How Now Brown Cow?

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow

Tardar Sauce (2012-2019), better known by her nickname “Grumpy Cat,” was a cat and celebrity known for her grumpy facial expression. Her owner, Tabatha Bundesen, said that her permanently grumpy-looking face was due to an underbite and feline dwarfism. Grumpy Cat was featured on the front page of The Wall Street Journal on May 30, 2013 and on the cover of New York Magazine on October 7, 2013. Perhaps Grumpy Cat can help us understand the daf. Grumpy Cat was not really grumpy at all. However, if she was ascribed with human emotions, her facial expression would be a grumpy one. The Mishna discusses a situation where a man said (Nazir 10a), “This cow said I am a nazir if I stand.” Beis Shammai is of the opinion that the man who said that statement is obligated to observe a period of nazirus. He must refrain from drinking wine, cutting his hair, and coming in contact with corpses for 30 days. The Gemara, though, wonders why we should even take this man seriously. His statement is obviously nonsensical since – holy cow! – cows don’t talk! The Gemara says that the man didn’t actually mean that the cow spoke. However, when the man sees the beefy cow lying down, he thinks to himself, “Wow! This cow is probably thinking to itself I’ll be a nazir if I could get up by myself without assistance.” (See the Rosh.) Still, one should wonder if the cow was actually thinking anything of the sort. It’s not a sacred cow. Even according to this interpretation, the man’s statement is still udder nonsense. Tosfos explain that the cow did not actually want to be a nazir. Rather, the man staring at the cow had a moment of bovine inspiration. If he were a cow faced with the daunting task of getting up, he would say, “I’ll be a nazir if I could get up without assistance.”

The man then takes his own thoughts and projects them onto the cow. (Similar to what the American populace does with Grumpy Cat.) Tosfos say we have a precedent for this in Tanach. A literal translation of pasuk 1:4 in Yonah is: “And the boat thought it would break.” The boat didn’t actually think it would break. The verse is just attributing what everyone thought about the boat to the boat. Even after we understand the man’s black-and-white projection, it is hard to understand why he should have to be a nazir. After all, he is just saying what he would say if he was a cow. But he isn’t a cow! Still, after hearing his statement, we would ask him, “How now brown cow? Why are you telling us your thoughts on cows? Are you somehow trying to milk it for some jokes?” “No,” he would answer, “the ‘steaks’ are higher.” He is telling us that he wants to be a nazir. Granted, his phraseology is as awkward as a cow on a crutch, but we are able to see his intentions. He just had a funny way of declaring his nazirus vow. In any case, he can’t be faulted for his poor choice of words as he probably attended some cow college. As an interesting aside, the Gemara in Succah (28a) tells us that Rebbe Yochanon Ben Zakai understood the speech of trees. Rashi comments that he doesn’t know what this refers to. The Rashbam in Bava Basra says it refers to what people say about tress. Rebbe Yochanon Ben Zakai was an arborist and knew how to cure diseases that affect trees. He also knew what are the ideal growing conditions for various types of trees.

Rabbeinu Gershom explained that Rebbe Yochanon Ben Zakai knew spiritual incantations to utter that would affect the trees. However, the Rashba seems to understand the Gemara literally. Rebbe Yochanon Ben Zakai understood what the trees were saying when they swayed in the wind. The Ritva also similarly understands it literally, but says the trick is to understand what the trees are saying when the wind isn’t blowing. Still, even the Rashba and Ritva, who seem to understand that trees and maybe cows are somehow capable of intelligent speech or thought, say it wouldn’t be anything that anyone but Rebbe Yochanon Ben Zakai could comprehend. The Gemara then in Nazir still has a valid point that cows don’t talk. Back to the person discussed in the Mishna, the man is a nazir according to Beis Shammai. However, he didn’t specify a time period for his nazirus. The halacha is that without specifying otherwise, a person is a nazir for 30 days and not until the cows come home.

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow is a rebbe at Yeshiva Ateres Shimon in Far Rockaway. In addition, Rabbi Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead, NY. He can be contacted at

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