An overlooked mitzva: ‘Tsa’ar ba’alei chaim’
Many religious Jews seem to be unaware of prohibition on causing suffering to animals, or don't consider it important.
Rabbin Inspects Red Heffer 370 Photo: REUTERS
While tsa’ar ba’alei chaim (the mandate not to cause “sorrow to living
creatures”) is a Torah prohibition, many religious Jews seem to be unaware of it
or to not consider it of any great importance.
Some examples reinforce
this assertion: Upon reading an article about my efforts to get Jewish teachings
on animals onto the Jewish agenda, a member of my modern Orthodox congregation
was incredulous. “What? Jews should be concerned about animals?” she
Some years ago, I was at a Succot gathering at which there
were some ducks in an adjacent backyard. Upon seeing them, two youngsters of
about eight years of age ran toward them, yelling, “Let’s shecht [slaughter]
them!” In the winter, many women in my congregation come to synagogue on Shabbat
mornings wearing fur coats, and no one bats an eye.
When my wife and I
attend a simchah (Jewish celebration), we are generally the only ones, or among
just a few others, who request vegan meals, although farmed animals are very
cruelly treated on today’s factory farms.
The local Hatzolah, a wonderful
group whose members often drop whatever they are doing to respond to medical
emergencies, raises funds through an annual event that features the consumption
of hot dogs and hamburgers, without the slightest protest from Jewish
From the above and other examples, one might never suspect that
Judaism has very powerful teachings about compassion to animals. These include:
1) “God’s compassion is over all his works [including animals]” (Psalms 145:9);
2) “the righteous person considers the lives of his or her animals” (Proverbs
12:10); 3) the great Jewish leaders Moses and King David were deemed suitable to
be leaders because of their compassionate care of sheep when they were
shepherds; 4) farmers are not to yoke a strong and a weak animal together nor to
muzzle an animal while the animal is threshing in the field; 5) the Ten
Commandments indicate that animals, as well as people, are to rest on the
Sabbath day; 6) and much more, summarized, as mentioned above, in the Torah
mandate that Jews are to avoid causing tsa’ar ba’alei chaim.
Why is this
Torah mitzvah so often overlooked by religious Jews today? Many Jews are
diligent in “building fences” around some mitzvot. For example, there is great
diligence on the part of religious Jews to see that the laws related to removing
chametz (leavened bread) before Passover are strictly met. But other mitzvot,
including tsa’ar ba’alei chaim, are often downplayed or ignored.
this is not surprising when one considers that, with regard to animals, the
primary focus of Jewish religious services, Torah readings and education are on
the biblical sacrifices, animals that are kosher for eating and laws about
animal slaughter, with relatively little time devoted to Judaism’s more
compassionate teachings related to animals.
It is essential that this
emphasis on animals that are to be killed be balanced with a greater emphasis on
Judaism’s more compassionate teachings about animals.
In an effort to
accomplish this, Jewish Vegetarians of North America, of which I am president,
is spearheading a coalition of groups that is making an audacious proposal: that
the ancient Jewish New Year for animals, a day originally involved with the
tithing of animals for sacrifices, be restored and transformed.
Tu Bishvat, a day initially intended for tithing fruit trees for Temple
offerings, was reclaimed in the 17th Century by mystics as a day for healing the
natural world, it is important that Rosh Hashana LaBeheimot (New Year’s Day for
Animals) become a day devoted to increasing awareness of Judaism’s powerful
teachings on compassion to animals, and to considering a tikkun (healing) for
the horrible ways that animals are treated today on factory farms and in other
Making the failure to avoid tsa’ar ba’alei chaim even more
distressing is that animal-based diets and agriculture are contributing
substantially to many diseases that are afflicting the Jewish and other
communities and to climate change and other environmental problems that threaten
all life on the planet.
It can be argued that a major shift to
plant-based diets is essential to help shift our precious, but imperiled, planet
to a sustainable path. In addition, the production and consumption of meat and
other animal products arguably violate Jewish mandates to preserve human health,
treat animals with compassion, protect the environment, conserve natural
resources, and help hungry people.
Renewing the New Year for Animals
would have many additional benefits, including 1) showing the relevance of
Judaism’s eternal teachings to today’s critical issues, 2) improving the image
of Judaism for many people, by showing a compassionate side, and 3) attracting
disaffected Jews through reestablishing a holiday that they find relevant and
Rosh Hashanah LaBeheimot occurs on Rosh Chodesh Elul, the
first day of the Hebrew moth of Elul (from sunset on August 18 to sunset on
August 19 in 2012). Since that date ushers in a month-long period of
introspection, during which Jews are to examine their deeds and consider how to
improve their words and actions before the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom
Kippur, this is an ideal time for Jews to consider how to apply Judaism’s
splendid teachings on compassion to animals to reduce the current massive
mistreatment of animals on factory farms and in other settings.
writer is professor emeritus at the College of Staten Island. He is the
president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America (www.JewishVeg.com).