Tsa’ar Ba’alei Chaim – Judaism and Compassion to Animals

This posting is chapter two of the 3rd edition of my book, “Judaism and Vegetarianism.”

While our teacher Moses was tending the flock of Jethro in the wilderness, a kid ran away from him. He ran after the kid until it reached Hasuah. Upon reaching Hasuah, the kid came upon a body of water and began to drink. When Moses reached him he said, “I did not know that you were running because [you were] thirsty. You must be tired.” He placed the kid on his shoulder and began to walk. The Holy One, blessed be He, said, “You are compassionate in leading flocks belonging to mortals; I swear you will similarly shepherd my flock, Israel.” (Midrash Exodus Rabbah 2:2)

ANIMALS ARE PART OF GOD’S CREATION AND PEOPLE are given special responsibilities toward them. The Jewish tradition clearly indicates that we are forbidden to be cruel to animals and that we are to treat them with compassion. These concepts are summarized in the Hebrew phrase tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, the biblical mandate not to cause “pain to any living creature.” This Torah-based teaching is found in all strata of Jewish texts and history and occupies a central place in Jewish ethical practice. It is part of the Jewish vision of what it means to be a tzaddik (righteous individual) and to imitate God’s ways. In ancient times the mandate of not causing unnecessary suffering animals led to highly regulated meat-eating. This chapter aims to demonstrate that the modern realities of raising animals severely violate Jewish teachings and present major halachic and moral questions.

Psalms 104 and 148 show God’s close identification with the animals of the field, creatures of the sea, and birds of the air. Psalm 104 pictures God as “giving drink to every beast of the field,” and “causing grass to spring up for the cattle.” Sea animals and birds are given the same blessing/injuction as are people: “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:22). Animals are initially given a vegetarian diet similar to that of people (Genesis 1:29–30). The Hebrew term nefesh chaya (a “living soul”) is applied in Genesis (1:21, 24) to animals as well as people. In contrast tothe way people regard and treat animals today, these teachings show the very high regard that God has for them and wants people to have for them. Although the Torah states that people are to have “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28), there is to be a basic relatedness, and the rights and privileges of animals are not to be neglected or overlooked.

As indicated previously, people’s dominion over animals is immediately limited by God’s first (completely vegetarian) dietary law (Genesis 1:29), and this is quickly followed by God’s statement that all of creation is very good (Genesis 1:31), showing that this vegetarian diet is consistent with the stewardship that God wants people to practice. While the Torah states that only human beings are created “in the Divine Image” (Genesis 5:1), animals are also God’s creatures, possessing sensitivity and the capacity for feeling pain. Hence God is very concerned that they be protected and treated with compassion and justice. In fact, to be created in the Divine Image, state the sages, means that people have the power to emulate the Divine compassion to all creatures. “As God is compassionate,” they teach, “so you should be compassionate.”1

In his classic work Ahavat Chesed (The Love of Kindness), the revered Chafetz Chayim discusses this teaching at length, and he writes that whoever emulates the Divine love and compassion to all creatures “will bear the stamp of God on his person.”2 Rabbi Hirsch also discussed this concept:

You can know God only through His acts of love and justice; and, in turn, you too are called upon to act with love and justice, not merely to indulge or endure.3

In this spirit, Rabbi Hirsch states, we human beings were created to “serve (work) and safeguard the Earth” (Genesis 2:15), and this limits our rights over other creatures and all living things. He writes:

The earth was not created as a gift to you. You have been given to the earth, to treat it with respectful consideration, as God’s earth, and everything on it as God’s creation, as your fellow creatures— to be respected, loved, and helped to attain their purpose according to God’s will….[T]o this end, your heartstrings vibrate sympathetically with any cry of distress sounding anywhere in creation, and with any glad sound uttered by a joyful creature.4

God even makes treaties and covenants with animals, as He did with humans:

“As for me,” says the Lord, “behold I establish My Covenant with you and with your seed after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the fowl, the cattle, and every animal of the earth with you; of all that go out of the ark, even every animal of the earth.” (Genesis 9:9–10)

And in that day will I make a covenant for them with the animals of the field and with the fowls of heaven and with the creeping things of the ground. And I will break the bow and the sword and the battle out of the land and I will make them to lie down safely. (Hosea 2:20)

In contrast to modern law, which generally considers animals as material possessions and thus permits them to be cruelly treated, Divine law in the Bible as reflected in God’s covenants considers animals worthy of recognition and committment.

Ecclesiastes examines the kinship between people and animals. Both are described as sharing common fates of mortality:

For that which befalls the sons of men befalls animals; even one thing befalls them; as the one dies, so dies the other; yes, they all have one breath; so that man has no preeminence above an animal; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are of the dust. who knows the spirit of men whether it goes upward; and the spirit of the animal whether it goes downward to the earth? (Ecclesiastes 3:19–21)

God considers animals, as well as people, when he admonishes Jonah, “and should I not have pity on Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than six score thousand persons…and also much cattle? (Jonah 4:11)

The psalmist indicates God’s concern for animals in declaring: “His tender mercies are over all His creatures” (Psalms 145:9). This statement serves as a cornerstone of rabbinic teachings on compassion to animals. The author of Psalms also pictures God as “satisfying the desire of every living creature” (Psalms 145:16), “providing food for animals and birds” (Psalms 147:9), and, in general, “preserving both people and animals” (Psalms 36:7)

The Talmud describes God providing animals with the attributes necessary for survival in their environment. For example, the camel has a short tail so it won’t become ensnared when she feeds upon thorns; the ox has a long tail so he can protect himself from gnats when he feeds in the plains; the antennae of locusts are flexible so they won’t break against trees and blind the locusts.5

