This week’s hzt4u philosophy class, taught by rabbi bernie moskoff, looks at Jewish attitudes toward the treatment of animals in the torah, revealing much about Judaism’s essential ethos of compassion.
Ancient rome and judaism
It is interesting to see the Jewish view within the larger perspective of other ancient cultures. The ancient Roman empire is a prime example. Josephus, an ancient historian, writes the following about the delight and pleasure that the Romans derived from watching spectacles of beasts fighting with one another or of beasts fighting against humans.
Herod also got together a great quantity of wild beasts, and of lions in very great abundance, and of such other beasts as were either of uncommon strength or of such a sort as were rarely seen. These were trained either to fight one with another, or men who were condemned to death were to fight with them. And truly foreigners were greatly surprised and delighted at the vast expenses of the shows, and at the great danger of the spectacles, but to the Jews it was a palpable breaking up of those customs for which they had so great a veneration.–Josephus (historian, c. 37CE-100CE) Antiquities of the Jews.
Judaism, by contrast, places great stress on the proper treatment of animals. Unnecessary cruelty to animals is strictly forbidden, and in many cases, animals are accorded the same sensitivity as human beings. This concern for the welfare of animals is unusual in Western civilization. Most civilized nations did not accept this principle until quite recently; cruelty to animals was not outlawed until the 1800s, and even now it is not taken very seriously.
what does jewish law say about the
treatment of animals?
Jewish law prohibits causing unnecessary suffering to animals; the primary principle behind the treatment of animals in Jewish law is preventing tza’ar ba’alei chayim, the suffering of living creatures.
Several commandments demonstrate concern for the physical or psychological suffering of animals: We are required to relieve an animal of its burden, even if we do not like its owner, do not know its owner, or even if it is ownerless (Ex. 23:5; Deut. 22:4). We are not permitted to kill an animal in the same day as its young (Lev. 22:28), and are specifically commanded to send away a mother bird when taking the eggs (Deut 22:6-7), because of the psychological distress this would cause the animal. In the Talmud, the rabbis further dictated that a person may not purchase an animal unless he has made provisions to feed it, and a person must feed his animals before he feeds himself (interpreting Deut. 11:15).
Bible Heroes & the Treatment of Animals
We see this moral ethos played out in the famous stories of the Bible. In the Bible, those who care for animals are heroes, while those who hunt animals are villains. Jacob, Moses, and King David were all shepherds, people who cared for animals (Gen. 30, Ex. 31, I Sam. 17). A traditional story tells that Moses was chosen for his mission because of his skill in caring for animals. The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said ‘Since you are merciful to the flock of a human being, you shall be the shepherd of “My flock, Israel.'” Likewise Rebecca was chosen as a wife for Isaac because of her kindness to animals. When Abraham‘s servant asked for water for himself, she volunteered to water his camels as well, and thereby proved herself a worthy wife (Gen. 24).
Animals for Food
In the Torah, humanity is given dominion over animals (Gen. 1:26), which gives us the right to use animals for legitimate needs. Animal flesh can be consumed for food; animal skins can be used for clothing. The Torah itself must be written on parchment (animal hides), as must the scrolls for mezuzot and tefillin, and tefillin must be made out of leather.
However, dominion does not give us the right to cause indiscriminate pain and destruction. We are permitted to use animals in this way only when there is a genuine, legitimate need, and we must do so in the manner that causes the animal the least suffering.
Learning about values and ethics from a Jewish point of view provides a window into the essential ethos of the Torah, which is compassionate and humane.
Let us know in the comments below about what you think about Judaism’s role in protecting the welfare of animals.