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Four articles advocating restoring and transforming the ancient New Year for Animals

by Richard Schwartz

Shalom,

      The ancient New Year for Animals falls on Rosh Chodesh Elul, (on August 11 – 12 in 2018). Included below are my 4 articles on why the holiday should be restored into a day devoted to increasing awareness of Judaism’s compassionate teachings on animals and why these teachings should be applied to reduce current abuses of animals.

    The titles of the four articles are:

  1. Why an Ancient Jewish Holiday Should Be Restored and transformed.
  2. An Auditious Initiative to Restore the Ancient New Year for Animals
  3.  An Overlooked Mitzvah: Tsa’ar Ba’alei Chaim
  4.  Ten Important Reasons for Restoring and Transforming the Ancient New Year for Animals

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1. Why an Ancient Jewish Holiday Should Be Restored and Transformed

     The current widespread mistreatment of animals on factory farms is very inconsistent with Judaism’s beautiful teachings about compassion to animals. One way for Jews to respond to these inconsistencies is to restore and transform the ancient and largely forgotten Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana L’Ma’aser Beheima (New Year’s Day for Tithing Animals) into a day devoted to increasing awareness of Jewish compassionate teachings and considering how to improve our relationships with animals. The holiday occurs on the first day of the month of Elul and was initially devoted to counting domesticated animals intended for sacrificial offerings (Mishna, Seder Moed, Tractate Rosh Hashana 1:1).

     There is a precedent for such a change. Rosh Hashanah L’ilanot (New Year for Trees), a day initially intended for tithing fruit trees for Temple offerings, was reclaimed in the 17th century by mystics as a day (Tu Bishvat) for healing the natural world.

     Currently, with regard to animals, Jewish religious services, Torah readings, and education are primarily focused on the biblical sacrifices, animals that are kosher for eating, and laws about animal slaughter. It is essential that this emphasis on animals that are to be killed be balanced with a greater emphasis on Judaism’s more compassionate teachings. These include: “God’s compassion is over all his works [including animals] (Psalms 145:9); “the righteous person considers the lives of his or her animals” (Proverbs 12:10); the great Jewish leaders Moses and King David were deemed suitable to be leaders because of their compassionate care of sheep when they were shepherds; farmers are not to yoke a strong and a weak animal together nor to muzzle an animal while the animal is threshing in the field; the Ten Commandments indicates that animals, as well as people, are to rest on the Sabbath day; and much more, summarized in the Torah mandate that Jews are to avoid tsa’ar ba’alei chaim, causing any unnecessary “sorrow  to animals.” 

     Despite these and additional teachings, most Jews are ignoring the current widespread abuses of animals. For example, egg-laying hens are kept in cages so small that they can’t raise even one wing, and they are debeaked without the use of anesthetics to prevent them from harming other birds by pecking them due to their natural instincts being thwarted. Over 250 million male chicks are killed annually in the United States shortly after birth at egg-laying hatcheries because they can’t lay eggs and haven’t been genetically programmed to have much flesh. Dairy cows are artificially inseminated annually on what the dairy industry calls “rape racks,” so that they will be able to continually produce milk, and then their babies are taken away almost immediately after birth, often to be raised for veal, under very cruel conditions.

     Renewing and transforming the ancient holiday is especially important today because a shift away from animal-based diets, in addition to lessening the mistreatment of animals, would reduce the number of diet-related diseases that is afflicting the Jewish and other communities, and would also reduce environmental and climate change threats to humanity that are greatly increased by the massive exploitation of animals for food. It would also encourage Jews to consider plant-based diets that are more consistent with Jewish mandates to preserve human health, treat animals with compassion, protect the environment, conserve natural resources, help hungry people, and pursue peace and justice.

     Transforming the holiday would also: show that Judaism is applying its eternal teachings to today’s important issues; improve the image of Judaism in the eyes of people concerned about animals, vegetarianism and veganism, the environment, and related issues, by reinforcing a compassionate side of Judaism; bring back some young, idealistic Jews who are currently alienated to some extent from Judaism, especially those who are concerned about animal welfare, and strengthen the commitment of vegetarian and vegan Jews who are already involved  in Jewish life, but feeling somewhat outside the Jewish mainstream as they are often among a very small minority in their congregations, by creating/reclaiming a holiday that they can more closely relate to and find relevant, meaningful,  and appealing; challenge Jews to creatively make the holiday meaningful, thereby helping to revitalize Judaism.