Perhaps the Jewish attitude toward animals is best summarized by the statement in Proverbs 12:10, “the righteous person regards the life of his or her animal.” This is the human counterpoint of “The Lord is good to all, and His tender mercies are over all His creatures” (Psalms 145:9). One who is cruel to animals cannot be regarded as a righteous individual! In his explanation of Proverbs 12:10, the Malbim, a 19th-century biblical commentator, explains that the righteous person understands the nature of his or her animal, and hence gives the animal food at the proper time and according to the amount needed. He is also careful not to overwork the animal. For, according to the Malbim, “the tzaddik (righteous person) acts according to the laws of justice; not only does he act according to these laws with human beings, but also with animals.”6

Torah Laws Involving Compassion for Animals
1. It is forbidden to cause pain to any animal. Maimonides7 and Rabbi Judah ha-Hasid8 (1150–1217) state that this is based on the biblical statement of the angel of God to Balaam, “Wherefore have you smitten your ass?” (Numbers 22:32). This verse is used in the Talmud as a prime source for its assertion that we are to treat animals humanely.9 The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) is more explicit and specific:10

It is forbidden, according to the law of the Torah, to inflict pain upon any living creature. On the contrary, it is our duty to relieve the pain of any creature, even if it is ownerless or belongs to a non- Jew.

When horses, drawing a cart, come to a rough road or a steep hill, and it is hard for them to draw the cart without help, it is our duty to help them, even when they belong to a non-Jew, because of the precept not to be cruel to animals, lest the owner smite them to force them to draw more than their strength permits.

It is forbidden to tie the legs of a beast or of a bird in a manner which will cause them pain.

2. “You shall not muzzle the ox when he threshes out the corn.” (Deuteronomy 25:4)

At the time of threshing, when the ox is surrounded by the food that he enjoys so much, he should not be prevented from satisfying his appetite. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch states that this prohibition gives the animal that helps you harvest the fruits of the earth a right to these fruits while working; no means may be used to prevent him from eating.11 He cites the Shulchan Aruch12 as indicating that one may prevent an animal from eating when the fruits might harm him.13 Rashi, citing Baba Kamma 54b in support, contends that this law also applies to other animals, including birds.14

Professor C. H. Cornill contrasts the humanitarianism of this law with a modern European grape harvest, in which “one of the richest Italian real estate owners fastened iron muzzles to the miserable, fever-stricken workmen, so that it might not occur to these poor peasants working for starvation wages under the glowing sun of Southern Italy to satiate their burning thirst and their gnawing hunger with a few of the millions of grapes of the owner.”15 Because of this and similar legislation, William Lecky, the distinguished British historian, argues that “tenderness to animals is one of the most beautiful features in the [Hebrew Scriptures].”16

3. “You shall not plow with an ox and an ass together.” (Deuteronomy 22:10)

Such an act would cause the weaker animal great pain in trying to keep up with the stronger. The stronger would also suffer by being deprived of his usual routine, by having to act contrary to his instinctive nature. The Talmud extends this law to apply to any case where there are two animals involved, one strong and one weak, and to other activities such as driving carts or wagons.17

You may not allow one task to be done together by animals of two species. You may not allow them to carry the smallest thing together, even if it be only a seed….You may not sit in a wagon drawn by animals of differing species.18

Rabbi Hirsch concludes that one should not unite animals of different species and different capabilities for any activities.19 The Sefer Hachinuch, a classic work on the 613 mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah, indicates: “This involves the biblical prohibition against causing suffering to animals, since it is known that there are species of animals and birds which develop anxiety if they dwell together with those that are not of their species—even more so if one works them together.”20

4. A person should not eat before first providing for his or her animals.21

This is based on Deuteronomy 11:15: “And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you shall eat and be satisfied.” God provides food for the cattle before people, and we are to imitate God. According to Rabbi Eliezer ha-Kapar, a Talmudic sage, no one should buy a domestic animal, wild beast, or bird unless he or she is able to feed the animal properly.22 The duty to feed an animal first is so great that a person must interrupt the performance of a rabbinic commandment if one is not sure animals have been properly fed.23

5. Animals, as well as people, must be allowed to rest on the Sabbath day.

The Kiddush (sanctification over wine or grape juice) that is recited on Sabbath mornings includes the following verse from the Ten Commandments:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shall you labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the Lord, your God; in it you shall not do any manner of work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your man-servant, nor your maid-servant, nor your cattle, nor the stranger that is within your gates. (Exodus 20:8–10)

Similar statements occur in Exodus 23:12 and Deuteronomy 5:12–14. Based on these Torah statements, Rashi states that animals must be free to roam on the Sabbath day and graze freely and enjoy the beauties of nature.24 The fact that animals are mentioned within the Ten Commandments expresses the importance placed on compassion for animals in Judaism. Rabbi J. H. Hertz, in commenting on Exodus 20:10, writes: “It is one of the glories of Judaism that thousands of years [ago] it so fully recognized our duties to animals.”25

In a similar manner, animals are to be provided for during the Sabbatical year. The produce that grows freely during that period is to be enjoyed by animals of the field as well as by the poor. (Leviticus 25:6–7)

6. It is forbidden to sacrifice a newborn ox, sheep, or goat until it has had at least seven days of warmth and nourishment from its mother. (Leviticus 22:27)

This precept shows the desire of the Torah to spare the feelings of living creatures and to instill a spirit of compassion in people. Rabbi Elie Munk, a 20th-century biblical commentator, writes concerning the above precept: “For the sages of the Midrash, this waiting period is symptomatic of the Divine compassion for the mother; it would be cruel to tear away her young so soon after birth.”26 A midrash (a rabbinic commentary, expressed in parables and stories, that brings out a deeper meaning of a Torah verse) on the above mitzvah states:

“The righteous person knows the soul of his animal” (Proverbs 12:10) is referring to the Holy One (God), Blessed be He, as it is written in the Torah: “When a bull, sheep, or goat is born, he shall remain under his mother for seven days…”.27

