The Bible knows both the wild and the domestic Ass. (1) The wild Ass ("pere" or "'arod") generally roamed about in herds, and is associated with the wilderness (Job xxiv. 5). The character of the wild Ass gave occasion for applying the term figuratively ("wild ass") to one who in unbridled opposition had his hands ever turned against his fellows (Gen. xvi. 12, R. V.).
(2) The domesticated Ass ("Ḧamor," "aton" [fem.], "'ayir" [young Ass]) was put to various uses; (a) for riding (Num. xxii. 21; II Kings iv. 24; Judges x. 4, xii. 14), in which the young Ass andshe-ass were mainly employed; (b) for carrying burdens (Gen. xxii. 3, xlii. 26); and (c) for plowing (Isa. xxx. 24; Deut. xxii. 10), in which the young Ass and he-ass were utilized. The Deuteronomic code forbids the harnessing of the Ass with the ox (Deut. xxii. 10); the explanation usually offered being that as their strength and weight are so unequal, the harnessing of the two would entail annoyance and suffering on both. It may be, however, that back of the curious prohibition lies some obsolete superstition, the injunction resting on an omen that was no longer intelligible to the compiler of the code.
"The ox for plowing, the ass for carrying burdens," is the reason given in the Talmud for the creation of these animals ('Ab. Zarah 5b; Tanna debe Eliyahu R. ii.). As regards species, a distinction is drawn between the wild and the domesticated Ass, the former, "'arud," being reckoned among the wild beasts of the field (Kil. viii. 6); hence the Biblical precept is applied to it (Kil. i. 6) forbidding it to be crossed with the domestic variety. The most valuable species is declared to be the Libyan, distinguished for its size and strength (Bek. 5b); but which, on account of its fiery character, must be driven with a powerful bit (Shab. 51b). However, Immanuel Löw asserts that this description applies not to the Libyan Ass, but to the Lycaonian variety, which is mentioned in old sources (Mishnah Shab. v. 1), and which, according to the testimony of Greek and Latin writers, was frequently partially tamed for crossing with the mare (Krauss, "Lehnwörter," ii. 3017). The meat of the Ass is said to have the same specific gravity as human flesh ('Ar. 19b); and the blood of a foal is held to be a remedy for jaundice (Shab. 110b). The bite of an Ass was accounted more dangerous than that of a dog, for it might break a bone (Pes. 49b), a case being cited where an Ass completely crushed with its bite the arm of a child (B. Ḳ. 84a). The Ass is not particular in its food, eating such things as brush and thistles, and when hungry it has been known to eat fish (B. Ḳ. 19b); nevertheless, baled provender for a young Ass should be opened out, a labor permissible on the Sabbath (Shab. 155a). The she-ass produces no young before her third year (Bek. 19b). A strap made either from ass-hide or calf-hide was employed in judicial scourgings, a fact which was thus wittily applied by an itinerant preacher in expounding the well-known words of Isaiah (i. 3): "The ass knoweth his master's crib, but Israel doth not know; therefore, let him that doth not know be chastised by the hide of him that doth know" (Mak. 23a).In Proverbial Use.
No other animal is perhaps so frequently mentioned in popular proverbs as the Ass. "Where our forefathers were angels, we are but men; where they were men, we are only asses" (Shab. 112b and often elsewhere), a saying which shows that even in those days the Ass was considered an example of stupidity (B. B. 74a). Its stupidity and insensibility are expressed in the proverb, "The ass freezes even in July" (Shab. 53a). To be called "an ass" was therefore an insult: "If one hath called thee ass, go and get a halter for thyself" (B. Ḳ. 92b). A variation of this is found in the Palestinian saying, "If a man say unto thee, thou hast asses' ears, pay no heed to him; but if two say it to thee, go and get thee a saddle right away" (Gen. R. xlv. 7). Other proverbs are, "The pace of the ass depends upon its barley [its food]" (Shab. 51b); and "Many young asses die and their skins serve as trappings for their mother" (Lev. R. xx. 10; Gen. R. lxvii. 8). Concerning the color of asses, the following is found: "Thou sayest thou hast seen a black ass ? Then thou hast seen neither a black one nor a white one, for there are no black asses" ("Alphabet" of Ben Sira, letter 8).
The Ass employed by Abraham when he traveled to the sacrifice of Isaac was declared to be the same animal which later bore Moses' wife and her sons into Egypt (Ex. iv. 20); and it is declared that the same animal is also to serve the Messiah, who is to come "riding upon an ass" (Zech. ix. 9). The mother of this Ass is said to have been the one upon which Balaamrode, and which was created at the close of the sixth day of Creation at dusk (Pirḳe R. El. xxxi.). The old sources, as Abot v. 6, speak only of the creation of the "mouth of the ass" (Ginzberg, "Die Haggada bei den Kirchenvätern," pp. 49, 50; see Balaam).
When the Ass of Phinehas b. Jair, or, some say, of Hanina b. Dosa, was once stolen, she refused to eat the fodder laid before her because the tithe upon it had not been paid to the priest, whereupon the thieves set her free and she returned to her master (Yer. Dem. i. 21d, below; compare also Ḥul. 7b; Ab. R. N. viii. for variations of the legend). The Ass of Rabbi Jose would not enter his stall until a pair of shoes which were lying upon his back, and which did not belong to his master, had been removed (Ta'an. 24a).
Ass-drivers were held in small repute; the current opinion being that the majority of them were rascals (Ḳid. iv. 14, 82a; but see Niddah 14a). An "assdriver's question" is equivalent to a "stupid question" (Yer. Sanh. vi. 23b).
- Lewysohn, Die Zoologie des Talmuds, pp. 22, 23, 140-143;
- Rubin, Tehillat ha-Kesilim, pp. 47-53.