Does the Torah Prohibit Castrating Animals?
A Vague Prohibition of Gelding
According to Jewish Law, the castration of animals is forbidden. This prohibition finds its source in Leviticus 22:24, in connection with animals unfit for sacrifice. To put it in context, the unit Leviticus 22:17-25 dictates that when a person offers animal sacrifices from the flock or herd, it must not have a blemish (מום).
- Verse 22 says it cannot be blind, or have a broken limb or a skin irregularity.
- Verse 23 deals with abnormally short or long limbs.
- Verse 24, the focus of this discussion, describes increasingly severe degrees of testicular damage,
וּמָעוּךְ וְכָתוּת וְנָתוּק וְכָרוּת לֹא תַקְרִיבוּ לַי-הוָה וּבְאַרְצְכֶם לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ.
You shall not offer to YHWH anything bruised or crushed or torn or cut; and in your land you shall not do thus.
Note that the second half of the verse adds a new point about not doing “thus” in your land.”
- Verse 25 tells us that even if the blemished sacrifice comes from a foreigner, it must not be offered and will not be acceptable.
It’s easy to overlook the idea that v. 24 constitutes a prohibition of gelding, and indeed it wasn’t until a few years ago, when I had a rather difficult (intact) male dog, that I became interested in the Scriptural basis of Judaism’s ban on castration.
Firstly, the referent of the body part that is “bruised or crushed or torn or cut” – the animal’s testicles – is missing from the verse, and the second part of the verse, “and in your land you shall not do [this],” doesn’t even say what you shall not do! Despite its ambiguity, Jewish tradition understands this half-verse as a blanket ban on the castration of animals and humans, not only in the Land of Israel, but outside of it as well.
Most modern translations view v.24b, “and in your land you shall not do thus,” as a reiteration of v.24a, thus emphasizing the ban of sacrificing animals with damaged sexual organs. The Revised Standard Version, for example, translates it, “Any animal which has its testicles bruised or crushed or torn or cut, you shall not offer to the LORD or sacrifice within your land.” Other versions leave the object of v.24b’s prohibition as vague as in the Hebrew. For example, the New Century Version translates the second half of the verse, “You must not do this in your land,” so the reader is unsure whether it is the sacrifice of mutilated animals or the mutilating itself that is taboo. In fact, though some commentators do discuss the possibility of a castration ban, most commentaries on Leviticus do not even mention it.
Some translations, however, do understand the line to prohibit gelding. For example, the NJPS writes: “You shall not offer to the LORD anything [with its testes] bruised or crushed or torn or cut. You shall have no such practices in your land.” The footnote adds that the practice intended is mutilation. God’s Word translation, a Christian evangelical publication, is similarly explicit with, “Never bring the LORD an animal that has bruised, crushed, torn out, or cut out testicles. Never do any of these things to an animal in your land.”
Jewish Tradition – Torah Does not Repeat Itself
When we consider the bifurcated nature of the verse and the non-specificity of the second half (“You shall not offer to YHWH anything bruised or crushed or torn or cut // And in your land you shall not do thus”), it is not surprising that modern scholars imagine that the second half is just a reiteration of the first.
Jewish tradition, however, assumes that the Torah is never repetitious or redundant because it is divine speech. James Kugel calls this “the doctrine of omnisignificance,” whereby nothing in Torah is said in vain or for rhetorical flourish. Therefore, the second half of the verse must have a different referent than the first half, and can’t be just repeating the general ban on sacrificing mutilated animals. That ancient Jewish sources assumed that v.24b serves as a supplement to v.24a rather than just a reiteration is not surprising.
Josephus, for instance, states explicitly that it is forbidden to geld “men or any other animals” (Ant. 4.8:80). This interpretation is also found in Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, which translates v.24b as “in your land you shall not castrate”  (בארעכון לא תסרסון). In the Babylonian Talmud, Ben Zoma, a 2nd century tanna, is asked if it is permitted to castrate a dog, and he answers (b. Hagiga 14b),
בארצכם לא תעשו – כל שבארצכם לא תעשו.
“In your land you shall not do” – This means to none that is in your land shall you do thus.
Impracticality of the “Gelding Prohibition” Interpretation
Gelding enhances the value of male cattle for a number of reasons:
- Docility – Oxen are more docile; they can be trained more easily to pull a plow or cart or thresh grain. They are less prone to gore or violently attempt to copulate with a nearby cow. Bulls were difficult to discipline and demanded vigilance on the part of their owners.