7. “And whether it be ox or ewe, you shall not kill the animal and her young both in one day.” (Leviticus 22:28)

This law prohibits a practice performed in some ancient cults of sacrificing an animal and her young together. Maimonides comments on this verse as follows:

It is prohibited to kill an animal with her young on the same day, in order that people should be restrained and prevented from killing the two together in such a manner that the young is slain in the sight of the mother, for the pain of animals under such circumstances is very great. There is no difference in this case between the pain of people and the pain of other living beings, since the love and the tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning but by feeling, and this faculty exists not only in people but in most living things.28

8. We are forbidden to take the mother bird and her young together.

“The mother bird must be sent away before her young are taken.” (Deuteronomy 22:6–7). For showing compassion to the mother bird, the Torah promises us a long life. Maimonides comments that when the mother bird is sent away she does not see the taking of her young ones, and thus does not feel any pain at that time.29 Furthermore, in most cases, the commandment will result in the entire nest being left untouched, because the young or the eggs, which people are allowed to take, are generally unfit for human food, because eggs with blood or veins developing are not kosher.30 Maimonides also observes that if we are commanded not to cause grief to animals and to birds, we must be even more careful not to cause grief to people.31

However, in their commentaries on the above Torah verse, Nachmanides and Rabbi Bachya Ben Asher (a 13th-century sage) connect the above law and the prohibition against slaughtering an animal along with its young to the preservation of species.32 Thus, it may be that these prohibitions are intended to remind us of the limits on our power over other creatures, and of our need to respect and preserve the manifold species which God created.

9. We should not boil a kid in the milk of his mother. (Exodus 23:19, 34:26; Deuteronomy 14:21)

Commenting on Exodus 23:19, Rashi notes that the repetition of this prohibition in three different biblical passages implies a three-fold ban: (1) milk and meat must not be eaten together; (2) they must not be cooked together; and (3) it is forbidden to benefit from food containing a mixture of milk and meat.

Some Torah authorities, including Maimonides, see the above law as a rejection of an ancient pagan practice. However, Abraham Ibn Ezra, a 12th-century sage, writes that, although the ultimate reason for this prohibition is beyond human understanding, it may be because “it is an act of a cruel heart to cook a kid in his mother’s milk.”33 That is, it is insensitive and cruel to take milk, a substance that the Creator made to nurture life, and to use it in a way connected to the destruction of that life. Rashbam (1080–1174) also considered this practice as denoting gross insensitivity and cruelty.34

10. Animals should not be allowed to suffer discomfort from a heavy burden.

“If you see the ass of him who hates you fallen due to its burden, you shall surely not pass him by; you shall surely unload it with him.” (Exodus 23:5) According to the sages, this commandment mandates both a humane approach toward the animal and a charitable approach toward an enemy. Indeed, they teach that the greatest hero is a person who turns an enemy into a friend.35 The Talmud connects the above precept to the prohibition of causing pain to animals, since the animal is clearly suffering from the burden. It is, therefore, a mitzvah to relieve the suffering of the animal.36

11. We must be vigilant concerning the well-being of a lost animal.

“You shall not see your brother’s ox or his sheep driven away and hide yourself from them; you shall surely bring them back unto your brother” (Deuteronomy 22:1). In addition, the animal must be cared for until the owner’s return.

12. We are to “walk in God’s ways.” (Deuteronomy 28:9)

In his explanation of the precept “to walk in God’s ways,” Rabbi Hirsch amplifies the ancient teachings of the sages:

As God is merciful, so you also be merciful. As He loves and cares for all His creatures because they are His creatures and His children and are related to Him, because He is their Father, so you also love all His creatures as your brethren. Let their joys be your joys, and their sorrows yours. Love them and with every power which God gives you, work for their welfare and benefit, because they are the children of your God, because they are your brothers and sisters.37

Another 19th-century authority, Rabbi Moshe Sofer (known as the Hatam Sofer), regards obligations toward animals as predicated upon emulation of Divine conduct. Thus, he cites the verse “His tender mercies are over all His creatures” (Psalms 145:9) as imposing an obligation upon human beings to show compassion toward animals.38

13. Throughout the ages, the rabbis strongly disapproved of hunting as a sport.39

A Jew is permitted to capture fish, animals, or fowl only for purposes of human food or what is considered another essential human need. But to destroy an animal for “sport” constitutes wanton destruction and is to be condemned. Based on the statement “not to stand in the way of sinners” (Psalms 1:1), the Talmud prohibits association with hunters.40 A query was addressed to Rabbi Yechezkel Landau (1713–1793) by a man wishing to know if he could hunt in his large estate, which included forests and fields. His response in the classic Nodah b’Yehudah is as follows:

In the Torah the sport of hunting is imputed only to fierce characters like Nimrod and Esau, never to any of the patriarchs and their descendants….I cannot comprehend how a Jew could even dream of killing animals merely for the pleasure of hunting…. When the act of killing is prompted by that of sport, it is downright cruelty.41

14. Shechitah (Jewish ritual slaughter).

Although the consumption of meat is permitted as a concession to people’s weakness and people came to think about it as necessary for proper nutrition, the Torah restricts this indulgence in various ways—especially through the complex laws of shechitah (ritual slaughter).42 Aside from their spiritual effects and meanings, the laws of shechitah provide the most humane method of slaughtering animals. The knife to be used is regularly examined to ensure that it is perfectly smooth, without a notch that might tear the flesh. The cut severs the arteries to the head of the animal, thus instantly stopping blood circulation to the head and minimizing the pain.

The slaughterer, the shochet, must meet stringent scholarly and moral standards. He is obligated to examine the animal for any possible disease and to slaughter the animal according to Jewish law. The shochet is required to be a learned, observant person who demonstrates a complete knowledge of the laws of shechitah. Also, he must recite a blessing prior to slaughter, an act that shows reverence for life. Thus the laws of shechitah may serve as a reminder that meat-eating is a concession. Question 6 in Chapter 7 will consider shechitah further.