     Another reason the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul is an appropriate time for this renewed holiday is that this date is the beginning of a month-long period of introspection during which Jews are to examine their deeds before the major holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Starting on that date and for the entire month of Elul (except on Shabbat), the shofar (ram’s horn) is blown in synagogues during morning services to awaken people to their responsibilities, so that is an appropriate time to consider how we can improve conditions for animals. It is significant that Judaism considers that for hiddur mitzvah (to enhance mitzvot (commandments)), the shofar and other ritual objects should ideally come from animals that have been raised without cruelty and have died natural deaths.

     Of course restoring and transforming an ancient holiday cannot be done all at once. Just like Tu B’Shvat, it would have to capture the imagination of the Jewish people and gradually evolve. Some initial steps might include:

 

· Setting up a website which would include material about and links to Jewish teachings on animals, quotations, sample sermons, and a collection of articles with Jewish perspectives on vegetarianism, fur, animal experimentation, circuses, kapparot, etc. There is already much valuable material on Jewish teachings on animals at the Jewish Vegetarians of North America website (www.JewishVeg.com), and at the animals section at www.JewishVeg.org/schwartz.

· Setting up a Facebook page where concerned Jews can share ideas, suggestions, and experiences.

· Starting to set up a sample Haggadah for a Seder modeled on the Tu Bishvat Seder; the Seder might involve consumption of a wide variety of plant-foods, as well as meat substitutes like veggie burgers; recitation of Jewish quotations on the proper treatment of animals; divrei Torah on Jewish teachings on animals; songs related to animals; and talks on Jewish teachings related to vegetarianism and other animal-related issues.

Considering renewing an ancient Jewish holiday that most Jews are completely unaware of may seem audacious. But it is essential to help revitalize Judaism, improve the health of Jews, sharply reduce the current massive mistreatment of animals, and help move our precious but imperiled planet onto a sustainable path.

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2. An Auditious Initiative to Restore the Ancient New Year for Animals

The conditions under which animals are raised for food today are completely contrary to Jewish teachings about compassion to animals:

  • While Judaism teaches that “God’s compassion is over all His works” (Psalms 145:9), egg laying hens are kept in cages so small that they can’t raise even one wing and they are debeaked without anesthetic to prevent them from harming other birds due to pecking from frustration in their very unnatural conditions. Male chicks fare even worse as they are killed almost immediately after birth, since they can’t lay eggs and have not been genetically programmed to produce much flesh;
  • While Judaism asserts that “the righteous person considers the life of his or her animal (Proverbs 12:10), dairy cows are artificially impregnated annually on “rape racks,” so that they will be able to continue ‘giving’ milk, and their babies are taken away almost immediately, often to be raised as veal under very cruel conditions;
  • Judaism mandates the avoidance of tsa’ar ba’alei chaim, causing “sorrow to animals)\”, but ten billion animals in the U.S. alone are slaughtered annually after being raised under very cruel conditions on modern factory farms, where all of their natural instincts are thwarted.

     To increase awareness of these inconsistencies, some Jewish activists for improved conditions for animals are making an audacious proposal: that the ancient Jewish New Year for animals, a day originally involved with the tithing of animals for sacrifices, be restored and transformed. The coalition believes that just as Tu Bishvat, a day initially intended for tithing fruit trees for Temple offerings, was reclaimed in the 17th Century by mystics as a day for healing the natural world, it is important that Rosh Hashana LaBeheimot  (New Year’s Day for Animals) become a day devoted to increasing awareness of Judaism’s powerful teachings on compassion to animals, and to considering a tikkun (healing) for the horrible ways that animals are treated today on factory farms and in other settings.

Another important reason for renewing the New Year for Animals today is that modern intensive animal-based agriculture contributes to many current threats:

  • While an estimated 20 million people die of hunger and its effects annually worldwide and almost a billion of the world’s people are chronically hungry, over 70 percent of the grain produced in the United States and about 40 percent of the grain produced worldwide is fed to animals destined for slaughter;
  • In an increasingly thirsty world, a person on an animal-based diet requires up to 14 times as much water as a person on a vegan diet;
  • A 2006 report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” indicated that animal-based agriculture emits more greenhouse gases (in CO2 equivalents) than is emitted by all the cars, planes, ships, and all other means of transportation worldwide combined. In a cover story, “Livestock and Climate Change,” in a 2009 cover story in World Watch magazine, two environmentalists associated with the World Bank argue that he livestock sector is responsible for at least 51 percent of greenhouse gases. A major reason for this huge contribution to climate change is the large amounts of methane, a very potent greenhouse gas, emitted by cattle and other animals.
  • Making the above points even potentially far worse is that there are currently about 70 billion farmed animals slaughtered annually worldwide and this number is projected to significantly increase;

     In view of the above, a major societal shift to plant-based diets is essential if the world is to have even a chance to avert the many current potential disasters. The case is even stronger for Jews, since animal-based diets and agriculture violate Jewish teachings about preserving human health, treating animals with compassion, protecting the environment, conserving natural resources, and helping hungry people.

