The conditions under which animals are raised for food today are completely contrary to Jewish teachings about compassion to animals:
- While Judaism teaches that “God’s 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 due to 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 “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;
- Judaism mandates the avoidance of tsa’ar ba’alei chaim, causing “sorrow to animals),” but ten billion animals in the U.S. alone are slaughtered annually after being raised under very cruel conditions on modern factory farms, where all of their natural instincts are thwarted.
To increase awareness of these inconsistencies, Jewish Vegetarians of North America, of which I am president, is spearheading a coalition of groups (list in formation at the end of this article) that is making an audacious proposal: that the ancient Jewish New Year for animals, a day originally involved with the tithing of animals for sacrifices, be restored and transformed. The coalition believes that just as Tu Bishvat, a day initially intended for tithing fruit trees for Temple offerings, was reclaimed in the 17th Century by mystics as a day for healing the natural world, it is important that Rosh Hashana La’Beheimot (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.
Another important reason for renewing the New Year for Animals today is that modern intensive animal-based agriculture contributes to many current threats:
- While an estimated 20 million people die of hunger and its effects annually worldwide and almost a billion of the world’s people are chronically hungry, over 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 14 times as much water as a person on a vegan diet;
- A 2006 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.
- Making the above points even potentially far worse is that there are currently over 60 billion farmed animals worldwideand this number is projected to double in 50 years;
In view of the above, a major societal shift to plant-based diets is essential if the world is to have even a chance to avert the many current potential disasters. The case is even stronger for Jews, since animal-based diets and agriculture violate Jewish teachings about preserving human health, treating animals with compassion, protecting the environment, conserving natural resources, and helping hungry people.
It is well known that one is not to yell fire in a crowded theater. Unless there really is a fire! Well, metaphorically, the world is on fire today. Almost daily reports of severe, sometimes record-breaking, heat waves, droughts, wildfires, storms, and floods, in addition to polar icecaps and glaciers melting far faster than worse case projections of climate experts, are leading climatologists to fear that the world is heading toward a climate catastrophe. There are also indications that the planet may soon face major scarcities of food, water, and available energy. In addition, there are many other environmental threats, including deforestation, soil erosion, rapid species losses, desertification, acidification of oceans, and air and water pollution.
Hence, it is essential that dramatic 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 need to make 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, the coalition plans to use the renewed New Year for Animals to increase awareness of the necessity of major societal changes, including 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 2012, this is from sunset on Saturday, August 18 to sunset on Sunday, August 19. 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 forhiddur 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; improve Judaism’s image for people concerned about vegetarianism, animals, the environment, and related issues, by reinforcing a compassionate side of Judaism; bring young, idealistic Jews who are currently alienated to some extent from Judaism and strengthen the commitment of vegetarian Jews who are already involved in Jewish life, by creating/reclaiming a holiday that they can more closely relate to and find relevant, meaningful, and appealing; and challenge Jews to creatively make the holiday meaningful, thereby helping to revitalize Judaism.
Of course restoring and transforming an ancient holiday cannot be done all at once. Just like Tu Bishvat, it would have to capture the imagination of Jews and evolve gradually. However, much progress has already been made and momentum is growing. There will be at least three vegetarian Seders to observe the holiday on August 19: in New York City at the Caravan of Dreams restaurant, at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, CT, and at a resort in Ontario, Canada, near Sault Ste. Marie. In addition a number of rabbis have endorsed the initiative, including Orthodox Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg who has written a comprehensive book on the Jewish festivals, Rabbi David Wolpe, a leading U.S. Conservative rabbi, and Rabbi Adam Frank, rabbi of the largest Conservative (Masorti) synagogue in Israel.
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.
Faith Action for Animals
L’OLAM: Committee on Judaism and Ecology
Jewish Environmental Network
Institute for Jewish Activism
This article initially appeared in Tikkun magazine in August 2012