15. On Yom Kippur, the most sacred day of the Jewish year, when Jews fast, confess their sins, and pray for life and good health from God in the coming year, it is forbidden to wear leather shoes. One reason is that it is not proper to plead for compassion when one has not shown compassion toward other living creatures.43

Rabbi Moses Isserles (c.1528–1572), known as the Rema, states: “How can a man put on shoes, a piece of clothing for which it is necessary to kill a living thing, on Yom Kippur, which is a day of grace and compassion, when it is written ‘His tender mercies are over all His works’ ” (Psalms 145:9).44 Jews are required to recite a special benediction, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us in life, and has preserved us and enabled us to reach this season,” when putting on a piece of clothing for the first time. However, an exception is made for furs and leather shoes because an animal had to be killed in making them.45

The Code of Jewish Law has a similar statement:

It is customary to say to one who puts on a new garment: “May you wear it out and acquire a new one.” But we do not express this wish to one who puts on new shoes or a new garment made of fur or leather…because a garment like this requires the killing of a living creature, and it is written: “And His mercy is upon all His works” (Psalms 145:9).46

16. Although the Torah contains no explicit general prohibition against cruelty to animals, there are so many commandments mandating humane treatment for them that the Talmudic rabbis explicitly declared this prohibition to be a biblical law.47

Hence, various rabbinic Sabbath laws could be relaxed to relieve the suffering of an animal. For such purposes, one has permission to capture domestic animals,48 take care of their wounds when they are fresh and painful,49 race them around as a remedy for overeating,50 place them in water to cool them following an attack of congestion,51 and assist them to free themselves from a pit or a body of water into which they have fallen.52 In view of the paramount importance of the Sabbath in Judaism (indeed, the Zohar equates its observance to fulfillment of all of the Torah’s commandments in their entirety) and the many restrictions on labor on this day, the above considerations indicate the importance that Judaism places on compassion to animals.

Rabbi Hirsch eloquently summarizes the Jewish view on treatment of animals:

Here you are faced with God’s teaching, which obliges you not only to refrain from inflicting unnecessary pain on any animal, but to help and, when you can, to lessen the pain whenever you see an animal suffering, even through no fault of yours.53

Examples of Kindness to Animals by Biblical Heroes

Many biblical leaders of Israel were trained for their tasks by being shepherds of flocks. As the midrash quoted at the beginning of this chapter states, God tested Moses through his shepherding. The greatest Jewish teacher, leader, and prophet was found worthy, not because of abilities as a speaker, statesman, politician, or warrior, but because of his compassion for animals!

God deemed David worthy of leading the Jewish people because he, like Moses, tended his sheep with devotion, bestowing upon them the care each one needed. David used to prevent the larger sheep from going out before the smaller ones. The smaller ones were then able to graze upon the tender grass. Next he permitted the old sheep to feed on the ordinary grass, and finally the young, mature sheep consumed the tougher grass.54

Rebecca was judged suitable to be Isaac’s wife because of the kindness she showed to animals. Eliezer, the patriarch Abraham’s servant, asked Rebecca for water for himself. She not only gave him water, but also eagerly provided water for his ten thirsty camels. Rebecca’s concern for camels was evidence of a tender heart and compassion for all God’s creatures. It convinced Eliezer that Rebecca would make a suitable wife for Isaac (Genesis 24:11–20).

The patriarch Jacob also demonstrated concern for animals. After their reconciliation, his brother Esau said to him, “Let us take our journey and let us go, and I will go before you.” But Jacob, concerned about his children and flocks, replied: “My lord knows that the children are tender, and that the flocks and the herds giving suck are a care to me; and if my workers overdrive them one day, all the flocks will die. Let my lord, I pray you, pass over before his servant and I will journey on gently, according to the pace of the cattle that are before me and according to the pace of the children, until I come unto my lord, unto Seir” (Genesis 33:12–14).

Consistent with the fact that concern for the well-being of animals is the test for a righteous individual, Jacob instructed his son Joseph to determine “whether it is well with your brethren and well with the flock” (Genesis 37:14). In the wilderness, the Israelites sought water for both themselves and their cattle (Numbers 20:4).

The Torah states: “But Jacob journeyed to Sukkot and built himself a house, and for his livestock he made shelters; he therefore named the place Sukkot (booths)” (Genesis 33:17). The Ohr HaChayim, in his comment on the above verse, suggested the name Sukkot commemorated the shelters that Jacob built for his animals, for this may have been the first time that anyone had taken the trouble to spare animals from the distress of sun and cold.

Noah was called a tzaddik (righteous person) because of his extraordinary care of the animals on the ark.55 He was careful to feed each species its appropriate food at the proper time. Indeed, the midrash tells us that Noah did not sleep due to his continuous concern for the welfare of the animals.56 The Torah explicitly designates only one other personality, Joseph, as a tzaddik. In times of crisis, they both provided food for humans and animals.

Stories from the Jewish Tradition Related to Compassion for Animals

Rabbi Judah the Prince was sitting and studying the Torah in front of the Babylonian Synagogue in Sepphoris. A calf being taken to the slaughterhouse came to him as if pleading, “Save me!” Rabbi Judah said to it, “What can I do for you? For this you were created.” As a punishment for his insensitivity, he suffered from a toothache for thirteen years.

One day, a creeping thing [a weasel] ran past Rabbi Judah’s daughter who was about to kill him. He said to her, “My daughter, let it be, for it is written, ‘and God’s tender mercies are over all his works’ (Psalms 145:9).” Because Rabbi Judah prevented an act of cruelty and unkindness to an animal, his health was restored to him and his toothache went away.57

Evidently, even a person as important as Rabbi Judah the Prince, redactor of the Mishnah, could forget to treat animals properly; and even such an important person is not forgiven by God until he performs an act to show that he properly understands the need to treat animals compassionately.