      It is well known that one is not to yell fire in a crowded theater. Unless there really is a fire! Well, metaphorically, the world is on fire today. Almost daily reports of severe, sometimes record-breaking, heat waves, droughts, wildfires, storms, and floods, in addition to polar icecaps and glaciers melting far faster than worse case projections of climate experts, are leading climatologists to fear that the world is heading toward a climate catastrophe. There are also indications that the planet may soon face major scarcities of food, water, and available energy. In addition, there are many other environmental threats, including deforestation, soil erosion, rapid species losses, desertification, acidification of oceans, and air and water pollution.

     Hence, it is essential that dramatic steps be soon taken to alert society of the dangers and the need to take immediate actions. 

     Despite the above points, there is currently much denial, apathy, and lack of awareness among Jews and others about the need to make the saving of he planetary environment a major focus of life today. Along with most other people, Jews are generally “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” as we head toward a giant iceberg. Hence, the coalition plans to use the renewed New Year for Animals to increase awareness of the necessity of major societal changes, including a shift away from animal-based diets, in order to avoid the current potential disasters.

     The reestablished holiday occurs on Rosh Chodesh Elul, the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul. In 2018 this is from sunset on Saturday, August 11 to sunset on Sunday, August 12. This is an excellent time for this renewed holiday since this date is the beginning of a month-long period of introspection during which Jews are to examine their deeds before the high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Starting on Rosh Chodesh Elul and for the entire month (except on Shabbat), the shofar is blown in synagogues during morning services to awaken people to their responsibilities, and that is an appropriate time to consider how we can improve conditions for animals. It is significant that Judaism considers that for hiddur mitzvah  (to enhance mitzvot) the shofar and other ritual objects should ideally come from animals that have been raised without cruelty and have died natural deaths.

     Transforming the holiday would also: show that Jews are applying Judaism’s eternal teachings to today’s critical issues; improve Judaism’s image for people concerned about vegetarianism, animals, the environment, and related issues, by reinforcing a compassionate side of Judaism; bring young, idealistic Jews who are currently alienated to some extent from Judaism and strengthen the commitment of vegetarian Jews who are already involved in Jewish life, by creating/reclaiming a holiday that they can more closely relate to and find relevant, meaningful,  and appealing; and challenge Jews to creatively make the holiday meaningful, thereby helping to revitalize Judaism.

      Of course restoring and transforming an ancient holiday cannot be done all at once. Just like Tu Bishvat, it would have to capture the imagination of Jews and evolve gradually.  Already, a number of rabbis have endorsed the initiative, including Orthodox Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg who has written a comprehensive book on the Jewish festivals, Rabbi David Wolpe, a leading U.S. Conservative rabbi, and Rabbi Adam Frank, rabbi of the largest Conservative (Masorti) synagogue in Israel.

 

    Renewing an ancient, almost completely forgotten Jewish holiday may seem audacious. But it is essential, to help revitalize Judaism, improve the health of Jews, sharply reduce the current massive mistreatment of animals, and help move our precious but imperiled planet onto a sustainable path.

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3. An Overlooked Mitzvah: Tsa’ar Ba’alei Chaim                                            

     While tsa’ar ba’alei chaim (the mandate not to cause “sorrow to living creatures”) is a Torah prohibition, many religious Jews seem to be unaware of it or to not consider it of any great importance. Some examples reinforce this assertion:

  • Upon reading an article about my efforts to get Jewish teachings on animals onto the Jewish agenda, a member of my modern Orthodox congregation was incredulous. “What? Jews should be concerned about animals?” she exclaimed.
  • Some years ago, I was at a Sukkot gathering at which there were some ducks in an adjacent backyard. Upon seeing them, two youngsters of about 8 years of age ran toward them, yelling, “Let’s shecht (slaughter) them!”
  • In the winter, many women in my congregation come to synagogue on Shabbat mornings wearing fur coats and no one bats an eye.
  • When my wife and I attend a simchah (Jewish celebration), we are generally the only ones, or among just a few others, who request vegan meals, although farmed animals are very cruelly treated on today’s factory farms.
  • The local Hatzolah, a wonderful group whose members often drop whatever they are doing to respond to medical emergencies, raises funds through an annual event that features the consumption of hot dogs and hamburgers, without the slightest protest from Jewish leaders.