- Breeding – For the purpose of inseminating cows, one bull was all that was needed for a herd of 40 cows. Further, castration was utilized to prevent inferior males from passing on their undesirable traits.
- Food – Oxen also grow larger than bulls and their meat, supposedly, is better for eating.
These factors suggest that a ban on castration in ancient Israel would have been very problematic economically and may reflect the unrealistic urban perspective of rabbinic interpreters who were divorced from agricultural life. Jacob Milgrom therefore rejects the traditional interpretation, claiming that gelding was essential in animal husbandry.
Further, the verb עשה is used in sacrificial texts in the sense of “offer” or “prepare.”Therefore, both textual and pragmatic factors work against the post-biblical interpretation of the verse. Nevertheless, I believe that the “gelding prohibition” interpretation has merit and may very well be correct.
Large Cattle in the Bible
It is true that the Bible clearly indicates that the Israelite farmer used large cattle as draft animals draft animals for pulling carts or plows and threshing grain. Proverbs 14:4 says:
בְּאֵין אֲלָפִים אֵבוּס בָּר וְרָב תְּבוּאוֹת בְּכֹחַ שׁוֹר.
If there are no alaphim the crib is clean; but a rich harvest comes through the strength of the shor.
Nevertheless, Biblical Hebrew makes no distinction in terms between the castrated male and the intact one; in other words, terms such as aluph, shor, baqar, and par don’t allow us to know if they were castrated. (The terminology in English – ox, steer, and bull – is more specific: the former two are castrated, and the third, not.)
The Value of Gelding Bulls
In addition, Milgrom’s point that the prohibition is problematic since farmers had incentive to geld their animals, cuts both ways. Prohibitions often forbid actions that people want to do but that the legislator finds objectionable. Thus, it is reasonable to suggest that the final phrase in v. 24 was coming to specifically prohibit gelding as something a farmer would be tempted to do but that the Torah is forbidding.
Note that this would be the only verse in this passage where a prohibition of inflicting a defect would make sense. The rest of the defects enumerated in vv.22-24 are congenital or the result of an injury that would offer no benefit to the owner. Genital mutilation is the only one that an owner might do because it enhances the value of the animal and thus the only one that might be in “need” of a prohibition.
Finally, the general decree that “in your land you shall not do” is not the usual way that the Priestly texts forbids an act previously interdicted. Instead, it sounds as if it is reflecting on the specific practice implied in the verse and forbidding it: “don’t bring a castrated animal as a sacrifice; in fact, don’t do this—i.e., castrate animals—at all.”
Considering the above, I suggest that the traditional reading is most likely the correct one.
Possible Consequences and Israelite Reception of a Castration Prohibition
If the Torah is indeed prohibiting the gelding of animals, what about the Israelite farmer’s need for draft animals like oxen?
Cows for Work – Bulls for Food and Sacrifices
In theory, it is possible that instead of oxen, cows – females – were used for traction, while the uncastrated males (bulls) were used for sacrifice and for eating. Leviticus 1:3 dictates that the ‘olah sacrifice be a male, because, as Milgrom notes, “the male animal is expendable.”
In fact, a possible consequence of a ban on castration would have been that Israelites ate more meat than scholars suppose. Most learned opinions on this subject suggest that ancient Israelites ate very little meat, perhaps only at festivals or special events, but a ban on castration would have made meat a more regular element in the Israelite’s diet. Even so, the percentage of male animals would be high; perhaps some animals were sold to non-Israelite communities in the land of Israel.
It is also likely that this is an example of idealistic legislation which may have not met with general compliance. It is hard to imagine that large-scale cattle inspection by Temple personnel would have been practiced to coerce observance. Rather, the individual’s conscience and community pressure would have motivated obedience, with some complying and others not.
It is possible that Israelites in the pre-exilic period, like their descendants, found various ways to circumvent the law while adhering to its literal meaning. Keep in mind that using an ox in the Land of Israel is not forbidden, only making one. Later Jewish law reflects the practice of obeying this prohibition while avoiding its full consequence. A Jew may not neuter his dog, nor have a gentile neuter it for him, but he may purchase a neutered canine.
The Babylonian Talmud mentions another way to circumvent the law (Baba Metzi’a 90a-90b):
תא שמע דשלחו ליה לאבוה דשמואל הלין תורי דגנבין ארמאי ומגנחין יתהון מהו שלח להו הערמה אתעביד בהו אערימו עלייהו ויזדבנון.
Come and hear: For they [the scholars] sent to Samuel’s father: What of those oxen which Aramaens steal [at the instance of the owners] and castrate? He replied: Since an evasion was committed with them, turn the evasion upon them [their owners], and let them be sold!
