I've seen numerous different discussions online about how to handle artificial intelligence with regards to moral laws. How should we, as orthodox Jews, dispatch of these problems? I turn to this law for guidance,

Exodus 21:28 "When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox shall not be liable."

The way I read that needn't be specific to an ox. An ox is just one being with agency. Here the law calls for immunity for the owner of the ox, and the stoning of the ox (the subject of the crime). No punishment is dealt to the parental oxens or the species. In the case where a machine injures another, should we turn to Exodus 21:28? If we did, we would grant immunity to the owners and creators of the machine and stone the machine? This may be more difficult to contend with if we have to punish The Cloud, but given enough time and stones I don't believe it's impossible.

The full context of this can be found here,

28 “When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox shall not be liable. 29 But if the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not kept it in, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death. 30 If a ransom is imposed on him, then he shall give for the redemption of his life whatever is imposed on him. 31 If it gores a man’s son or daughter, he shall be dealt with according to this same rule. 32 If the ox gores a slave, male or female, the owner shall give to their master thirty shekelse of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.

Another fellow Jew commented on the relevance of Exodus 21:29. I believe it is also applicable however to a much lesser degree. Exodus 21:29 requires

  • A pattern of goring in the past. For our analogy, this would mean a habitually malicious AI.
  • Its owner has been warned. This seems totally reasonable. I imagine a lot of AI owners will be warned, and have this criteria satisfied.
  • The failure of the ox to be kept in. I read this to mean the owner having reacted to the warning to mitigate future harm. It seems unlikely that an owner of a malicious AI will be so negligent as to ignore warnings.
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    wouldn't this claim require an AI which is capable of intent and habit well beyond (or even contrary to) programming?
    – rosends
    Mar 1, 2016 at 0:09
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    I think that Exodus 22:5 is mor appropriate. Mar 1, 2016 at 0:10
  • @sabbahillel not at all, a fire has no agency. Its actions are entirely deterministic. Mar 1, 2016 at 0:30
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    Yes and a computer program is also completely deterministic. It is just that the steps may be more complex than a simple fire. I would say that it is not like an animal, which while "programmed by instinct' still has an "independent" aspect to its behavior. Mar 1, 2016 at 0:35
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    @EvanCarroll, the chaotic progress of a fire is non-deterministic in effectively the same way as the device you've described.
    – Isaac Moses
    Mar 1, 2016 at 1:10

1 Answer 1


The Talmudic tractate called Bava Kamma, in many places, discusses the meaning of the various "damagers" mentioned in the Torah for various liabilities. The first page of Bava Kamma, explains that the "ox" as a damager, by Torah Law, is something that must be described as containing "Ru-ach Chaim" (a living soul).

An animal which has a living soul of its own, is categorically unpredictable to a great extent. A computer driven Artificial Intelligence, is more predictable than an ox, in so far as it is programmed by humans via logical machine language.

This is one reason why an ox pays "half damages" (the first 3 times it gores) according to the Torah. The very fact that an ox's actions are directed by its own soul, would lend us to exempt its owner from any and all liability! However, the Torah revealed a novel idea, that the owner, who is responsible to the public to watch his animal, should at least pay half. A programmed booby trap, however, (AI) would be much more controlable. Its program would also be known. Therefore, it should fit into categories of damage (like pit and fire), which are more mechanical, and pay full damages; or the category of "Adam HaMazik" (man), when a human being is controlling its moves directly. Finally, it may fall under the category of indirect damage like "gramma" and cause its owner to pay nothing, because we don't suspect we should guard it well, or the damage is so indirect in relation to the owner, that the Torah does not require Bes Din to pursue the damage in court.

Finally, one should look at Yalkhut Shimoni (Ve’eschanan 837)(and similarly in Shir HaShirim Rabbah). "...Now even if all the inhabitants of the world were to gather together with the intention of creating even one gnat, they would not be able to create it and infuse it with a soul."

Whatever the category an AI would be part of, it would never be called something with a real soul, as per the Medrash. Therefore, any legal comparison between a goring ox and a "sentient AI" falls short from a Torah perspective.

  • Very good, David. Now, what if your cow gives birth to a computer?
    – HaLeiVi
    Mar 1, 2016 at 3:12
  • You say, a computer driven Artificial Intelligence, is more predictable than an ox, in so far as it is programmed by humans via logical machine language. And, with a sufficiently narrow definition of AI, yes. But, shy of that this is simply not true. It serves as the foundation of your argument, but it's not a firm foundation. You want the AI to be mechanistic like fire, rather than to be sentient like an ox. That doesn't address a sentient AI which has all of the unpredictability of the ox programmed in. Mar 1, 2016 at 7:35
  • @ HaLeiVi...I don't know, sounds geshmak, but I would rather have the goose that lays the golden egg. Mar 2, 2016 at 5:38
  • @ Evan Carroll...I edited my answer for you, because of your objection. Mar 2, 2016 at 5:39

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