Restoring and Transforming the Ancient Jewish New Year for Animals: An Idea Whose Time Has Come
The conditions under which animals are raised for food today are completely contrary to Jewish teachings about compassion for animals:
- While Judaism teaches that Jews are to be rachmanim b’nei rachmanim, compassionate children of compassionate ancestors, imitating God, Whose “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 by 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 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;
- While Judaism mandates the avoidance of tsa’ar ba’alei chaim (causing harm to animals), about nine billion animals in the US alone are raised under very cruel conditions on modern factory farms, where all of their natural instincts are thwarted.
To increase awareness of these inconsistencies, I, along with other Jewish activists, am championing an initiative to restore the ancient Rosh Hashanah L’ma’aser Beheimah, a day initially for tithing animals for sacrifices, and to transform it into a Rosh Hashanah LaBeheimot (a New Year for Animals), a day devoted to increasing awareness of Judaism’s powerful teachings on compassion for animals and to considering a tikkun (healing) for the horrible ways that animals are treated today on factory farms and in other settings.
Just as Tu Bishvat, a day initially intended for tithing fruit trees for Temple offerings, was reclaimed in the sixteenth Century by mystics in Israel as a day for healing the natural world, it is important that Rosh Hashanah LaBeheimot be reclaimed and transformed as well.
Another important reason for renewing the New Year for Animals today is that animal-based diets and agriculture contribute to many current problems:
- While an estimated nine million people die of hunger and its effects worldwide annually 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;
- In an increasingly thirsty world, a person on an animal-based diet requires up to 13 times as much water as a person on a vegan diet;
- Animal-based diets contribute significantly to heart disease, stroke, several forms of cancer, and other life-threatening diseases, as well as the potential for future pandemics;
- Most important, animal-based agriculture is arguably the major cause of climate change, the greatest threat to humanity today. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called climate change a “Code Red for Humanity,”and said that “delay means death.” Climate experts have been issuing increasingly dire warnings that climate change may soon reach an irreversible tipping point and spin out of control, with catastrophic consequences.
A society-wide shift to plant-based diets is the most effective approach to averting a climate catastrophe. This is the only approach that would not only reduce emissions of methane, a very potent greenhouse gas from cows. It would also enable the reforestation of the vast areas now used for grazing and growing feed crops for animals.This would sequester much atmospheric CO2, reducing it from its present very dangerous level to a much safer one. Such a shift is much easier today since there are now many plant-based substitutes with the appearance, texture, and taste so close to meat and other animal products that even long-time meat-eaters can’t tell the difference.
The case for dietary shifts is especially strong for Jews, since animal-based diets and agriculture seriously violate Jewish teachings about preserving human health, treating animals with compassion, protecting the environment, conserving natural resources, helping hungry people, and pursuing peace. Also, Israel is especially threatened by climate change as the hotter, drier Middle East that climate experts are predicting makes stability, terrorism and war more likely, and the coastal plain that contains most of Israel’s population and infrastructure could be inundated by a rising Mediterranean Sea.
Hence, it is essential that major 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 urgency of making the saving of the 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, it is essential that the renewed/transformed New Year for Animals increase awareness of the urgency of 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 2022, this is from sunset on Saturday, August 27 to sunset on Sunday, August 28. 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. It would improve Judaism’s image for people concerned about vegetarianism and veganism, animals, the environment, and related issues, by reinforcing a compassionate side of Judaism. It would also help inspire Jews who are currently alienated to some extent from Judaism and strengthen the commitment of Jews who are already involved in Jewish life, by reclaiming/transforming a holiday that they can more closely relate to and find relevant, meaningful, and appealing.
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 to a sustainable path.