Someone once asked the eminent Rav Sherira Gaon: “If Rabbi Judah was punished because he handed a calf over to the slaughterer, and was once again rewarded because he protected an animal from death, should we learn from this not to slaughter any animal and not to kill harmful animals?”58 The Gaon’s answer: “Animals that may harm people, such as snakes, lions, wolves, must be killed [if posing a danger]; on the other hand, animals that do us no harm and are not needed for food or medicine should not be killed….To save a calf that we need for nourishment is not required of us.”59

Now that we know that we do not need meat for nourishment and that, as a matter of fact, the consumption of flesh products harms our health, what a tremendously powerful argument for vegetarianism this story is!

The Maharshah (1555–1631) notes that Rabbi Judah was punished because it was a calf, rather than a mature animal that had at least tasted life’s joys, that was being led to slaughter.60 This implies that if animals have had a sufficient chance to experience life’s pleasures, it would be permissible to slaughter them for food. However, today this concept also provides a strong argument for vegetarianism for, as discussed in the next section, modern day farmed animals lack “life’s pleasures” as they are raised from birth in closed confined spaces and denied fresh air, sunlight, exercise, and emotional fulfillment.

The following stories also illustrate Jewish teachings related to compassion to animals:

Rabbi Israel Salanter, one of the most distinguished Orthodox rabbis of the nineteenth century, failed to appear one Yom Kippur eve to chant the sacred Kol Nidre prayer. His congregation became concerned, for it was inconceivable that their saintly rabbi would be late or absent on this very holy day. They sent out a search party to look for him. After much time, their rabbi was found in the barn of a Christian neighbor. On his way to the synagogue, Rabbi Salanter had come upon one of his neighbor’s calves, lost and tangled in the brush. Seeing that the animal was in distress, he freed him and led him home through many fields and over many hills. His act of mercy represented the rabbi’s prayers on that Yom Kippur evening.61

Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol, a Chassidic master, once was on a journey to collect money to ransom prisoners. He came to an inn and in one room found a large cage with many types of birds. He saw that the birds wanted to fly out of the cage and be free again. He burned with pity for them and said to himself, “Here you are, Zusya, walking your feet off to ransom prisoners. But what greater ransoming of prisoners can there be than to free these birds from their prison?” He then opened the cage, and the birds flew out into freedom.

When the innkeeper saw the empty cage, he was very angry and asked the people in the house who had released the birds. They answered that there was a man loitering around who appeared to be a fool and that he must have done it. The innkeeper shouted at Zusya: “You fool! How could you rob me of my birds and make worthless the good money I paid for them?” Zusya replied: “Have you read these words in the Psalms: ‘His tender mercies are over all His work’?” Then the innkeeper beat Zusya and then threw him out of the house. And Zusya went his way serenely.62

Rabbi Abramtzi was a man full of compassion—his compassion was for all living things. He would not walk on the grass of the field lest he trample it down. He was very careful not to tread on grasshoppers or crawling insects. If a dog came to the door of his house, he would instruct the members of his household to feed the animal. In winter he would scatter crumbs of bread and seed on the window sills. When sparrows and other birds arrived and began to pick at the food, he could not remove his gaze from them and his face would light up with joy like that of a little child. He looked after his horses far better than his coachmen did. When traveling and the coach had to ascend an incline, he would climb down in order to lighten the load and, more often than not, he would push the cart from behind.

On summer days he would compel his coachman to stop on the way and turn aside to a field in order that the horses should rest and partake of the grass. The rabbi loved these rest periods in the forest. While the horses were grazing, he would sit under a tree and read a book. At times he would pray in the field or the forest. This gave him great pleasure, for he used to say, “The field and the forest are the most beautiful and finest of the Houses of the Lord.”

It happened once that the rabbi was on the road on a Friday. It would take another three hours to reach home. Due to the rain, the road was very muddy. The wagon could only proceed with difficulty. The mud gripped the wheels and slowed down its progress. It was midday and they had not even completed half the journey. The horses were tired and worn out. They had no energy to proceed further.

The rabbi told the driver to stop and give fodder to the horses, so that they could regain their strength. This was done. Afterwards the journey was continued, but the going was heavy and the wagon sunk up to the hubs of the wheels in the mud. It was with the greatest difficulty that the horses maintained their balance on the swampy ground. The vapor of sweat enveloped their skin. Their knees trembled and at any moment they would have to rest. The coachman scolded and urged them on. He then raised his whip on the unfortunate creatures. The rabbi grabbed him by the elbow and cried out: “This is cruelty to animals, cruelty to animals.” The coachman answered in fury: “What do you want me to do? Do you want us to celebrate the Sabbath here?”

“What of it?” replied the rabbi. “It is better that we celebrate the Sabbath here than cause the death of these animals by suffering. Are they not the creatures of the Lord? See how exhausted they are. They have not the energy to take one more step forward.”

“But what of the Sabbath? How can Jews observe the Sabbath in the forest?” asked the coachman.

“My friend, it does not matter. The Sabbath Queen will come to us here also, for her glory fills the whole world, and particularly in those places where Jews yearn for her. The Lord shall do what is good in His eyes. He will look after us, supply us with our wants and guard us against all evil.”63

As the following dialogue indicates, the African King Kazia was astounded when he observed the cruel and unjust way in which Alexander of Macedonia judged disputes, and wondered why Macedonia was still blessed with God’s beneficence:

King: Does the rain fall in your country? Alexander: Yes.
King: Does the sun shine in your country? Alexander: Yes.

