Every year, the Jewish calendar sets apart sacred time to celebrate the renewal of the world. Many are familiar with these four different Jewish new year celebrations. The Rosh Hashanah we know most, of course, is one of the most celebrated and widely attending holidays during the Jewish year and Tu B’Shevat — the new year for the trees — is considered one of the critical times in the year to think about environmental and ecological issues. (Another New Year, for the royal calendar, is not present as much in mainstream consciousness, though it remains an important talmudic concept). But what is missing from the discussion at the current time is the most undervalued new year of the four: Rosh Hashanah la’Behemot — the New Year for Domesticated Animals. Just as Rosh Hashanah L’Maaser Ilanot explicitly recognizes the birthday of trees (for the sake of tithing), so too does Rosh Hashanah L’Maaser Behemot recognize the birthday of domesticated animals (for the date of their tithing). Rosh Chodesh Elul!
Why would domesticated animals (cattle, sheep, goats, etc. in the Talmud, but it can be broadened to include all beasts of burden) need their own new year? In antiquity, the means of levying tithes on animals was both a bureaucratic process and a way to determine the amount of people coming into Jerusalem. But more so than that, the holiday was a means to celebrate the special bond between humanity and the other creations of the Earth. It was a mechanism to acknowledge that God not only set in place a world where humans could thrive, but that every element of Creation—from the smallest creature to the grandest land animal—could be given its due. Implicit in the offering up of animals to the Temple is that animals were capable of being sanctified, made holy, and thus could be surrogates for our human lives. Even in the days after the Temple’s destruction, this implicit holiness did not go anywhere. Separately, the Torah itself includes our animals as part of our community — a point we underscore in the Shabbat day kiddush.
But what is the value of adding yet another day to celebrate God’s creation? Surely, daily blessings, prayers, yearly rituals, and the intensity of the High Holidays should satiate one’s need to transmute regular devotion into an entity that praises the Divine for creation. Yes, these are all perfectly fine, but renewing this extra day to recognize the special relationship between humanity and animal is vital to nourishing another side of the soul, namely the side that burgeons on expressions of compassion. Too often have we overlooked the amount of work that domesticated animals (and all animals, to some degree or another) have provided utility for humanity to thrive.
But after the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, commemorating the New Year for Animals fell into disuse, used only as a didactic point in Talmudic discussion rather than as an operative holiday. More precisely, the rabbis taught that animals should not be tithed in the present era when the Temple is not standing (Mishneh Torah, Sefer Korbanot: Bechorot 6:2). But, after nearly two thousand years of being considered an obsolete holiday, Rosh Hashanah la’Behemot has been reintroduced to Jewish thought. Although its purported bureaucratic functions have ceased, Rosh Hashanah la’Behemot has been revived as a day to think broadly about humanity’s impact on the most vulnerable population of the Earth: the current and historically domesticated animals employed to sustain our lifestyle and diet. They are employed almost always without concern for their welfare as individual beings, or even their broader impact of their domestication on the sustainability of local, regional, and global ecosystems. These choices, of course, extend to wild animals that are forced into service and captivity. More and more, the disruptive impact we make on the habitat on which wild animals (chayot) rely for their livelihood, essentially forces them to depend on the self-centered whims of human beings. The consequence of this “domestication” of all beings, is that scientists estimate the loss of two-thirds of animals by 2020 (Living Planet Index). Rosh Hashanah La’Behemot is thus a day to reflect upon (and begin to correct) how our choices impact all the holy creatures we share the planet with; to take responsibility for the creatures we rely upon, and who depend entirely on our choices for their livelihood, freedom, and quality of life.
Indeed, how often do we take time away from our schedule to consider the nobility of the chicken, the regality of dairy cow, or the virtue of the ox? Indeed, how often do we reflect how far we’ve come as a civilization on the backs of animals? Where would we be today without their contributions to our way of life?
These thoughts aren’t an indictment of the modern condition; they’re simply religious observations. Navigating the complexities of the world is difficult, even without considering all the invisible forces that guide us through the day. But this is where Rosh Hashanah la’Behemot comes into play. By setting aside only one day—a single day—a year to focus on the undervalued significance that animals have in our lives allows us to reflect on the enormity and beauty of God’s creation. A single day each year empowers us to look into our core and go back to the Garden of Eden, the one locale where human and beast resided side by side, where one side didn’t dominate the other for gain. In this way, we return to the vision of Paradise, where all are treated with equality, respect, and dignity.
That is the way of Torah.
That is the way of Creation.
That is way of the Divine.
We should hear the call and celebrate the Animal, just as God intended.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.