A Forgotten Mitzvah: Tsa’ar Ba’alei Chaim

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

  1. Upon reading an article about my efforts to get Jewish teachings on animals onto the Jewish agenda, a member of my former modern Orthodox congregation was incredulous. “What? Jews should be concerned about animals?” she exclaimed.
    2. 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!”
    3. In the winter, many women in my former modern Orthodox congregation come to synagogue on Shabbat mornings wearing fur coats and no one bats an eye.
    4. 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.
    5. Hatzolah, a wonderful organization 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, I an working with a coalition of Jewish groups that is 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. 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 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 22 to sunset on August 23 in 2017). 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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