Exodus 27:2), the outer platform of the sanctuary's courtyard, was that keranot ("horns") shaped like those of a bull projected from its four corners. These protrusions were hardly mere ornamentation, as a little of the offering's blood, which represents life, was put on them (Leviticus 4:25,30). In addition, the large bronze wash basin of Solomon's Temple was placed on a pedestal consisting of 12 bronze bulls (I Kings 7:25). As elsewhere in Jewish tradition, horns, more specifically bull horns, represented power and salvation, "You are they glory of their strength; and in Your favor our horn is exalted (Psalms 89:18)." Which is why Samuel used a horn of oil to anoint David as king (I Samuel 16:13) and the same symbol was employed for the messiah, "There I will make the horn of David to flower (Psalms 132:17)." The connection of cattle to the Messianic Age was amplified in the Midrash with the Shor ha-bor, the great ox that would be part of the meal for the righteous in the Time to Come.
Which brings us to the parsha of Yitro, most noted for the giving of the Ten Commandments. The subject immediately after the revelation on Sinai involved several seemingly unrelated verses, including, "You shall make an alter of earth for Me, and sacrifice on it your burnt-offerings and your peace-offerings, your sheep and your cattle (Exodus 20:21)." From the onset, the Israelites were warned about the dangers of deifying important and powerful elements in their life, of transforming means into ends. This is precisely why the injunction to the Israelites of the use of sheep and cows in sacrifices is adjoined to the verse, "You shall not make with Me -- gods of silver, or gods of gold, you shall not make for you (Exodus 20:20)." Notice the wording "with Me," warning against the representation of the Divinity with symbols. The various horn and bovine references in Jewish lore were metaphors, not a surrogate for God, and the people had to be careful to keep it that way.
Of course, sometimes the line between symbol and substitute was crossed, most notably by the Golden Calf. Perhaps the calf represented the oracle of the Apis bull, desired to predict the future and lead the way with Moses seemingly missing. This episode is echoed in the 10th century BCE, when Jeroboam, first king of Israel (I Kings 12:28), "made two calves of gold; and he said to them: 'You have gone up long enough to Jerusalem, behold your gods, O Israel, which brought you out of the land of Egypt.'" Interestingly, the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 26a) forbade using a cow's horn to fulfill the commandment of shofar, partially because it is called a "keren" (horn) instead of a shofar as well as its association with the Golden Calf, "the accuser cannot become the defender."
While in pagan religions animals were given for the god's sustenance and the entire animal destroyed, that was not the case in Judaism. Jewish sacrifice was primarily for thanksgiving, repentance, or reconciliation with God and, therefore, except for a few parts of the animal, most of the meat went to the giver or the priests. The animal was merely a physical manifestation of intent. Thus, "I will praise the name of God with a song, and will magnify Him with thanksgiving. And it shall please the Lord better than a bull that has horns and hoofs (Psalms 69:31-32)." It was truly the thought that counted.
Although sheep, goats, and doves were the usual animals sacrificed in the Temple, valuable cattle were called for on certain occasions. A bull was sacrificed to atone for national sins (Leviticus 4:13-14) and priestly transgressions (Leviticus 4:3), the Cohanim serving as the means of offering the various sacrifices. When Solomon dedicated the Temple, a national event, he offered, "a thousand young bulls, a thousand rams, a thousand lambs, with their drink offerings, and sacrifices in abundance for all Israel (I Chronicles 29:21)."
Two young bulls were brought on each day of Passover (Number 28:19-24) and on Shavuot (Numbers 28:26-29) and Rosh Chodesh (the New Moon) (Numbers 28:11-14), all offered for the nation. Seventy bulls were offered during the course of the holiday of Sukkot (Numbers 29:12-38), corresponding to the nations of the world and the 70 names descended from Noah (Genesis 10). Each of these circumstances of offering a bull involved national or universal repentance or redemption, calling on the power of God for salvation. Thus when symbols and sacrifices are used properly, the final portion of the sentence directing the building of an altar comes into effect, "in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you (Exodus 20:21)." The perversion of symbols and sacrifices, which often came in the form of a bull in the ancient world, led to disaster, including of the exile of the northern tribes of Israel and eventually to the destruction of the First Temple.
Here are a few traditional beef
(6 to 10 servings)
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (175 C).
2. Rub both sides of the meat with salt, pepper, and if desired, mustard. Spread half of the onions over bottom of a shallow roasting pan. Place the brisket, fat-side up, in the pan and top with the remaining onions. Add ¼ cup water. Bake, uncovered and basting occasionally, until the meat and onions begin to brown (about 1 hour).
