This week's romp through Masechet Rosh Hashanah took us through most of daf 26. This was a turning point, because it was the first time (after 25 dapim) that the masechet actually addresses the observance of the holiday now known as Rosh Hashanah (though we've already hit on some themes of the holiday with the long discussion of the four new years, the question of when the world was created, the question of whether the divine decree can be overturned, etc.).
In the Mishnah, the tanna kama says that all horns can be used as the shofar except cows' horns, while Rabbi Yosei says that cows' horns are ok too. Much of the ensuing discussion in the Gemara is on a purely linguistic/semantic level -- which horns are commonly known as shofar, as opposed to keren? Or perhaps shofar is a proper subset of keren? (It is surprising that the qualification for a horn being a proper shofar is that it is called by the word shofar, given that the Torah never actually uses the word shofar in regard to Rosh Hashanah! It's just yom teru'ah! Shofar is indeed used in regard to the yovel (jubilee). Are we going to see an explicit gezeirah shavah (teru'ah teru'ah) between Rosh Hashanah and yovel? Maybe!!! Tune in next time!)
Fast forward 15 centuries, and there was similar confusion at our table. Are cows' horns larger than other horns? Smaller? And what's all this about two or three horns inside each other? I bet Steinsaltz has a picture of a cow with the Latin species name under it -- where is he when we need him?
Further confusion arose when we saw the words shor (always translated "ox") and par ("bull"). What's the difference? Are they synonyms? Are they different species? Are they different stages in the life of the same species? And the Gemara doesn't seem to have a definite answer either! We're city dwellers who know little about domesticated beasts! We have no firsthand knowledge! So we thought of verses that contained either of these words ("shor o chesev o eiz", "par ben bakar l'chatat", etc.) and, like Clark Kent and Superman, we never saw the two of them together, except when it was obvious poetic parallelism. Finally, we resorted to checking an (English) dictionary, which suggested that "ox" and "bull" generally refer to the same animal (with some nuances that escaped us).
The one substantive (language-independent) justification given for not using bulls'/cows'/oxen's horns was that it was a reminder of the sin of the golden calf; for the same reason, the High Priest changes from his gold vestments into white when he enters the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur.
The next part of the sugya involved the rabbis groping around in the dark just like us! There is a long series of examples from Tanakh and even Mishnah where the rabbis didn't know what an unusual word meant -- all those places where the JPS translation says "Meaning of Heb. uncertain", all those Jastrow jackpots where Jastrow quotes Rashi directly -- until they went to Arabia or Africa or Asia Minor and compared the Hebrew word in question to a foreign word. MAK pointed out that these rabbis were doing philological research, looking at cognates in other languages to understand the obscure Hebrew words. And some of their linguistic research involved listening to Rebbi's maidservant -- e.g. they were so cloistered in the beit midrash (just like us, with no clue about cows and bulls and oxen) that they didn't know that m'tatei (Isaiah 14:23) meant "broom"! In our day, anyone who has been to Jewish camp knows this word from the nikayon wheel. Standing on the shoulders of giants.