According to this text, some Jews of antiquity solicited non-Jews, to “steal” and castrate their cattle. Thus, rather than suffer the economic hardship caused by the high price of purchasing oxen and their inability to castrate their own cattle, attempted to circumvent the law by observing its letter but not its spirit.
Reasons for Prohibiting Castration
If Leviticus 22:24 constituted a ban on castration, how does that fit in the context of Israelite thought? Why would the Torah dictate this proscription? A number of possible reasons have been suggested.
Command of Proliferation
In Genesis 8:17, God directs land animals to proliferate on earth.
כָּל הַחַיָּה אֲשֶׁר אִתְּךָ מִכָּל בָּשָׂר בָּעוֹף וּבַבְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל הָרֶמֶשׂ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל הָאָרֶץ הוצא [הַיְצֵא] אִתָּךְ וְשָׁרְצוּ בָאָרֶץ וּפָרוּ וְרָבוּ עַל הָאָרֶץ.
Bring out with you every living thing of all flesh that is with you: birds, animals, and everything that creeps on earth; and let them swarm on the earth and be fertile and increase on earth.
Leviticus 22:24b may reflect the legal expression of this concept.
Protection of Species
This prohibition may be related to that of Deuteronomy 22:6-7, which prohibits killing both the mother bird and her young. The Sefer HaChinuch, a thirteenth-century Spanish discussion of the 613 commandments, explains that this commandment intends that (#545),
לא יכלה לעולם מין מכל מיני הנבראים
No species will ever become extinct from all of the species of creatures.”
Not Trespassing on God’s World
Rabbi Elijah Schochet suggests that the prohibition of neutering stems from a desire not to trespass upon “God’s world.” He notes that the Torah wants animals to reproduce “according to their own kind” (Genesis 1:21, 24) and abhors the intermingling of species (Leviticus 19:19).
The 16th century exegete Don Isaac Abarbanel suggests both of the above reasons for the castration ban:
כדי שתמיד ישאר המין שהוא תכלית הטבע ואין לשנות מעשי אלהים הטבעיים.
So that this species of animal will always remain viable which is the purpose of nature, and further, that one should not alter God’s creative works.
Schochet further notes that the law may be an expression of compassion for animals, which conforms with other ideas regarding animals in the Hebrew Bible. It is evident that Israelites had a great affinity for and empathy with their animals of the flock and herd. The “flock” is the most common biblical metaphor for Israel. Consider the parable of the poor man’s lamb in 2 Samuel 12:3 which points to an almost parental relationship between man and his lamb:
וְלָרָשׁ אֵין כֹּל כִּי אִם כִּבְשָׂה אַחַת קְטַנָּה אֲשֶׁר קָנָה וַיְחַיֶּהָ וַתִּגְדַּל עִמּוֹ וְעִם בָּנָיו יַחְדָּו מִפִּתּוֹ תֹאכַל וּמִכֹּסוֹ תִשְׁתֶּה וּבְחֵיקוֹ תִשְׁכָּב וַתְּהִי לוֹ כְּבַת.
But the poor man had only one little ewe lamb that he had bought. He tended it and it grew up together with him and his children: it used to share his morsel of bread, drink from his cup, and nestle in his bosom; it was like a daughter to him.
The Connection between Israelites and their Flocks
Why did Israelites have such a strong connection with their flock and herd animals? First, they were dependent upon their animals for meat, milk, leather, wool, fuel in the form of dung, companionship and perhaps even warmth at night. Keep in mind that the typical Israelite dwelling was the four room house in which animals (not bulls of course) were sheltered on the first floor and their owners on the second.
Further, the Israelites had an idea of the common origins of humankind and the animal world that is reflected in the creation narratives: both land animals and humans are created on the sixth day in Genesis 1.
The ban on castration in Leviticus 22 could be based on this sense of commonality that Israelites had with their domestic animals. One of the worst fates imaginable for the Israelite man would be the end of his patrilineal line, to go childless or receive the punishment of karet, understood as the termination of his progeny. Just as Israelites would have found castration anathema for themselves and their children, so it is possible that the Legislator in Leviticus 22 prohibits it for animals.
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May 11, 2017
December 10, 2019
Dr. Elaine Goodfriend is a lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies and the Jewish Studies Program at California State University, Northridge. She has a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from U.C. Berkeley. Among her publications are “Food in the Hebrew Bible,” in Food and Jewish Traditions (forthcoming) and “Leviticus 22:24: A Prohibition of Gelding for the Land of Israel?”
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