King: Perhaps there are small cattle in your country?
Alexander: Yes.
King: Cursed be the man [who would render such evil judgments]. It is only because of the merit of the small cattle that the sun shines upon you and the rain falls upon you. For the sake of the small cattle you are saved!64

The midrash concluded: “Hence it is written, ‘People and animals You preserved, Oh Lord’ (Psalms 36:7), as if to say, ‘You preserve people, Oh Lord, because of the merit of the animals.’ ”65 This suggests that God provides rain and sun, the essentials of a healthy environment, even when people are evil and do not deserve it, because of God’s concern for animals.

Treatment of Animals Today

As we have seen, the Jewish tradition stresses compassion for animals and commands that we strive to avoid causing them pain (tsa’ar ba’alei chayim). Unfortunately, the conditions under which animals are raised for food today are quite different from any the Torah would endorse.

Chickens are raised for slaughter in long, windowless, crowded sheds, where they never see sunlight, breathe fresh air, or get any exercise.66 When the tiny chicks arrive, there is plenty of room, but they have progressively less room as they grow, and just prior to slaughter they have about a half a square foot per chicken, barely enough to move. The lives of “broiler” chickens are marked by mutilation, overcrowding, and stress, and they are generally slaughtered when only about seven or eight weeks old; by contrast, a normal chicken’s lifespan is eight to ten years.

There is tremendous cruelty in the forced feeding of ducks and geese to produce pâté de foie gras.67 Foie gras literally means fat liver. The liver of a goose or duck is fattened by having pounds of grain forced down its gullet. The owner generally holds the neck of the goose between his legs, pouring the corn with one hand and rubbing it down the neck with the other. When this process ceases to be effective, the owner uses a wooden plunger to compact it still further. The bird suffers unimaginable pain, and as the liver grows to an enormous size, sclerosis of the liver develops. Finally, after twenty-five days of such agony, when completely stupefied with pain and unable to move, the bird is killed and the gigantic liver, considered a delicacy, is removed. Currently, machines are used to force-feed birds to make the process more “efficient,” with greater resultant agony.

In response to my request for his views on the production and consumption of foie gras, Rabbi David Rosen, a contemporary Israeli Orthodox rabbi and former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, sent me the following response:

It should be obvious that pâté de foie gras is produced in a manner that is in complete contravention of the Torah’s prohibition of causing tsa’ar ba’alei chayim—pain to animals (see Maimonides, Yad Chazakah, Hilchot Rozeah, Ch. 13, M. 8). Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, the Noda Bi-Yehuda, clarifies that causing any cruelty to an animal while alive is a desecration of this prohibition (Noda Bi- Yehuda, Yoreh Deah, Response No. 10) and that if food can be obtained in a manner that does not involve additional pain and one chooses to obtain such through causing pain to an animal, one desecrates a Torah prohibition. Pâté de foie gras is obtained through the willful desecration of a Torah prohibition and any truly God-revering Jew will not partake of such a product which is an offense against the Creator and His Torah.

Unfortunately, Israel is [now was]one of the world’s major exporters of pâté de foie gras.68

The raising of calves to produce veal generally involves great cruelty. After being allowed to nurse for only one or two days, the owners take the calf from his mother, with no consideration of his need for motherly nourishment, affection, and physical contact. They lock the calf in a small slotted stall without enough space to move around, stretch, or even lie down. To obtain the pale, tender veal desired by consumers, the owners purposely keep the calf anemic by giving him a special high-calorie, iron- free diet. The calf craves iron so much that he licks the iron fittings on his stall and his own urine if he can; he is tied to the stall so he can’t turn his head. The stall is kept very warm and the calf is deprived of water, so he will be forced to drink more of his high-calorie liquid diet. The very unnatural conditions of the veal calf—the lack of exercise, sunlight, fresh air, proper food and water, and any emotional stimulation—make for a very sick, anemic animal. Antibiotics and drugs are used to keep the calf disease free. The calf leaves his dark stall only to be taken to slaughter; sometimes he drops dead from the stress and exertion of going to slaughter.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (d. 1985), perhaps the most influential Orthodox Jewish halachic authority in the United States in this generation, ruled in 1982 that it is forbidden for Jews to raise calves for veal under current intensive livestock agricultural conditions, since this violates the prohibition of tsa’ar ba’alei chayim. In a responsum, he explained that the production of veal is not a legitimate necessity that justifies such suffering.69 In a two-part article in the Jewish Press70, Rabbi Aryeh Spero discusses kashrut problems related to current methods of raising veal calves. Basing his position on Rabbi Feinstein’s responsum, he points out that animals who are too weak or sick to walk by their own strength are not suitable for ritual slaughter. He indicates that the horrible conditions under which calves are raised should result in only thirty percent of calves meeting kosher requirements, and that there should be concern with any packing-house yielding consistently higher percentages.

The transportation of animals to slaughterhouses by rail or truck involves additional cruelties.71 They are jammed into a confined area for many hours, sometimes days, where they suffer from lack of food, water, exercise, and ventilation. They are often exposed to extreme heat, cold, and humidity and are generally not fed for the last twenty-four to forty- eight hours prior to slaughter.

There is also much cruelty in the raising of animals to produce eggs and milk. The next few paragraphs give just a small sampling of this treatment, described in much more detail in Diet For a New America by John Robbins, Old McDonald’s Factory Farm by C. David Coats, and other books (see Bibliography).

