An element of Judaism that deserves the pride of every Jew is its positive influence on Western ethics and values. Whether fastidiously observant of Jewish ritual or a self-defined atheist, every Jew can feel proud to be part of a tradition that brought the world an awareness of the equal value of every human life, an appreciation of the natural world, the rigorous pursuit of a just legal system that favors neither the wealthy nor the poor, the obligation of employers towards their workers, the necessity of rest of mind and body, the community’s obligation to support its weakest members – teachings found in Jewish tradition have become cornerstone ideals of Western society. The contemporary outcry over the obscene industrial cruelty and abuse imposed on animals brings another of Judaism’s great innovative influences to the fore: the obligation of care for the welfare of animals. This mitzvah is known by the Hebrew expression צַעַר בַּעֲלֵי חַיִים, tsa’ar ba’alei chaim (lit. the pain of living creatures). While many recognize this legal principle as a Jewish value, its origins are less well known.
From the earliest Jewish sources and methodically discussed for the last two millennia, Judaism has emphasized a duty of attention to the care of animals:
Biblical personalities fundamental to the Jewish people (Abraham, Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel, Moses, Tzipporah, King David) are known to be loving shepherds. Over and above the compassion inherent in tending to flocks, the Torah is filled with groundbreaking laws related to the proper treatment of animals. Among these Biblical instructions: not to muzzle an ox as it grinds wheat on the threshing floor (Deut. 25:4), to allow offspring to remain with its mother after birth (Lev. 22:27), to rest work-animals on the sabbath (Exodus 23:12), not to yoke a plow to animals of different strengths (Deut. 22:10), to shoo away a mother bird before collecting her eggs or nestlings (Deut. 22:7), not to slaughter an animal and its offspring on the same day (Lev. 22:28). The Book of Proverbs (12:10) says explicitly, A righteous person knows the needs of his animal, while the care of the wicked is cruel. Interestingly, the Talmud identifies the primary source of tsa’ar ba’alei chaim to be related to an interaction with one’s enemy – When you see the donkey of your enemy struggling under its load and you resist helping, you must help him. (Ex. 23:5).
The Talmud (2nd – 6th centuries of the Common Era) presents fascinating cases where the mitzvah of tsa’ar ba’alei chaim is further applicable. Though it is forbidden to even touch a farm animal on Shabbat, if an animal were to fall into a pit filled with water a person may violate rabbinic Shabbat laws in order to relieve the pain of the animal (BT Shabbat 128b). Similarly, because of an animal’s suffering one may violate rabbinic law in order to relieve an animal of a burdensome load on Shabbat (BT Shabbat 153a). There is even a case (BT Chullin 7b) whereby a rabbi forbids incapacitating an animal who poses danger since it will cause the animal pain.
Perhaps the most poignant text that communicates the importance Judaism places on the concern for animals is found regarding Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi (aka Rebbi, ca. 2nd century CE). Rebbi was the greatest scholar and leader of his generation – perhaps of any generation – as he was head of the great Sanhedrin court and he had the temerity to transcribe and codify the Oral Law (aka the Mishna), a heretofore prohibited act. Despite his most high status, Rebbi suffered over a decade of severe intestinal pain. Theology of the day had his colleagues wondering what could be the reason that God would impose these sufferings on such a scholar and person of piety? Though impossible to know what Rebbi did to deserve this punishment, the rabbis of the Talmud chose the following as explanation:
“the sufferings…of Rebbi came to him through a certain incident, and departed likewise.
‘They came to him through a certain incident.’ What was it? A calf was being taken to slaughter, when it broke away, hid his head under Rebbi’s cloak, and bellowed [in terror].
‘Go’, Rebbi said, ‘for this were you created.’
Thereupon they said [in Heaven], ‘Since he has no compassion, let us bring suffering upon him.’
‘And [the sufferings] departed likewise.’ How so?
One day Rebbi’s maidservant was sweeping the house; [seeing] some young varmints lying there, she made to sweep them away.
‘Let them be,’ he said to her; ‘It is written, “and [God’s] compassion is over all His works.(Psalms 145:9)’ Said they [in Heaven], ‘Since he is compassionate, let us be compassionate to him.’ [and Rebbi’s pain was abated] (B.T. Baba Metzia 85a)
Six hundred years after the codification of the Talmud, Maimonides (aka Rambam,12th century) expounded on the commandments to shoo away a mother bird before collecting her eggs/chicks and the prohibition of slaughtering an animal and its offspring on the same day by explaining, “.. in order that people should be restrained and prevented from killing the two together in such a manner that the young is slain in the sight of the mother; for the pain of the animals under such circumstances is very great. There is no difference in this case between the pain of humans and the pain of other living beings, since the love and tenderness of the mother for her young is not produced by intellect, but by the power to bond and this faculty exists not only in humans but in most living beings.” (Guide for the Perplexed Part III 48:10) The Rambam’s explicitly teaches that animals feel emotional pain and suffering!
In the 19th century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, considered the father of Modern Orthodoxy, wrote, “There are probably no creatures that require more the protective Divine word against the presumption of man than the animals, which, like man, have sensations and instincts, but whose body and powers are nevertheless subservient to man. In relation to them, man so easily forgets that the animals who serve them wholly can be injured – animal muscle twitches just like human muscle, that animals are injured by pain and suffering, that they get sick and become weak, that the animal being is just as sensitive to cuts, blows, and beatings and fear, and hunger and thirst as humans. Thus, humans forget these matters sometimes out of self-interest, at other times in order to satisfy a whim, sometimes out of thoughtlessness…” Rabbi Hirsch continues, “God’s Torah concerns itself that not only should one resist causing unnecessary pain and suffering to an animal, but if one sees an animal suffering – even if she/he is not to blame for these sufferings – he/she is required to help and do all that is possible to relieve the pain and suffering of the animal.” (Horev 60:415 – 417)
In the very first chapter of the Book of Genesis, God distinguishes where humans are in the hierarchy of living beings and says to Adam fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that move on earth (Genesis 1:28) Indispensably, the next verse immediately limits human dominance by including the only sustenance humans need and are permitted, See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food (Genesis 1:29).
Jewish tradition recognizes that humans have an infinite worth and capacity that is unique and elevated from the rest of the world’s creatures. Indeed, Judaism embraces human hegemony over animals, but it also insists on regulating how that privilege is utilized. By moderating human treatment of animals and obligating care for animal welfare, Judaism pioneered a consciousness and duty of human responsibility towards animals.