“There is no inherent need to mention birds.”
We learned back in the golden days of Tractate Berakhot when everything was about blessings, that you should feed your animals before yourself. Compassion and responsibility for animals that are dependent on us is one of the enduring lessons I have learned from the past year of reading the Talmud. As an “animal person” who has a deep connection to four-legged furry beings and someone who has never lived without an animal in my life, the respect and caring that I found in the Talmud for animals has helped me establish a connection with the text of my ancestors. And yes, one must feed one’s animals and ensure their needs are taken care of before settling down for breakfast each day. As any cat owner can tell you, it is not even possible to consider doing otherwise.
Today’s Daf Yomi tells us that our animals should follow the lead of their caretakers as homes are rid of leaven. We are told that “for the entire time that it is permitted to eat leavened bread, one may also feed it to his domesticated animals, to non-domesticated animals, and to birds.” However, once that time passes, we are told that “it is prohibited to derive benefit from it, and one may not even light an oven or a stove with leavened bread.” This includes feeding our animals with the leaven once the time has passed when it is permitted.
And although the Talmud tells us that “there is no inherent need to mention birds, we must not overlook the birds. After days of discussing if pure and impure food can be burned together in the same fire pit, we are told today that there is a better way. Rabbi Yehuda said that burning was the only permissible method for getting rid of leaven. But the chorus of Rabbis who appear throughout the text, disagree and say that “burning is not required, as one may even crumble it and throw it into the wind or cast it into the sea.”
The Rabbis appear to believe it is acceptable to bring the leftover crumbs of leaven to the park and scatter them about so that the birds can have their own feast. The birds should not be neglected when caring for animals. And that includes the little sparrows who appear on the porch in autumn and require a little additional nourishment before they head south.
We are allowed to feed our domesticated animals leaven right up until the magical sixth hour when it is necessary to rid one’s home of any leftover crumbs. However, non-domesticated animals cannot be fed after the fourth hour. We are told that this is because our animals will hide what is not immediately consumed. Our domestic animals live in our homes and eat from little bowls in our kitchens and we would know what they have eaten and what they have left. But the non-domesticated animals might hide the leaven in tall blades of grass in the fields and we would have no idea where the savored food is hidden. It should be mentioned that a grain-heavy diet is especially unhealthy for our pets. A little on the side is good for them to crunch on, but it should be balanced with protein.
My cats have truly been my best friends during the past year. When New York City was locked down entirely from March through late June, they were the only beings I interacted with in person each day. The longer I am home during the day, the more bonded they become, with one cat sitting on her little cat bed next to my work computer all day, and the other sitting in a chair on my other side. We have created our own little world – cat and human – and it is a sacred bond that the Talmud has reminded us in multiple places that we should honor. I am their entire world, and it is up to me to take care of them before my own needs, because I am all they have.
Time Magazine has named rescue animals the pet of 2020. The shelter community feared that the pandemic would lead to a crisis for pets, who would be abandoned as people became sick or lost their jobs or dealt with high levels of stress and anxiety. Instead, the shelters were emptied as people competed to adopt animal companions for the long shut-in days. During the worst days of the pandemic in New York back in April and May, I noticed how happy the dogs seemed that I passed on my walks around the neighborhood. There was so much pain and suffering with ambulances constantly blaring through the streets, but the dogs were just happy to be out with their special person in the city air.
The shelter animals are in good company with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, who have been named Time Person of the Year. Joe Biden will be bringing Major, a rescue dog, to the White House when he takes office in January. Jill Biden has said that in the spirit of unity, she would like to adopt a cat so that there is diversity in the White House. There is something so right with having animals in the White House again as the new administration comes in to tackle the most complex health and social and economic problems of our lifetime. And regardless of politics, having a dog and maybe a cat in the White House has got to be a good thing.