In the time that the Temple in Jerusalem stood, Rosh Hodesh Elul (the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul) was a new year’s day for tithing animals for sacrifices.
I am working with other Jews to restore that ancient Jewish holiday and to transform it into the New Year for Animals, a day devoted to increasing awareness of the many beautiful Jewish teachings on compassion for animals and how far current realities are for animals on factory farms and other settings from these teachings.
French writer Victor Hugo famously said that nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come. I strongly believe that there are many reasons that the time has come for this initiative.
Observing the holiday would increase awareness of Judaism’s powerful teachings about compassion for animals. These include: "God’s compassion is over all his works [including animals] (Psalms 145:9); “the righteous person considers the lives of his or her animals” (Proverbs 12:10); 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; 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; the Ten Commandments indicate that animals, as well as people, are to rest on the Sabbath day; and much more, summarized in the Torah mandate that Jews are to avoid tsa’ar ba’alei haim, causing any unnecessary “sorrow to animals.”
Observing the holiday would also increase awareness about the massive, widespread horrific treatment of animals on factory farms, so contrary to the above teachings.
Examples of horrific treatment of animals on factory farms
Egg-laying hens are kept in cages so small that they can’t raise even one wing and they are debeaked without an anesthetic to prevent them from harming other birds due to pecking from frustration in their very unnatural conditions.
Male chicks at egg-laying hatcheries fare even worse, as they are killed almost immediately after birth, since they can’t lay eggs and have not been genetically programmed to produce much flesh.
Dairy cows are artificially impregnated annually on what the industry calls “rape racks,” so that they will be able to continue “giving” milk, and their babies are taken away almost immediately, often to be raised as veal under very cruel conditions.
About nine billion animals in the US alone are slaughtered annually after being raised under very cruel conditions on modern factory farms, where all of their natural instincts are thwarted.
As Jews became more aware of the inconsistencies of animal-based diets with basic Jewish teachings about preserving human health, protecting the environment, conserving natural resources and helping hungry people, many more Jews would shift to plant-based diets, and this would improve their health.
Shifts toward plant-based diets would also reduce one of today’s greatest threats: climate change. Unlike other approaches, the shifts would not only reduce emissions of methane, a very potent greenhouse gas, from cows. It would also enable the reforestation of the more than a third of the current ice-free land area now used for grazing and growing feed crops for animals.
This would sequester much atmospheric carbon dioxide, reducing it from its current very dangerous level to a far safer one.
Reducing consumption of meat and other animal-based foods would also reduce many other current environmental problems, including deforestation, soil erosion, rapid species losses, desertification, acidification of oceans and air and water pollution. It would also reduce hunger and thirst worldwide.
While an estimated nine million people die of hunger and its effects annually worldwide and almost a billion of the world’s people are chronically hungry, about 70% of the grain produced in the United States and about 40% of the grain produced worldwide is fed to animals destined for slaughter. Also, a person on an animal-based diet requires up to 13 times as much water, largely to irrigate the feed crops, as a person on a vegan diet.
Renewing and transforming the ancient holiday would show that Jews are applying Judaism’s eternal teachings to today’s critical issues. This is needed as never before, as the world approaches a potential climate catastrophe, severe food, water and energy scarcities and other environmental threats.
New Year for Animals
By reinforcing a compassionate side of Judaism, the New Year for Animals would improve Judaism’s image for people concerned about vegetarianism and veganism, animals, the environment and related issues.
Currently, 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. 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.
Reclaiming a holiday that they can more closely relate to and find relevant, meaningful and appealing could also help bring back idealistic Jews who are currently alienated from Judaism, and would strengthen the commitment of many Jews who are already involved in Jewish life.
Seeking ways to creatively make the holiday meaningful and enjoyable could also help to revitalize Judaism. This has already happened with another ancient new year – Tu Bishvat, the New Year for Trees, which has been renewed and transformed into a kind of Jewish Earth Day.
The writer is president of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians and president emeritus of Jewish Veg. Among his books are Vegan Revolution: Saving Our World, Revitalizing Judaism and Judaism and Vegetarianism. Find more than 250 articles at JewishVeg.org/schwartz.