     From the above and other examples, one might never suspect that Judaism has very powerful teachings about compassion to animals. These include: (1) “God’s compassion is over all His works [including animals] (Psalms 145:9); (2) “the righteous person considers the lives of his or her animals” (Proverbs 12:10); (3) the great Jewish heroes Moses and King David were deemed suitable to be leaders because of their compassionate care of sheep when they were shepherds; (4) farmers are not to yoke a strong and a weak animal together nor to muzzle an animal while the animal is threshing in the field; (5) the Ten Commandments indicate that animals, as well as people, are to rest on the Sabbath day; (6) and much more, summarized, as mentioned above,  in the Torah mandate that Jews are to avoid causing tsa’ar ba’alei chaim.

      Why is this Torah mitzvah so often overlooked by religious Jews today? Many Jews are diligent in “building fences” around some mitzvot. For example, there is great diligence on the part of religious Jews to see that the laws related to removing chumetz before Passover are strictly met. But other mitzvot, including tsa’ar ba’alei chaim, are often downplayed or ignored.

Perhaps this is not surprising when one considers that, with regard to animals, the primary focus of Jewish religious services, Torah readings, and education are on the biblical sacrifices, animals that are kosher for eating, and laws about animal slaughter, with relatively little time devoted to Judaism’s more compassionate teachings related to animals. 

     It is essential that this emphasis on animals that are to be killed be balanced with a greater emphasis on Judaism’s more compassionate teachings about animals. In an effort to accomplish this, some Jewish activists who want to eliminate or at lest reduce the current widespread mistreatment of animals are making an audacious proposal: that the ancient Jewish New Year for animals, a day originally involved with the tithing of animals for sacrifices, be restored and transformed. Just as Tu Bishvat, a day initially intended for tithing fruit trees for Temple offerings, was reclaimed in the 17th Century by mystics as a day for healing the natural world, it is important that Rosh Hashana LaBeheimot  (New Year’s Day for Animals) become a day devoted to increasing awareness of Judaism’s powerful teachings on compassion to animals, and to considering a tikkun (healing) for the horrible ways that animals are treated today on factory farms and in other settings.

     Making the failure to avoid tsa’ar ba’alei chaim even more distressing is that animal-based diets and agriculture are contributing substantially to many diseases that are afflicting the Jewish and other communities and to climate change and other environmental problems that threaten all life on the planet. It can be argued that a major shift to plant-based diets is essential to help shift our precious, but imperiled, planet to a sustainable path. In addition, the production and consumption of meat and other animal products arguably violate Jewish mandates to preserve human health, treat animals with compassion, protect  the environment, conserve natural resources,

and help hungry people.

     Renewing the New Year for Animals would have many additional benefits, including (1) showing the relevance of Judaism’s eternal teachings to today’s critical issues, (2) improving the image of Judaism for many people, by showing a compassionate side, and (3) attracting disaffected Jews through reestablishing a holiday that they find relevant and meaningful.

Rosh Hashanah LaBeheimot occurs on Rosh Chodesh Elul, the first day of the Hebrew moth of Elul (from sunset on August 18 to sunset on August 19 in 2012). Since that date ushers in a month-long period of introspection, during which Jews are to examine their deeds and consider how to improve their words and actions before the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, this is an ideal time for Jews to consider how to apply Judaism’s splendid teachings on compassion to animals to reduce the current massive mistreatment of animals on factory farms and in other settings.

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4. Ten Important Reasons for Restoring and Transforming the Ancient New Year for Animals

                           

    Some Jewish activists who are concerned about animals are working to restore and transform the ancient and largely forgotten Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana L’Ma’aser BeHeima (New Year’s Day for Tithing Animals) into a day devoted to considering how to improve our relationships with animals. The holiday occurs on the first day of the month of Elul and was initially devoted to counting domesticated animals intended for sacrificial offerings (Mishna, Seder Moed, Tractate Rosh Hashana 1:1).

