Ask the Rabbi: Compassion for creatures

The rabbis decreed that a person must provide food to his animal before he partakes in his own meal.

Q What is the kashrut status of meat from animals that are treated harshly, like foie gras? - Ben K, Dallas, Texas A The controversial balance of benefiting from animals while treating them humanely arises in many areas of life. After returning recently from an enjoyable trip with my family to the zoo, which advocates animal preservation and protection, I found on the animal rights group PETA Web site, "Never patronize zoos," since these creatures belong in the wild, not "locked up in captivity." Through many different mitzvot, Jewish law clearly condemns cruelty to animals. The Torah, for example, forbids muzzling an ox while it works so that it can eat freely (Deuteronomy 25:4), while the Seven Noahide Laws prohibit eating a limb severed from a living animal. The rabbis further decreed that a person must provide food to his animal before he partakes in his own meal (Brachot 41a). Many commentators cite the obligation to remove an overloading burden from a donkey and the supplementary requirement to assist a fallen animal (Exodus 23:5, Deuteronomy 22:4) as prohibiting pain to animals, tza'ar ba'alei haim (Bava Metzia 32b). A major dispute exists whether this law ensures the welfare of the animal, or guides the moral development of humans. While these commandments protect the creature's health, they might primarily stem from a concern for the financial welfare of their owners. Rabbi Moses Sofer (Hungary, 19th century) alternatively suggested that preventing tza'ar ba'alei haim emulates divine conduct. Following the argument that these mitzvot build good character, he cited the verse, "His mercies are over all His works" (Psalms 145:9), as obligating compassion to all creatures. Nonetheless, as evidenced by the laws regulating slaughter, the Torah clearly allows for harming animals for legitimate human needs, such as food. Permissible consumption of animals seemingly exemplifies human dominion over other creatures, as it states, "And the fear of you... shall be upon every beast of the earth... Into your hand they are delivered" (Genesis 9:2). Based on this principle, R. Israel Isserlein (Germany, 15th century) allowed plucking feathers from live chickens, ruling that Halacha allows tza'ar ba'alei haim if it benefits humans. Rabbi Moshe Isserles approved this opinion, applying it to financial gain as well (EH 5:14). One strong opponent was Rabbi Yitzhak Bamburger (Wurzburg, Germany, 19th century), who permitted tza'ar ba'alei haim only to advance human health conditions, as with medical experimentation (Yad Halevi, YD 196). A middle position was taken by Bamburger's German colleague, R. Ya'acov Etlinger, who ordained painful actions only in cases of "great benefit" with "minimal pain," although these terms remain difficult to define. While the majority of decisors followed Isserlein and Isserles, one should note that they urged people to refrain from plucking feathers since it leads to cruelty. Moreover, the vast majority of poskim forbid activities like cockfighting in which the intended benefit stems directly from the animal's pain (Igrot Moshe EH 4:92). The financial benefit of operating such competitions cannot justify sadistic activity in which the desired goal includes hurting animals. Meat producers generate foie gras by fattening the liver of a duck or goose through gavage, a process of force-feeding animals before slaughtering. While this process originated in ancient Egypt, it was particularly popular historically among certain Eastern European Jews, who used it as a rare source for fat (schmaltz). Many Jews, however, refused to consume this food for fear of inhumane treatment, or because they thought the overstuffed animals became so incapacitated that they were no longer kosher. Today, foie gras is industrially produced by restraining birds while food is poured down their throats held open by a metal pipe, a process repeated over a period of several days or weeks. Some decisors, such as Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv, allow producing foie gras, contending that the force-feeding ultimately provides sustenance to humans, as it did in previous generations. A number of leading rabbis, including Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (Yabia Omer YD 9:3), banned the practice because the process of production causes unacceptable pain, especially in an age when meat is readily available through more delicate means. They further contended that gavage might fatally wound the esophagus, raising questions about the kashrut of the animal. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein separately prohibited producing veal, since the animals are fattened up through severe limitations on their movements (Igrot Moshe EH 4:92). This ruling has received less attention, although it was endorsed by the Masorti movement's Rabbi David Golinkin. In contrast, the prohibition of foie gras has gained much support from both Orthodox and non-Orthodox followers, including the Israeli High Court of Justice, which cited tza'ar ba'alei haim in its 2003 ban of foie gras production, a position I personally support. The writer, editor of, teaches in Yeshivat Hakotel and is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University.