Likkutei Sichos-Parshas Mishpatim: Changing one’s character through changing one’s environment

Parshas Mishpatim

Changing one’s character through changing one’s environment

(Likkutei Sichos Vol. 36 Sicha 1)

In Parshas Mishpatim, many of the 613 commandments are enumerated, particularly those dealing with monetary matters. Amongst the listed laws, is the famous law customarily learned by all Yeshiva students in Tractate Bava Kama, dealing with an ox which gored another ox and the amount of compensation that the owner of the ox must give to the victim’s owner. In this regard, there is a difference between an ox which has gored less than three times versus a habitual and multiple offender ox. The owner of an ox which gored for the first three times is liable to pay only for half of the damages, while the owner of a habitual ox offender, which gored three times in the past, is liable to pay for full damages. Now, we find an interesting law which states that if an ox which is a habitual offender is sold or given as a present to another owner, then he returns to his non-offender status, hence holding his new owner liable only for half damages in the event that he gores. Why is it that the change of ownership has such a powerful ability to change the nature of the cow and turn it from a habitual offender to a novice? In exploring this matter, the Rebbe derives a tremendous lesson regarding changing one’s character, and how one of the key aspects of it can be change of environment.


Explorations of the Sicha:

1.      How many times must and ox gore to make the owner liable to pay full damage, and why?

2.      Why is a new owner of an ox only liable to pay half damage for its goring if his ox was a multiple offender by the previous owner?

3.      Is it possible to mend one’s character and control forbidden lusts without battling these matters directly head-on?


1. The law of an ox which gores habitually and is then sold:

In Jewish law, we hold the owner of an animal liable for damages that his animal inflicts on other people’s property. Every owner is expected to guard his animal from doing damage and if he does not do so he needs to pay for the damage. However, in this regard we find a difference between a habitual offender versus a first-time offender. If a man’s ox gored another ox and killed it, then by the first three times that this occurs the owner is only liable to pay for half of the damages, being that he did not have any reason to suspect his ox of doing so, and thereby be extra cautious in its guarding. This type of ox is known as a Shur Tam. However, once the ox has become a habitual offender and has gored three times, then the owner who should’ve known better, is liable for full damages on every future goring of the ox. This type of ox is known as a Shur Muad. Now, the Rambam[1] records that if an ox which is guilty of multiple offenses of goring, is sold, or given as a present to a new owner, then he returns to his state of innocence, Tamus. In his words, “the change of ownership changes his law.” This ruling of the Rambam follows the opinion in the Talmud[2] who holds that a change in ownership changes the status of the animal. A similar law to that of above is brought elsewhere by the Rambam[3] regarding one who lent an ox with a non-offender status to an individual, and the ox gored three times while by the individual and became a habitual offender. The Rambam there rules that when this ox is returned to the original owner who lent it to him, it returns to its non-offender status.

The above law that a change in ownership changes the offender status of the ox seems wondrous. If an ox has developed the nature of goring, then there is no reason for why the new owner should not be held fully responsible for the care of such an ox, and to make sure that it does not gore again under his ownership. Seemingly, the mere change of owners does not change the nature of the ox, and hence the law should remain that such an ox which gores makes its new owner liable for full damages.

2. The habitual offender status applies to the owner:

In answer to the above, one can argue and say that indeed although certainly the nature of the cow does not change with the change of ownership, nonetheless, the Torah only holds an owner liable for full damages if the owner himself has been warned three times. Even an ox which has gored three times under one’s ownership, is only considered to be a habitual offender if this testimony was brought before a court of law in front of the owner, otherwise, the owner is not obligated to pay for the full damage even if he is fully aware of his oxen’s goring nature.[4] Now, although this matter does not make much sense, as if the owner knows that the ox has a habit of goring he should refill responsible for his actions, practically this matter is considered a decree of the verse [i.e. Gezeiras Hakasuv], that the testimony must take place in a court of law for the ox to receive a habitual offender status. Thus, in addition to the need for an ox to gore three times for it to be considered a habitual offender, the owner of the ox must also be warned three times to make him liable to pay full damage.

Based on the above, we can now explain why a change of ownership changes the status of the ox. Although an ox which has the habit of goring will continue this goring nature even when sold to another individual, since the Torah requires for the owner to be warned three times for him to become liable to pay full payment for the damage done by a habitual goring ox, therefore, the new buyer of this ox is not liable to pay full payment until his ox actually gores three times and he is warned three times.

Despite the above answer, we find in one of the Rishonim a separate answer which explains that through change of ownership that ox actually goes through a change in his nature. We will now explore this answer next.

3. A change in nature and Mazal:

The Meiri[5] addresses the above question of why a change of ownership causes a change of law, and states that the change of ownership of the ox causes a change to its Mazal and character. Meaning, that when an ox has a new owner, he begins to behave differently. An ox can only be considered a definitive habitual offender when he is still under the influence of his prior owner, and maintains that owners environment. When the ownership changes, so does the daily schedule and environment of the ox which can cause it to stop its habitual goring. This especially applies if the new owner who is aware of the habitual goring of his newly purchased ox takes extra precaution to guard it. This extra protection itself can cause a change of nature in the ox. A similar concept to this can be found in the law which states that an ox which gores three times on Shabbos is not considered a habitual offender during the week, as it’s possible that the environment of Shabbos causes him to gore.[6] The same applies here as well that it could be that there are factors relating to the previous owner which caused his ox to have a nature of goring, and these factors are not relevant by the new owner.