     Below are ten key reasons why renewing and transforming this holiday as a Rosh Hashanah LaBeheimot (a New Year for Animals) is an idea whose time has come:

1.Observing the holiday would increase awareness of Judaism’s powerful teachings about compassion to animals. These include: (1) “God’s compassion is over all his works [including animals] (Psalms 145:9); (2) “the righteous person considers the lives of his or her animals” (Proverbs 12:10); (3) the great Jewish leaders Moses and King David were deemed suitable to be leaders because of their compassionate care of sheep when they were shepherds; (4) farmers are not to yoke a strong and a weak animal together nor to muzzle an animal while the animal is threshing in the field; (5) the Ten Commandments indicates that animals, as well as people, are to rest on the Sabbath day; (6) and much more, summarized in the Torah mandate that Jews are to avoid tsa’ar ba’alei chaim, causing any unnecessary “sorrow  to animals.” 

2. Observing the holiday would increase awareness about the massive, widespread horrific treatment of animals on factory farms and thereby lead to dietary changes that would help reduce that mistreatment. Some examples of the mistreatment are: (1) Egg-laying hens are kept in cages so small that they can’t raise even one wing and they are debeaked without anesthetic to prevent them from harming other birds due to pecking from frustration in their very unnatural conditions. (2) Male chicks at egg-laying hatcheries fare even worse as they are killed almost immediately after birth, since they can’t lay eggs and have not been genetically programmed to produce much flesh. (3) Dairy cows are artificially impregnated annually on what the dairy industry cals “rape racks,” so that they will be able to continue ‘giving’ milk, and their babies are taken away almost immediately after birth, often to be raised as veal under very cruel conditions. (4) About nine billion animals in the U.S. alone are slaughtered annually after being raised under very cruel conditions on modern factory farms, where all of their natural instincts are thwarted.

3. As Jews also became more aware of the inconsistencies of animal-based diets with Jewish teachings about preserving human health, protecting the environment, conserving natural resources, and helping hungry people, many more Jews would shift to plant-based diets, and this would improve their health. 

4. A shift toward plant-based diets would also reduce one of today’s greatest threats: climate change. A 2006 report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” indicated that animal-based agriculture emits more greenhouse gases (in CO2 equivalents) than is emitted by all the cars, planes, ships, and all other means of transportation worldwide combined. In a cover story, “Livestock and Climate Change,” in a 2009 issue of World Watch magazine, two environmentalists associated with the World Bank argued that he livestock sector is responsible for at least 51 percent of human-induced greenhouse gases. A major reason for this huge contribution to climate change is the large amounts of methane, a very potent greenhouse gas, emitted by cattle and other animals.

 5. Reducing consumption of meat and other animal-based foods would also reduce many current environmental problems, including deforestation, soil erosion, rapid species losses, desertification, acidification of oceans, and air and water pollution.

6. Shifting away from animal-based agriculture would reduce hunger and thirst worldwide. While an estimated 20 million people die of hunger and its effects annually worldwide and about ten percent  of the world’s people are chronically hungry, over 70 percent of the grain produced in the United States and about 40 percent of the grain produced worldwide is fed to animals destined for slaughter. Also, a person on an animal-based diet requires up to 14 times as much water as a person on a vegan diet.

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7. Renewing the ancient holiday would show that Jews are applying Judaism’s eternal teachings to today’s critical issues, and this is needed as never before as the world approaches a potential climate catastrophe, severe food, water, and energy scarcities, and other environmental disasters.

8. By reinforcing a compassionate side of Judaism, the New Year for Animals would improve Judaism’s image for people concerned about vegetarianism, animals, the environment, and related issues. Currently, with regard to animals, the primary focus of Jewish religious services, Torah readings, and education are on the biblical sacrifices, animals that are kosher for eating, and laws about animal slaughter. It is essential that this emphasis on animals that are to be killed be balanced with a greater emphasis on Judaism’s more compassionate teachings about animals.

9. Reclaiming a holiday that they can more closely relate to and find relevant, meaningful, and appealing would help bring back young, idealistic Jews who are currently alienated to some extent from Judaism, and would strengthen the commitment of vegetarian and vegan Jews who are already involved in Jewish life. 

10. Seeking ways to creatively make the holiday meaningful and enjoyable would help to revitalize Judaism. This has already happened with another ancient New Year, the New Year for trees (Tu Bishavat), which has been renewed and transformed into a kind of Jewish Earth Day.

 

 

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