3. Add the remaining water and remaining ingredients. (The liquid should never reach more than halfway up the side of the meat.) Cover, reduce the heat to 300 degrees or place over a low flame, and cook until the meat is fork-tender and the thickest part of the brisket registers about 175 degrees on a meat thermometer (2 to 3 hours -- allow about 1 hour total cooking time per pound).
Cover the brisket loosely with foil and let stand 20 minutes before
carving. (Brisket may be
prepared up to 2 days ahead and reheated.)
Slice the brisket diagonally against grain about 1/8-inch thick.
(6 to 8 servings)
1. Pat the roast dry. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a 4-quart Dutch oven or roaster over medium-high heat. Add the beef and brown on all sides (about 20 minutes). Remove the roast.
2. Stir in the onion, carrots, celery and garlic and sauté until soft (5 to 10 minutes). Add the desired herbs and paprika and stir briefly. If desired, stir in the tomato paste and cook until slightly darkened (2 to 3 minutes).
3. Add the wine and stock, stirring to remove any browned particles. Add the bay leaf, salt and pepper. Return the beef, cover and bring to a simmer on top of the stove.
4. Place in a 350-degree oven or simmer over a low heat, turning occasionally, until fork tender (2½ to 3½ hours). (The roast may be prepared up to this point up to 2 days in advance, cooled, covered and stored in the refrigerator before reheating.)
5. Remove from the heat and let sit for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, strain the cooking liquid, pressing the solids. Slice the meat against the grain and serve with the gravy.
Dinsztelt Marhahus (Hungarian Pot Roast): Reduce the stock to 1¼ cups and add ¾ cup tomato juice. Serve with potato dumplings or egg noodles.
Essig Fleisch (Ashkenazic Ginger
Pot Roast): When the meat is tender, add 1/3 cup lemon juice, 4 crushed
gingersnaps and 3 tablespoons brown sugar and cook about 10 minutes. Or after cooking the beef for 2 hours, add 1 cup raisins
soaked in 1 cup wine, 3 tablespoon tomato paste, 2 tablespoons brown sugar,
and 2 tablespoons lemon juice or vinegar.
(4 to 5 servings)
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Heat the oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat.
2. Dust the ribs with flour, shaking off excess. Brown on all sides in the hot oil. Remove the ribs.
3. Add the onion, celery, garlic and if desired, carrots and sauté until soft (about 5 minutes). Stir in the stock, herb, bay leaf, salt and pepper. Return the ribs, bring to a boil, cover, place in the oven and bake until the meat is fork tender (2 to 2½ hours). Cool, then refrigerate.
4. Skim the fat from the surface. Place in a 325-degree oven and bake, uncovered, until heated through (about 30 minutes).
Short Ribs Braised in Wine:
Substitute 1 cup dry red wine and 1 cup tomato sauce for the stock.
(5 to 6 servings)
Middle Eastern and Balkan beef stews are distinctive due to a base of olive oil and tomatoes and flavorings of parsley and lemon juice.
1. Heat the oil in a large, heavy pot over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until soft and translucent (5 to 10 minutes). Add the beef and brown on all sides (about 20 minutes).
2. Add the tomatoes, garlic, sugar and enough liquid to just cover meat. Bring the stew to a boil, cover, and simmer over a low heat or cook in a 325-degree oven, stirring occasionally, until the meat is almost tender (about 2 hours).
3. Add the parsley and lemon juice, season with salt and pepper to taste, and simmer until the meat is tender (about 30 minutes). The stew can be prepared up to 3 days ahead and stored in the refrigerator.
Fijones con Carne (Sephardic Beef and Bean Stew): Add 1 pound dried white beans soaked in water overnight. (NOTES - Do not add the alt until after the beans are tender. The beans will absorb much of the cooking liquid.)
Kebab con Garvanos (Sephardic Beef Stew with Chickpeas): Add 4 cups cooked chickpeas with the parsley.
Kebab y Muez (Greek Beef Stew with Walnuts): Omit the tomatoes and increase the water accordingly; and add 1 cup chopped walnuts with the lemon juice. (NOTE - The nuts absorb much of the liquid.)
Gil Marks is the author of the James Beard Award finalist The World of Jewish Cooking, The World of Jewish Entertaining, and The World of Jewish Desserts. Send comments and requests to email@example.com.