4. The ox refers to the animal soul of a Jew:

From the above law we can derive the following important lesson in mending our character: The ox refers to the animal soul: An ox refers to the animal soul that is within a person. The person is charged with guarding this animal soul, so it does not do any damage. Furthermore, he has the opportunity and obligation to use his ox [i.e. animal soul] for productive purposes, for matters of holiness. The animal soul of a Jew comes from Kelipas Nogah and therefore also contains good. In addition to it containing natural good character traits, it also does not inherently desire to do evil, and does not have a natural lust for the forbidden but rather just for the permitted.

A first-time sinner versus a habitual sinner: Now, when this animal soul begins to lust for the prohibited and actually commits a sin for the first time then it is similar to a Shur Tam, an ox with a non-offender status. However, if he repeats the sin many times and it hence becomes to him like second nature, then he is similar to the Shur Muad, a multiple offender ox.

5. How to fix an animal soul that has gotten used to sinning:

Now, how does an animal soul that has become the status of a Shur Muad, and gained a natural disposition of sinning, retract from this status and once again regain its innocence? So for this we must look at the law regarding how a multiple offender ox can return to its innocent state, and clean its criminal record.

Destroying its past lusts to the point one can now overcome the challenge: The law is that an ox can return to its innocent state and clean its criminal record of past offenses, if it proves to have stopped its goring behavior. The sign for when this stage has been reached is when children play with the ox, and it does not try to gore them.[7] Now, the same applies regarding the animal soul in the body. In order for the animal soul of the habitual sinner to return to its innocent state and uproot this sinful nature from it, one must exert much effort to destroy the ingrained lust to the point that when he is put once again to the test, he overcomes his lust and does not fail. The sages[8] state that this is the true way of knowing whether one has fully repented, if he is challenged with the same sin once again, and in the same circumstances, and he nonetheless overcomes his desires and does not sin.

Changing one’s nature by changing one’s environment: In addition to the above option of how one can change the nature of his animal soul, from the law discussed above that the status of an ox changes with a change of ownership, we can learn a second method of how one can change his character. This is through changing one’s environment of his animal soul. Meaning, that even if for whatever reason one is unable to work directly with his animal soul to destroy its lusts and be able to overcome it during a challenge, there is a way that one can circumvent the lust altogether and place it in a dormant state. This is through making a change in the occupation of his animal soul and completely immersing it into matters of holiness. The new matter of spiritual immersion is flexible, and can work whether one now invests himself completely into the world of Torah learning, or into the world of service of prayer, or into the world of doing kindness and good deeds. When one surrounds his occupation with these matters of spiritual service it has the automatic capability to refine his animal soul, and erase his second nature of sinful lust. Now, there are two ways in how this refinement of the animal soul can be achieved.

  1. Overpower the animal soul with the Godly soul: One method is to increase so much in one’s spiritual involvement and expression of one’s godly soul that he completely overpowers the animal soul to the point that it has no expression. The animal soul will have no mental or emotional space to express its lusts due to the intense occupation of the person with his new spiritual service. In this method, although the lusts of the animal soul have not lost interest to it, and the potential for the lust still remains, practically, it is completely overpowered due to the intense expression of the godly soul and therefore lays dormant.
  2. Completely reset your animal soul to factory setting: A second and deeper method of refinement for the animal soul is to give it a complete factory reset and intrinsically remove from it it’s lust for sinful matters, and return it to its neutral state of Kelipas Nogah, which only desires the permitted and not the forbidden. This is accomplished by a person engaging himself so deeply and thoroughly in his spiritual service that his animal soul is considered as if it was given a new owner, and therefore returns to its neutral status of good and evil.

The Lesson:

·         Almost every individual in this world has character flaws that he needs to work on, some greater than others. Working on a character flaw is one of the most difficult, challenging, and often unsuccessful battles that we face. The usual way of dealing with a character flaw is by direct attack, to understand its psychology, to review its dangers, surround ourselves with support, and force ourselves as much as we can to not express it. The Rebbe in this talk gives us a new and revolutionary way of how to deal with these flaws in an indirect fashion. Rather than training the ox not to gore, simply sell it to a new owner. This can be accomplished by a person completely and intensively immersing himself in Torah learning and service of prayer. Improving one’s spiritual involvement can be the key to refining one’s soul and mending one’s character flaw. While this method may not always work as a final solution, certainly it can and should be used together with other methods advised by experts, in one’s battle to achieve refinement.

·         Often people who have performed serious sinful activity in the past, wonder how and if they can ever refine their souls from the stains of their behavior. For example, someone who was involved in consuming non-kosher foods, or was involved in a forbidden intimate relationship, or matters of promiscuity, can think that his souls demoted state is an unchangeable fact that he has caused with his actions. From this talk we learn that by a Jew immersing himself completely in spiritual service he is able to once again cleanse his soul, and bring it back to the factory setting of holiness and purity.


[1] Rambam Nizkei Mamon 6:6

[2] Bava Kama 40b

[3] Rambam Nizkei Mamon 4:9

[4] See Rambam 6:2; Bava Kama 24a

[5] Meiri on Mishneh Bava Kama 39a

[6] Mishneh Bava Kama 37a; Rambam 6:8

[7] Rambam 6:7

[8] Yuma 86b; Rambam Teshuvah 2

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