Layer hens are extremely crowded, with four or five hens generally squeezed into a twelve-by-eighteen-inch cage. Crowding is so bad that a chicken cannot stretch even one wing. The results of these very unnatural conditions are pecking and cannibalism. To avoid this, the lighting is kept very dim and the chickens are “debeaked.” Debeaking is a very painful and often debilitating procedure that involves cutting off part of the beak with a hot knife while the hen’s head is held by hand or in a vise. This is industry’s answer to the fact that birds are often driven to crazed pecking, which harms and sometimes kills their fellow cellmates, thus reducing the producers’ profits.72

Ruth Harrison describes the results of her observations of current methods of raising chickens for eggs in her landmark book, Animal Machines. She found that the chickens seemed to have lost their minds; their eyes gleamed through the bars, they viciously pecked at any hand within reach, and they pulled feathers out of other chickens’ backs looking for flesh and blood to eat.73

Since they have no value to the egg industry, male chicks are discarded shortly after birth and disposed of by “chick-pullers.” Each day in the United States workers stuff over half a million chicks into plastic bags, where they crush and suffocate them. Alternately, they grind them up while still alive to use them as fertilizer or feed them to other livestock.74

Today’s modern milk factories raise cows for maximum milk production at a minimum cost. They artificially inseminate each cow annually and then take her calves away from her almost immediately so that she constantly produces milk for human consumption (her calf goes into a veal crate and is slaughtered four months later). The cow lives with an unnaturally enlarged and sensitive udder, and she is likely to be kept inside a stall nearly her whole life and milked up to three times a day. While the dairy industry would like people to believe that its cows are contented, today’s factory-bred cows have to be fed tranquilizers to calm their nerves. As soon as they are milked-out after a few years, they are slaughtered to produce hamburgers.75

The following two selections summarize the inhumane treatment of animals raised for food:

How far have we the right to take our domination of the animal world? Have we the right to rob them of all pleasures in life simply to make more money more quickly out of their carcasses? Have we the right to treat living creatures solely as food-converting machines? At what point do we acknowledge cruelty?76

Every year millions of animals are born and bred for the sole purpose of satisfying those who like the taste of meat. Their lives vary in length from a few weeks to a few years; most live a fraction of the time they would in more natural conditions. They die in slaughterhouses where, if the tranquilizers have their effect, they know only a few moments of the awful fear of death before they are stunned, and their throats cut. This is what all meat-eaters actively support, for there would be no batteries, no sweat-boxes, no need to castrate male animals or artificially inseminate females, no cattle markets and no slaughterhouses if there was no one insensitive enough to buy their products. It is simply impossible to farm animals for food without imprisoning, mutilating, and eventually slaughtering them, and no one can ignore this price that has to be paid for the pleasure of eating meat.77

Ruth Harrison eloquently summarizes how animals are raised today:

To some extent…farm animals have always been exploited by man in that he rears them specifically for food. But until recently they were individuals, allowed their birthright of green fields, sunlight, and fresh air; they were allowed to forage, to exercise, to watch the world go by, in fact to live. Even at its worst…the animal had some enjoyment in life before it died. Today the exploitation has been taken to a degree which involves not only the elimination of all enjoyment, the frustration of all natural instincts, but its replacement with acute discomfort, boredom, and the actual denial of health. It has been taken to a degree where the animal is not allowed to live before it dies.78

The conditions under which animals are raised today are completely contrary to the Jewish ideals of compassion and avoiding tsa’ar ba’alei chayim. Instead of animals being free to graze on the Sabbath day to enjoy the beauties of creation, they are confined for all of their lives to darkened, crowded stalls and cages without air, natural light, or the room in which to exercise. Whereas the Torah mandates that animals should be able to eat the products of the harvest as they thresh in the fields, today animals are fed chemical fatteners and other additives in their food, based on computer programs. Whereas Judaism indicates consideration for animals by prohibiting the yoking of a strong and weak animal together, veal calves spend their entire lives standing on slats, their necks chained to the sides, without sunlight, fresh air, or exercise.

Rabbi Hirsch indicates how great our concern for animals must be:

There are probably no creatures that require more the protective Divine word against the presumption of man than the animals, which like man have sensations and instincts, but whose body and powers are nevertheless subservient to man. In relation to them man so easily forgets that injured animal muscle twitches just like human muscle, that the maltreated nerves of an animal sicken like human nerves, that the animal being is just as sensitive to cuts, blows, and beating as man. Thus man becomes the torturer of the animal soul.79

Rabbi Aryeh Carmell, a Torah scholar living in Jerusalem, states: “It seems doubtful from all that has been said whether the Torah would sanction factory farming, which treats animals as machines, with apparent insensitivity to their natural needs and instincts. This is a matter for decision by halachic authorities.”80 Rabbi David Rosen uses even stronger language: “The current treatment of animals in the livestock trade definitely renders the consumption of meat as halachically unacceptable as the product of illegitimate means.”81 He indicates that he is referring not only to the production of veal and goose liver, the “most obvious and outrageous” examples of animal mistreatment, but also to common practices in the livestock trade, such as massive drug dosing and hormonal treatment.82

Hence, in view of the horrible conditions under which most animals are raised today, Jews who eat meat raised under such conditions seem to be supporting a system contrary to basic Jewish principles and obligations.


