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My three articles about restoring the ancient New Year for Animals

Shalom

My three articles about restoring the ancient New Year for Animals are:

  1. Restoring and Transforming an Ancient Jewish Holiday Related to Animals
  2. Ten Reasons for Restoring and Transforming the Ancient New Year for Animals
  3. An Often Overlooked Mitzvah: Tsa’ar Ba’alei Chaim  

Restoring and Transforming an Ancient Jewish Holiday Related to Animals

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 B’heima (New Year’s Day for Tithing Animals) into a day devoted to considering how to increase awareness of Judaism’s compassionate teachings about animals and how far current realities for animals are from these teachings. 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 restoration and transformation. Rosh Hashanah L’ilanot (New Year for Trees), a day initially intended for tithing fruit trees for Temple offerings, was reclaimed in the 16th century by mystics as a day (Tu Bishvat) for healing the natural world. It is important that Rosh Hashanah La’B’heimot (New Year for Animals) become a day devoted to providing a tikkun (healing) for the horrible ways that animals are treated today on factory farms and in other settings. A number of Jewish organizations are leading a campaign to make this renewed holiday an important part of Jewish life today.

     Currently, with regard to animals, Jewish religious services, Torah readings, and education are primarily focused on the biblical sacrifices, consideration of what animals 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 many 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. About 250 million male chicks are killed annually 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 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 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. 

     The ancient holiday occurs on the  first  day of the Hebrew month of Elul, an appropriate time for this renewed holiday because 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 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, making it 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 divrei Torah, 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.com/schwartz.

· Setting up a Facebook page; 

· Setting 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 veganism and other animal-related issues.

     Rosh Chodesh Elul in 2021  starts at sunset on August 8 and ends at sunset on August 9. Several programs are already scheduled for the occasion this year.

     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 shift our precious but imperiled planet onto a sustainable path.

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Ten Reasons for Restoring and Transforming the Ancient New Year for Animals

I am working with several Jewish organizations and individuals to restore the ancient and largely forgotten Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana L’Ma’aser BeHeima (New Year’s Day for Tithing Animals) and to transform it 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 the ten important reasons why renewing 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: 

a) “God’s compassion is over all his works [including animals] (Psalms 145:9); b) “the righteous person considers the lives of his or her animals” (Proverbs 12:10); c) 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; d) 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; e) the Ten Commandments indicates that animals, as well as people, are to rest on the Sabbath day; f) 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 Some examples are: a) 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. b) 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. c) dairy cows are artificially impregnated annually on what the industry calls“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. d) About nine  billion animals in the U.S. 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 became more aware of the inconsistencies of animal-based diets with basic 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. As long ago as 2006, a 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 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 nine million people die of hunger and its effects annually worldwide and over ten percent of the world’s people are chronically hungry, about 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 13 times as much water as a person on a vegan diet.

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 and veganism, animals, the environment, and related issues. Currently, with regard to animals, the primary focus of Jewish religious services, Torah readings, and education is 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 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, which has been renewed and transformed into a kind of Jewish Earth Day.

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An Often 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 not be applying it in their lifestyles. 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 former congregation in the US came to synagogue on Shabbat mornings wearing fur coats and no one seemed to find that inconsistent with Jewish teachings.

·      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 organization whose members often drop whatever they are doing to respond to medical emergencies, sadly 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 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 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, identifying the 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 am working with some Jewish organizations and activists  to restore the ancient Jewish New Year for animals, a day originally involved with the tithing of animals for sacrifices. 

     Just as Tu Bishvat, a day initially intended for tithing fruit trees for Temple offerings, was reclaimed in the 16th 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 onto 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 its compassionate side, and (3) attracting disaffected Jews through reestablishing a holiday that they find relevant and meaningful.

     The ancient holiday occurs on Rosh Chodesh Elul, the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul (from sunset on August 8 to sunset on August 9 in 2021). 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 in order to reduce the current massive mistreatment of animals on factory farms and in other settings.

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