Creatures on the calendar

Vegetarians and animal rights activists launch a new initiative to reinstate a New Year for Animals on Rosh Hodesh Elul.

Veggie Activist 521 (photo credit: Abigail Klein Leichman)
Veggie Activist 521
(photo credit: Abigail Klein Leichman)
About 40 men, women and children – and a handful of dogs needing adoption – gathered Sunday evening at the Zamenhof Community Garden in Jerusalem to learn about an initiative to institute “Rosh Hashana Leba’alei Hahaim,” New Year for Animals. This updated holiday is based on the mishnaic designation of 1 Elul as a day for tithing farm animals in Temple times.
The night before, as Elul 5772 began, about 20 Jerusalemites had come to the Zangwill Vegetarian Community Center for a Seder designed to revive the holiday with a modern emphasis on Jewish animal welfare ethics – just as Tu Bishvat has been reinvented as a Jewish Earth Day.
“In the same mishna [Seder Moed, Tractate Rosh Hashana 1:1] that talks about Tu Bishvat, the new year for trees – which was not a festive day but an ‘income tax’ day – it talks about Rosh Hodesh Elul as the new year for tithing beasts,” said Rabbi Dalia Marx, a coofficiator at the Sunday event. “Again, this was not a festive day – it was about counting animals for sacrificial offerings. But we can use the day, which was a significant day for our ancestors, and sort of redeem it as the 17th-century mystics redeemed Tu Bishvat.”
Her Hebrew Union College colleague Rabbi Shelly Donnell was in the garden with his wife, Wendy Bocarsky. “We came today to show our support,” he said. “I think it’s wonderful idea to reinterpret and reclaim the holiday – an affirmation of tradition and at the same time an innovation.”
Marx and other animal-rights and vegetarian activists in Israel first learned about the idea through, an Internet site run by Aharon Varady, a master’s degree candidate in experiential education at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
Yossi Wolfson, a board member of the Israel Jewish Vegetarian Society, brainstormed with Varady earlier this year about how to revive the new year for beasts in a contemporary world.
“We decided to try to find relevant Jewish content, because nowadays there are no sacrifices and we don’t tithe animals,” said Wolfson. “However, Judaism has so many beautiful teachings about respect for animals and prevention of cruelty. In the daily life of religious Jews today, these teachings do not always find an appropriate place. If we have a day that originally was dedicated to animals in agriculture and make it a day we can connect to these teachings about compassion for animals, that would be a great benefit to Judaism and our communities.”
Among the Torah laws he cited are the directive to send away a mother bird before gathering her eggs, and the prohibition against slaughtering a mother cow and her calf on the same day.
“These demonstrate a strong connection between the mother animal and her baby that you cannot violate.
And yet on today’s farms, we take the calf away right after birth [to raise for veal] and we take eggs right after they’re laid and put them in incubators to hatch totally alone.”
Marx and fellow rabbi Gila Cain prepared source sheets for participants with biblical verses and songs relevant to the occasion. Cain led the group in reciting traditional blessings, while Marx explained how the timing of the holiday coincides with the 40 days of atonement and introspection preceding Yom Kippur.
Marx, a vegetarian since age five, likened the ritual and liturgical innovation to “pouring new nectar into old vessels.” Jewish Vegetarian Society member Inbal Cohen compiled a Haggada for the “Alef B’Elul” Seder on Saturday night, drawing on classic Jewish texts from the Bible and Talmud to 20th-century rabbinic authorities such as pre-state Israel’s first chief rabbi, A.I. Kook.
Celebrants from their early 20s to late 70s read through Cohen’s Haggada as they drank four cups of wine or grape juice symbolizing animal categories of fish, amphibian, fowl and mammal. Refreshments, of course, were strictly vegan.
Chemlah, a haredi organization working to address animal cruelty, took an active role in the late-night Seder, which Wolfson said was aimed at a more Orthodox and adult audience than was the child-centered Sunday event led by rabbis from the progressive, or Reform, movement.
Among those present at the Seder was Shaya Kelter, a former New Yorker who in 1992 instituted Jerusalem’s first Tu Bishvat Seder through the Jewish Vegetarian Society and has led it every year since.
“The Alef B’Elul Seder was an opportunity to celebrate life and to share in God’s love in the Creation,” said Kelter. “In my understanding, the central theme of God’s teaching to us, the Torah, is that Creation, God’s ongoing process, is a love story. God... is inviting humankind, his appointed guardians of the world, to be his partners in sharing his love to all. God is the owner of the universe, not man, but we have a responsibility to preserve this wonderful universe we have been given. This includes the plant kingdom and the animal kingdom.”
Planners of both events incorporated suggestions from Varady and Prof. Richard Schwartz, president of the Jewish Vegetarians of North America and of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians.
Schwartz’s group organized a festive vegan meal on Sunday at a New York restaurant, set up a New Year for Animals Facebook page and is making a website that will share Jewish teachings on such topics as vegetarianism, fur, animal experimentation, circuses and the controversial pre-Yom Kippur ritual of kapparot, in which sins are symbolically transferred to chickens that are then slaughtered and cooked for the poor.
“The current widespread mistreatment of animals on factory farms is very inconsistent with Judaism’s beautiful teachings about compassion to animals,” said Schwartz, who frequently visits his two grown daughters and their families in Israel. “One way for Jews to respond to these inconsistencies is to restore and transform the ancient and largely forgotten Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana L’Ma’aser B’heima [New Year’s Day for Tithing Animals] into a day devoted to considering how to improve our relationships with animals.”
Sponsors of the events included organizations such as the Jerusalem Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Anonymous Association for Animal Rights, which successfully advocated for outlawing force-feeding of geese to produce foie gras and currently manages a public campaign against battery cages in the egg industry. At the Sunday gathering, JSPCA volunteers brought along dogs for adoption.
Wolfson said he hopes this year’s modest beginning will serve as a model for Jewish communities all over the world.
“We are going to document what we do and then try to spread the word and give people different ideas,” he said. “We really see it as a kind of pioneering starting point for an old-new tradition.” •