Yossi Feintuch

Animals in the Decalogue and in Samson’s actions

When the (so-called) Ten Commandments (the Greek word ”Decalogue” is more reflective of the Hebrew – ”Speakings” rather than injunctions) are read anew this upcoming Shavuot morning, we will realize that this iconic sacred writ was not only given for the sake of people, but in order to benefit farm animals; as such it is the harbinger of more biblical laws to come advocating for animal welfarism.

Significantly, it is only the ox and the donkey that are singled out by name, apart from the farmer’s generic ”livestock”, in the Deuteronomic version of the Decalogue (5:14) that commands the cessation of all agrarian work on the Sabbath day.  Indeed, in the one-heartbeat listing of the farmer, his children, and his slaves jointly with his livestock, who together embody an integral unit that keeps the farm work going, both named animals precede even the alien hireling in the order of those who must be allowed to rest from work on the Sabbath.   A derivative Rabbinic law also proscribes animal riding to allow for its full rest on that day.

Notably, farm animals are not only entitled for such a respite from work throughout the Sabbath, but should also be taken to the outdoors to frolic and enjoy the pasture in compliance with God’s word that addresses not only what not to do but also what ”to do [on] the Sabbath day”.  Thus, animals are not only called out as beneficiaries of a biblical law, but commingle with humans in its text like equals.  And when it comes to the prohibition against coveting (which concludes the Decalogue) it is also a person’s wife, side by side with his bondman, handmaid, ox and donkey who are cited again as similar entities – humans and animals alike — whom no one should obsessively desire, not even in one’s mere fancies.

                               The Haftarah for Shabbat Naso

narrates the annunciation of Samaon’s birth. As a young man the ironman Samson becomes the first known human to slay a lion. With his brawn he dispatched a young lion at the vineyards of the Philistine town of Timna(ta) after the animal roared at him.  Rather than seek to deescalate the encounter and disengage from the young lion’s beat, Samson quickly charged forth and grasped it by its hind legs hastening to tear the lion “apart barehanded as one might tear apart a kid” after it is butchered.

The traditional commentary of Da’at Mikra seems to justify the act as self-defense saying that the young lion approached Samson to assault him. Au contraire, the lion only roared in his direction.  But ‘’When hunting, lions usually act stealthily and silently in order to avoid alerting their prey.   Roaring before attacking would be counter-productive’’ to their goal. In this case, the lion might have roared in order to avoid contact with Samson by displaying its health and physique as lions do upon encountering potential rivals, not prey, thus ‘’marking their territory to deter intruders’’ (Wild Explained, Henry Sinclair).

Not long after he ripped up the young lion with his bare hands, rather than avoid a physical encounter, Samson captures 300 foxes with whom he will viciously resort to settle his botched romantic liaison with a Philistine woman by burning up the entire agricultural crops in her town, Timna; he does so, however, in a ruthless method. After entrapping those 300 foxes, Samson tied their tails in pairs tethering a fiery torch in between, only to send them off frantically and terrorized to set ablaze and incinerate the town’s fields of grain, the reaped harvest, and its olive trees.

Samson’s horrid action is an anathema to a future Jewish fiat that is, however, predicated on Torah laws that must have been known to him; the prohibition against causing pain or sorrow to any animal, and the obligation to deliver from sorrow any animal, even if it is ownerless or abandoned (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, 191:1).  Nonetheless, the Bible sounds no word of compassion or sympathy for the tortured animals, nor does it admonish the vengeful Samson for violating several other prohibitions against taking revenge to begin with, or resorting to a collective punishment that imputes guilt by association, or against damaging or destroying fruit trees (even of one’s enemy in wartime), or marring anything else that is beneficial to others (even one seed of mustard as the Rabbis explained). But like the Bible, the Rabbis too were mum on Samson’s scandalous action and its destructive outcome.

To be sure, lacking compassion for animals, let alone cruelty directed at them is associated as research studies have shown with the development of aggressive tendencies, or indifference toward the suffering of people, and being disconnected from the natural world. The case of Samson is a study case that proves the veracity of these findings.

About the Author
Ordained a Rabbi by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1994; in 2019 this institution accorded me the degree of Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa. Following ordination I served congregations on the island of Curacao, in Columbia, MO. Currently serving a congregation in Bend, Or. I received academic degrees from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (B.A. in International Relations and History), New York University (M.A. in History), and Emory University (Ph.D. in U.S. History). I am the author of U.S. Policy on Jerusalem (Greenwood Press), and numerous articles on biblical themes in various print and digital publications. I have taught in several academic institutions, including Ben-Gurion University (Beersheba, Israel), and the University of Missouri (Columbia, MO). A native of Afula, Israel. A veteran of the IDF.