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Restoring and Transforming the Ancient New Year for Animals

Another Jewish holiday?

Don’t we have enough already?

Not according to Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA), of which I am president emeritus. We are working with a coalition of Jewish groups and individuals 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 for sacrifices when the Jerusalem Temple stood) into a day devoted to increasing awareness of Judaism’s beautiful teachings on compassion to animals.

These teachings 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, in the Torah mandate that Jews are to avoid causing tsa’ar ba’alei chaim, pain to animals.

Many religious Jews are properly diligent in “building fences” around some mitzvot. For example, there is great care on the part of religious Jews to fukfil the laws related to removing chumetz before Passover. 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 the killing and sacrifice of animals be balanced with a greater consideration of Judaism’s more compassionate teachings about animals. Hence the need to convert the ancient, long forgotten holiday into a Rosh Hashanah LaBeheimot, a New Year for Animals.

There is a precedent for the restoration and transformation of a holiday in Jewish History. Rosh Hashanah LaIlanot, a day initially intended for tithing fruit trees for Temple offerings, was reclaimed in the 17th Century by mystics as a day for celebrating nature’s bounty and healing the natural world. Many Jews now regard this increasingly popular holiday, Tu Bishvat, as an unofficial “Jewish Earth Day,”

It is hoped that the transformed New Year for Animals will also serve as a tikkun (healing or repair) for the current widespread mistreatment of animals on factory farms that is far from Jewish compassionate teachings. Some examples are: (1) Egg-laying hens are kept in cages so small that they can’t raise even one wing and part of their beaks are painfully seared off to prevent them from harming other birds by 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 “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. (4) 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.

Making increasing awareness about tsa’ar ba’alei chaim even more important 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.

Restoring 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 its 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 6 to sunset on August 7 in 2013). 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.

Anyone interested in celebrating the New Year for Animals this year can contact me at Schwartz@JewishVeg.com, and I will send background mater, a Haggadah draft, and ritual ideas.

Member since 2011
1 Comment
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  • Richard Schwartz
    July 25, 2013 (11:11 am)

    Messages of support from rabbis and other Jewish leaders
    We need to be aware of the realities of the global meat industry. It is our responsibility to apply Jewish teachings to how we obtain our food, use natural resources, and live alongside other animals.
 Suzanne Barnard, director of the International Jewish Vegetarian Society, London.
    It is a great joy that we should reactivate a day to honor the holy relationship between the human and animal worlds, as per Genesis 1:29 and 1:30, where all of the animal and human species will be restored to a vegan way of life …. and with that a new level of peace will unfold on the planet. This is something to bring about and celebrate. Rabbi Gabriel Cousens, M.D. Director of Tree of Life Foundation and author of Torah as a Guide to Enlightenment.
    Transforming this holiday, which was originally a time to tithe one’s flocks, into a day to focus on the treatment of animals on modern farms, would provide an excellent educational opportunity. Unlike our farmer/herder ancestors who had daily contact with animals, modern Jews are often completely out of touch with where their food comes from, or how it is produced.
 Rabbi Yonassan Gershom, writer and activist; his blog “Notes from a Jewish Thoreau” is at http://rooster613.blogspot.com/.
    It is a beautiful idea to renew/revive a classic day – Rosh Hashanah for counting and giving ma’aser beheima – that lost its actual function with the Destruction of the Temple and the Exile. Your contemporary application of this attention in the form of addressing humanity’s relationship to animal life – and the widespread mistreatment of food animals and environmental abuse in today’s economy, marked by industrial farming and animal husbandry – is inspired. I wish you great success in this project because it would have a morally positive effect on our treatment of animals and the planet -as well as bring great benefits to human health in switching to a healthier diet and life enhancement eating. In this way, your project fulfills and advances the central mitzvah of the Torah: choose life.
 Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, former President of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership; author of The Jewish way: Living the Holidays.
    Rosh Chodesh Elul, the Talmudic New Year for Animals, is a wonderful time to reclaim our connection to our brothers and sisters of all species, examine our ethics around treatment of animals, and celebrate the ways humans are and can be in partnership with all life. I, for one, look forward to blessing the animals in a Jewish context! 
Rabbi Jill Hammer, Director of Spiritual Education for the Academy of Jewish Religion (Riverdale, NY).

    The Jewish tradition mandates that we are stewards of all God’s creation. In our day we are increasingly sensitized to suffering of those living creatures in our care; this initiative helps us to recognize our obligation to animals and so helps us be more fully human. 
Rabbi David Wolpe, Temple Sinai, Los Angeles.

    Many more blurbs will be sought
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