Rabbi’s Weekly Shabbat Greetings

October 20, 2017 – 1 Cheshvan 5778

Beginning with the first chapters of the Torah, Judaism establishes a fundamental connection between human beings and animals. Animals, created on the fifth day of the biblical story of creation, can be understood as prototypes of the first human beings — Adam and Eve, created on the sixth day. One of Adam’s first responsibilities as a human being is to name the animals. As evidenced by the episode in which a serpent tempts Eve to eat a forbidden fruit, humans and animals originally speak one another’s language.

The story of Noah’s ark in this week’s portion, Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32) represents a turning point in the relationship between human beings and animals. Furious about human misbehavior, God decides to destroy the world by flood, saving only the righteous Noah and his family and enough animals to sustain all of the species. When the waters recede, God gives Noah seven laws — now known as the Noachide laws — aimed at establishing a just society.

Perhaps as a concession to the violent tendencies that God now recognizes within human nature, God here permits humans to eat animals. At the same time, God protects animals against unduly cruel slaughter by banning the practice of cutting a limb off a living animal. This balance between simultaneously permitting the use of animals for human need and prohibiting unnecessary cruelty to animals becomes the overarching principle of later Jewish law regarding the treatment of animals. Within the Talmud, this prohibition against unnecessary cruelty acquires a name — tza’ar ba’alei chayim: the suffering of animals.

The prohibition against tza’ar ba’alei chayim not only prevents unnecessary cruelty to animals, but also imposes certain positive obligations on those entrusted with caring for animals. Owners must feed, water, and otherwise care for their animals’ basic needs, and may, in some cases be required to take extra precautions to alleviate the suffering of their animals.

One commonly cited mitzvah mandates relieving an animal who is suffering from carrying too heavy a load. In the words of Maimonides, “If one encounters one’s friend on the road and sees that that person’s animal is suffering from its burden, whether the burden is appropriate for the animal or is excessive, it is a mitzvah to remove this burden (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Rotzeah 13:1).” While some interpretations understand this law as a commandment only to relieve one’s friend of a burden, others stress that the basis for the mitzvah is the prohibition against tzaar baalei hayim and that one must relieve an animal belonging even to an enemy (Kesef Mishneh, Hilkhot Rotzeah 13:9).

In some instances, it is even permissible to break Shabbat in order to care for a wounded animal. The Talmud, for instance, allows a person to break certain laws of Shabbat in order to prevent the death of an animal that has fallen into a pool of water (Shabbat 128b). While it is not permissible to help an animal to give birth on Shabbat, some authorities allow assistance in the birth if an animal is suffering greatly or is in danger of dying. While not as extensive as the laws that require one to break Shabbat in order to save human life, tzaar baalei hayim can overrule certain ritual laws when the life or comfort of an animal is at stake.

Beyond simply prohibiting cruelty to animals, Jewish tradition associates care for animals with righteousness. Within the Torah, the commandment to send a mother bird away before taking eggs or chicks from her nest is one of the few commandments that promises long life to those who fulfill it. The Book of Proverbs comments that, “A righteous person knows the needs of his beast, but the compassion of the wicked is cruelty (12:10).”

Traditional Jewish texts about animals neither forbid the use of animals for food or work, nor give humans license to do with animals as they wish. Rather, these texts demand that we engage in a more complicated negotiation between the simultaneous impulses to provide for human need and to prevent unnecessary cruelty to creations of the divine.