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Who may eat or drink first — a human or an animal?

The importance of animals in the Torah is reflected in this weekly Torah portion Hukat, where Moses ‘’messes up’’ God’s instruction about providing water from ‘’the boulder’’ to the thirsty Israelites and their livestock in the desert.  This debacle will result in God’s decree that both Moses and Aaron won’t be able to enter the ‘’Promised Land’’. The focus of the following commentary is not on attempting to figure out what Moses might have done so wrongly in this iconic episode of the Torah, but to glean from it another aspect that many a Torah commentator overlooked; that of the biblical standing and status of livestock and field animals vis-à-vis humans.

Indeed, when the Israelites converge on Moses, they complain that both their lives and the lives of their animals were threatened by the acute absence of water.  God commands Moses then to speak ‘’to the boulder” so water would gush out to ‘’give-drink to the assembly and to their cattle’’ (Numbers 20:8).   Notably, humans are mentioned first in the drinking order. And when water does come out of the boulder, despite Moses’ non-compliance with God’s instruction to speak to the boulder, rather than strike it twice with his staff, the Torah mentions again that both, ‘’the community and their cattle drank’’ water (v. 11). It would have been obvious that the animals drank too even without mentioning that specifically, but the Torah noted that fact in order to avoid relating to animals as an afterthought, or as transparent entities.

Actually, we have already encountered that drinking order much earlier when Rebecca provided Abraham’s servant, Eliezer, water at her town’s spring and only afterwards did she give water to his ten camels (Genesis 24: 19). Though such a precedence might reflect the simple fact that livestock animals can tolerate thirst better than humans, it had been suggested that with humans being the ‘’crown of creation’’ (i.e., having a higher status than animals), they should access water before their animals in order to demonstrate their primacy among living beings.

But if this is a correct consideration – allowing humans to have a leg up on animals in their overall ”social” standing – it isn’t so plainly clear when it comes to the biblical pecking order, or access to food. Indeed, the Talmud prohibits farmers who feed livestock to eat themselves before providing food for their farm animals. This Rabbinic law is based on the mentioning of the animal before the human in the Torah where it says: ‘’I will give forth herbage in your field, for your animals, you will eat and you will be satisfied’’ (Deuteronomy, 11:15); this verse is reproduced in the Jewish prayer book and is read daily (albeit silently).   This ‘’pecking order’’ is practiced in Rebecca’s home where Eliezer and the men of his entourage who joined him from Canaan receive home hospitality, even as Laban, Rebecca’s brother, provided ‘’straw and fodder to the camels’’; it was only afterwards that food ‘’was put before him [Eliezer] to eat’’ (Genesis 24:32).

Does the Torah, then, teach that livestock farmers must feed their dependent animals before they themselves eat, although when it comes to drinking water, they are the ones who are entitled to do so first? The biblical record does not lend itself to clarity, if not to inconsistencies, on this account. Thus, when God instructs Noah to store food on the ark prior to the forthcoming flood, the gathered food for this purpose must be the kind of food that people and animals eat, in this very order.    Even during the Sabbatical year (as in Leviticus 25:6-7) the field owner must allow unhindered access to the produce that the earth and trees yielded — in the non-seeded or cultivated soil on the seventh year — to his slaves, paid workers, other fellows, and to all animals who enter such property; the eating, however, may be on-site only, except the legal owner who may store in his house a small quantity of such ‘’ownerless’’ produce.

Significantly, unlike the Talmudic law that is clear about the priority that livestock animals must have in access to food before the farmer, both on Noah’s ark and in a field or orchard during the Sabbatical year, humans (who are mentioned before the animals in these two biblical accounts) are entitled to eat before animals do.

Since the Torah, as in this week’s Hukat portion, is clear that humans may drink before animals, the fuzzy question as to who may eat first needs some closer attention than what is paid by many traditional or even modern commentators. While in Rebecca’s house – as evidenced later in Deuteronomy and codified by the Talmud – the animal eats first, on Noah’s ark and in fields on the Sabbatical year humans eat first.

Rabbi Mordechai Yehudah Leib Zakash (Zaks) of Jerusalem explains that as long as humans are permitted – though not commanded — to eat flesh, the human’s higher standing than that of the animal is evidenced, and the former needs no further demonstration of it; hence, humans need not eat before animals to further make this case — we get it. The Torah, then, calls for the feeding of animals first because humans are permitted to eat their flesh, which by itself makes the case for the more elevated status of humans, but not in a way that would resemble the gleeful act of spiking the football which would be just gratuitous, or provoking the fans of the rival team that has just taken a goal.

Conversely, humanity was not yet permitted to eat animal flesh when its representatives were floating in Noah’s ark during the killer flood. The only food available on the ark was plant-based in adherence to God’s command to the first humans in the beginning of creation (as in Genesis 1:29). And since both humans and animals ate the same food, humanity’s higher status in the scheme of things needed a prop – humans may eat before animals.

Like Noah’s ark so is the ‘’ownerless’’ field of the Sabbatical year; the human, even if the legal owner, is forbidden to shoo away from his land any animal that helps itself to the available produce there. In that sense, says Rabbi Zakash the animal is equal to the human as all have the divine right to eat the ‘’freebie’’ produce of the land.  Hence, in order to boost the human status over the animal God permitted humans to eat first in the field during a Sabbatical year; only once they ate and left the site animals may come and roam the place undisturbed for their own sustenance.

We may infer, therefore, that a farmer who eats no meat would not be violating the Torah if he fed his animals only after he himself ate, for only in this fashion would he demonstrate his superior status over the animal. Animals are reckoned-with significant entities who deserve and receive keen attention in the Torah, where humans may not demonstrate supremely or excessively their elevated status over them.

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.
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