The Fable of the Goat (Bava Kama 79b)

My 18-month-old daughter has been home sick all week, screaming and writhing in pain. She refuses all food, her gums bleed whenever I touch them, and she has cold sores on her tongue. When I took her to the doctor on Sunday morning, he diagnosed her with a virus and told me there was nothing to be done. “You really just have to wait it out. She should be better in 7-10 days.” My jaw dropped. Seven to ten days of enduring this agony? “Is there really nothing I can do?” I asked him desperately. “Well,” he told me, “There is one proven remedy – you can put fresh goats’ milk on her tongue. That works like a charm.” I looked at him like he was crazy. “Goats milk? Can I get that at the supermarket?” “You can,” said the doctor, “But what you really want is the unpasteurized kind, and that you can get only from a farm. It’s best if they milk the goat for you, and then she drinks it right away.” I couldn’t believe that squeezing the udders of a goat was the only hope for my daughter, and so I tried the pharmacy, where I was told the same thing. “Take her to a goat farm, and get her some fresh milk.” On the one hand, my heart was sinking – was there no other way to help my child? On the other hand, my mind was racing – now I was finally beginning to understand a Tamudic story that has long baffled me.

The story appears in the context of a Mishnah (Bava Kama 79b) about the prohibition on raising “small animals” in the land of Israel, namely goats and sheep, since these animals are prone to pasture everywhere and thus destroy the surrounding vegetation. However, as the Talmud goes on to explain, it is permissible to raise “large animals,” even though these are also bad for the land, because they are too unwieldy to import, and “we do not impose a decree on the public that the public cannot uphold.” (The same Mishnah forbids keeping a dog unless it is on a leash – this prohibition is clearly one the public could not uphold, judging from the pets in our neighborhood.)

Following this legal discussion, the Talmud quotes a Brayta from the Tosefta (T. Bava Kama 8:13) about the pious sage Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava, who was “groaning from his heart,” that is, moaning in severe pain. His friends asked the doctors what to do, and they responded, “The only remedy is for him to drink warm milk straight from a goat every morning at dawn.” So they brought him a goat and tied it around his bedpost, and he would nurse from it every morning. One day Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava’s rabbinic colleagues came to visit him. When they saw that he had a goat tied around his bedpost, they recoiled in horror; how could such a pious man so brazenly override a rabbinic prohibition? “He is keeping armed robbers in his home!” they exclaimed. (I find myself wondering, once again, whether the Hebrew word for goat, עז, is etymologically related to the word להעיז, to be brazen and bold; this story seems to be playing on that pun.) When he eventually died, the sages reviewed all his actions and discovered that this was the only sin he had committed. He is reputed to have said, on his deathbed, “I know that I did not commit any sins except the sin of that goat, since I transgressed against the words of my colleagues.”

I used to read this story and wonder what illness this man could possibly have had, such that goats’ milk was the only remedy. I wondered what we’d call that illness today, and how it would be treated in the twenty-first century. Clearly it was the same illness as the father in Agnon’s famous “Fable of the Goat” (first published in 1925), which begins with the same words as the Talmudic story: “There is a tale of an old man who was groaning from his heart. They went and asked the doctors what to do…” This man, too, ties a goat to his bedpost and suckles its milk, which is sweeter than honey from the Garden of Eden. Ultimately his curiosity about the goat leads to his tragic separation from his son, who ties a rope to the goat’s tail and follows the animal through a cave that leads—like C.S. Lewis’ wardrobe or J.K. Rowling’s platform Nine and Three-Quarters—to a place near Tzfat. What illness did Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava and the father have, I wondered? Now I know. They had the same cold sores as my daughter, and the remedy in the twenty-first century is the same as it was back then.

After several days of attempting to forcibly squirt pasteurized goats milk from my local market onto my daughter’s tongue, I decided I needed to be bolder and take more drastic measures. I went around to a few natural health stores in my area, but none sold unpasteurized goats’ milk. Then a friend mentioned that there was going to be a festival at our local leprosy hospital, where they would be selling fresh goats’ milk. I ran over there with my still-hysterical baby the next morning, but alas, they told me that the festival was postponed until the following week. “Why don’t you try the school down the block, where they have a little petting zoo?” I put the wailing baby back in her stroller, and off we went on our wild goat chase. By this point I felt very much like I, like the son in Agnon’s fable, was just holding on to the rope attached to the goat’s tail and letting it carry me along for the ride. We arrived at the school.  I spotted the goats in the yard. “Can you help?” I asked the guard at the gate. “You have to ask Shlomo, and he just stepped out for a few hours.” My face fell. The baby howled, and the man looked down at us in pity. “Hold on, let me call Ihmed.” Ihmed appeared with a twinkle in his eye. “Who told you we have goats here?” Perhaps he didn’t want me to out his secret – that he was raising “small animals” in the land of Israel. “They told me at the leprosy hospital,” I confessed. “Follow me,” he said, and I parked the stroller, picked up the baby, and continued to follow the proverbial rope attached to the proverbial goat’s tail. He called his friend Hassan, who held onto the head of his goat. “Do you have a bottle?” he asked me. I emptied out the water from the baby’s sippy cup, and he held it under the goat’s udder. My daughter, who loves animals, had forgotten her groaning heart and began squealing in delight and shrieking, “Cat! Cat!” – her term for anything with four legs that moves. I thanked Ihmed and Hassan profusely, retrieved my stroller, and gave the baby her cup. She drank. She calmed down. She fell asleep.

Was it a miraculous cure? I am not sure. She is still sleeping, which is why I have time to write this up. Throughout the entire week that she’s been home sick with me, she’s never slept this long or this comfortably, and I’m starting to hope—to be so bold as to hope—that perhaps the milk she imbibed, like the milk in Agnon’s fable, came straight from the Garden of Eden. I’ve come so far already that if this doesn’t do the trick, tomorrow I’ll stop at nothing short of tying a goat to the post of her crib and giving her warm milk at dawn.


5 thoughts on “The Fable of the Goat (Bava Kama 79b)

  1. Sharon Citron Urbas says:

    Shalvie and your medical experimen should be written up in a medical journal if she wakes up well.Kind of like the US scoffed at acupuncture saying it was clearly an ancient Chinese bubbeh mayseh until they tried it and it works


  2. Tamar says:

    I just returned from Shuk Ha-Carmel with two containers of goat yogurt in my cart in honor of this bittersweet teaching! Bitter because your daughter has been in agony; sweet, because you followed every twist and turn and, with the help of human angels, found the remedy! The Talmud, midrashim, and braytot yield endless lessons and it is your creative living and learning of these sacred texts (secular ones, too!) that sparks deep learning and delight in a modern skeptic like me. It is why I obsessively check for updates and reread posts frequently. (I) turn it (your blog) and turn it…


  3. Judy Labensohn says:

    My son’s daughter had the same virus. We drove to a goat farm located between Abu Ghosh and Nataf. Sure enough. They had the miraculous goods in a bottle in their fridge.
    I look forward to reading your book. Shana Tova.


    • scurbas says:

      I find it amazing that she was given the same ancient remedy but I guess I shouldn’t be.  It’s Yerushalayim after all.

      Sent from my Verizon, Samsung Galaxy smartphone


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