1. Shabbat 133b.
2. Chafetz Chayim, Ahavat Chesed, 2:2, 182.
3. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, Nineteen Letters, Jerusalem/New York: Feldheim (Rabbi Joseph Elias edition), 1969, Letter 4.
4. Ibid.
5. Shabbat 77b.
6. Malbim, Commentary on Proverbs 12:10.
7. Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, 3:17.
8. Sefer Chasidim (ed. Reuben Margolies), No. 666.
9. Baba Metzia 32b; Shabbat 128b.
10. Rabbi Solomon Ganzfried, Code of Jewish Law, New York: Hebrew Publishing Co., 1961, book 4, ch. 191, 84.
11. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Horeb, Dayan Dr. I. Grunfeld, trans., London: Soncino
Press, 1962, Vol. 2, 293 (Section 60, No. 417).
12. Choshen Mishpat 338.
13. Hirsch, Horeb, Vol. 2, 293 (Section 60, No. 417).
14. Rashi’s commentary on Deuteronomy 25:4.
15. Hertz, Pentateuch and Haftorahs, 854.
16. William E. H. Lecky, History of European Morals, 3rd ed. rev., New York: Appleton- Century-Crofts, 1903, Vol. 2, 162.
17. Kilayim 8:2–3; Baba Metzia 90b.
18. Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 297:2.
19. Hirsch, Horeb, vol 2., 287 (Section 57, No. 409).
20. Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah 550.
21. Gittin 62a; Berachot 40a.
22. Jerusalem Talmud Ketuvot 4:8 and Yevamot 15:3.
23. Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 167:6; Berachot 40a; also see Magen Avraham 18, and the Or Ha’Chayim’s commentaries on Genesis 24:19 and Numbers 20:11.
24. Rashi’s commentary on Exodus 23:12.
25. Hertz, Pentateuch and Haftorahs, 298.
26. Rabbi Eli Munk, The Call of the Torah, New York: ArtScroll, 1992, 268.
27. Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 27:11.
28. Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, 3:48.
29. Ibid.
30. Ibid.
31. Ibid.
32. Rabbi E. J. Schochet, Animal Life in Jewish Tradition, New York: K’tav, 1984, 216.
33. Abraham Chill, The Commandments and Their Rationale, New York, 1974, 114.
34. Ibid.
35. Abot de R. Nathan, ch. 23.
36. Shabbat 128b; Baba Metzia 32b.
37. Hirsch, Horeb, Section 72, No. 482.
38. Hagahot Hatam Sofer, Baba Metzia 32b. See also Vol. 3 of Contemporary Halachic
Problems by Rabbi J. David Bleich, 203.
39. In his article, “Judaism and Animal Experimentation” in Animal Sacrifices, Tom Regan, ed., Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993, fn. 30. Rabbi J. David Bleich cites many sources that prohibit recreational hunting; also see the Encyclopedia Judaica 8:1111.
40. Avodah Zarah 18b.
41. Yorah Deah, Second Series, 10.
42. Schochet, Animal Life, 283–287.
43. Joe Green, The Jewish Vegetarian Tradition, Johannesburg, South Africa: Joe Green, 1969, 15, based on the teaching of the Rema.
44. Dresner, Jewish Dietary Law, 33–34.
45. Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 223:6.
46. Ganzfried, compiler. Code of Jewish Law, Vol. 2, 29.
47. Shabbat 128b.; for a discussion of sources for tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, see Rabbi J. David Bleich, “Judaism and Animal Experimentation” in Animal Sacrifices, op. cit., 65–69.
48. Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 316:2.
49. Ibid. 332:2.
50. Ibid. 332:3.
51. Ibid. 332:4.
52. Ibid. 305:19.
53. S. Y. Hirsch, Horeb, Chapter 60, No. 416.
54. Midrash Exodus Rabbah 2:2.
55. Midrash Tanchuma, Noah 3; cited by Schochet, Animal Life, 148. Joseph was also considered a tzaddik because of his resistance to sexual temptations.
56. Midrash Genesis Rabbah; Noah 31:14.
57. Baba Metzia 85a; Midrash Genesis Rabbah 33:3.
58. Noah J. Cohen, Tsa’ar Ba’alei Chayim—The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Its Bases, Development and Legislation in Hebrew Literature, Jerusalem: Feldheim, 1976, 4–5.
59. Ibid.
60. Rabbi Alfred Cohen, “Vegetarianism from a Jewish Perspective,” The Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, Vol. I., No. II, (Fall, 1981), 48.
61. S. Y. Agnon, Days of Awe, Jerusalem: Shocken, 1939.
62. Martin Buber, Tales of the Chasidim, Vol. 1, 249.
63. Mordecai Ben Ammi (1854–1932), quoted by Joe Green, The Jewish Vegetarian Tradition, 19–20.
64. Cited by Schochet, Animal Life, 147.
65. Yalkut Shimoni to Psalm 36.
66. A very thorough treatment of how chickens are raised under factory conditions is given by Karen Davis, Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs, Summertown, TN: Book
Publishing Co., 1997.
67. www.wspa.org.uk/foiegras/foiegras.html; “Pets or Pâté,” The Jewish Vegetarian 23 (Spring, 1972): 7–8.
68. “Foie Gras from Israel Vies With The French,” New York Times, Sept. 10, 1980; a 1999 Jerusalem Post article indicated that Israel is the number one producer of foie gras.
69. Feinstein, Rabbi Moshe, Igrot Moshe, Even Haezer, Part 4, B’nai B’rak, 1985, end of Section No. 92, 164–165. Also see the responsum by Rabbi David Golinkin, “Is it Permissible for Jews to Purchase and Eat Veal?,” Moment, February, 1993, 26, 27.
70. Rabbi A. Spero, “An Update on White Veal and its Halachic Implications,” The Jewish Press, Oct. 8, 1982, 27, and Oct. 15, 1982, 19.
71. Nathaniel Altman, Eating for Life, Wheaton, IL.: Theosophical Publishing House, 1977, 76–77.
72. Robbins, John, Diet For a New America, Stillpoint Publishing: Walpole, NH, 1987, 62–63.
73. Ruth Harrison, Animal Machines, London: Vincent Street, 1964, 54–55.
74. Ibid., 54.
75. Ibid., 110–112.
76. Ibid., 12.
77. John Harris, “Killing for Food,” in Animals, Men, and Morals, S. R. Godlovitch and John Harris, eds. New York: Taplinger Publishing Co., 1972, 98.
78. Harrison, Animal Machines, 3.
79. Hirsch, Horeb, Chapter 60, Section 415.
80. Carmell, Rabbi Aryeh, Masterplan: Judaism—Its Programs, Meanings, Goals, New York/Jerusalem: Feldheim, 1991, 69.
81. Rosen, Rabbi David, “Vegetarianism: An Orthodox Jewish Perspective,” in Rabbis and Vegetarianism: An Evolving Tradition, Roberta Kalechofsky, ed., Marblehead, MA: Micah Publications, 1995, 53.
82. Ibid, 54.

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