The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute

Jewish Ethics. Heavenly Ideals. Earthly Compassion.

Animal Welfare Activism: Why Act?

Call to action from Jewish perspective

The Torah is filled with mitzvot relating to animal welfare. Your animals are not allowed to do any work on Shabbat (Exodus 20:10), you cannot harness an ox and a donkey together (Deuteronomy 25:4), you are not allowed to muzzle an ox while it is threshing (Deuteronomy 25:4), and you even have to help your enemy unburden a heavy load off of his animal (Exodus 23:4-5). When Avraham sends his servant, Eliezer, to find a wife for his son Yitzchak, Eliezer decides that the girl who gives both him and his camels water to drink will be the right one (Genesis 24:43-44).

The Torah clearly cares deeply about animals. Unfortunately, today animals are not treated with respect. Today chickens, for example, spend their entire lives in tiny cages where they can barely move. As a result, chickens develop respiratory problems, ammonia, and burning eyes which leads to blindness.  Due to hormones that chickens are fed they grow seven times faster than they would naturally which causes them to weigh ninety percent more. This growth causes leg deformation, which leads many chickens to fall on their back where they die because they are unable to stand up.

The chicken industry is not the exception but the rule when it comes to factory farming. Today over ninety percent of animals are raised on factory farms, both kosher and non-kosher. It is a myth that kosher animals are treated better prior to slaughter. In fact, the kosher slaughterhouses get their animals from the same suppliers as the non-kosher slaughterhouses.

The Gemara lists three character traits that characterize a Jew one of which is compassion and another of which is willingness to engage in acts of kindness (Yevamot 79a). In proverbs it is written, “A righteous man knows the needs of his beast” (12:10). God tells us that we are a holy people (Exodus 22:30). Could the torah that commands us to feed our animals before we feed ourselves also want us to consume animals that are treated so horribly?

Jewish sources on animal welfare 

Since our inception, Jews have cared deeply animal welfare.  When the world was created Adam and eve were given “all the green plants for food” (Genesis 1:30). In the times of Noah, God decides that “The fear and the dread of you [mankind] shall be upon all the beasts of the earth and upon all the birds of the sky – everything with which the earth is astir – and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hand. Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these” (Genesis 9:2-3). The commentators argue why this happened but everyone agrees that at this point man started to eat animals.

However, even though God allowed man to eat animals God still gave us many Mitzvot about how we must treat animals. We are not allowed to sever and eat a limb off a live animal (Genesis 9:4). We must allow our animals to rest of the Sabbath (Exodus 20:10).  When you come across your enemy’s ox that is burdened you must help unloaded tits load (Exodus 23:4-5). We are forbidden to kill a calf and its mother on the same day (Leviticus 22:28). We must not plow an ox and an ass together (Deuteronomy 22:10), and we must not muzzle an ox while it’s threshing (Deuteronomy 25:4).

In the times of the Talmud even more was said in reference to animal welfare. The rabbis tell us that the suffering of living creates – tza’ar ba’alei chaim - is a biblical concern (Bava Metzia 32b). We are even forbidden to sit down at our own meal before our pets and barnyard animals are fed (Berachot 40a). We are also taught to desecrate a rabbinic Shabbat prohibition to save or even alleviate the pain of animals on the Sabbath (Shabbat 128b). The Jerusalem Talmud goes to far as to say that a person should not acquire domestic animals, wild beasts, or birds before buying food for those animals to eat (Ketubot 4:8). There is a story that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi suffered for 13 years from excruciating tooth pain, because a calf, while being led to slaughter, tried to hide behind his coat. Rabbi Yehuda sent the calf away with the words “Go, because for this you were created.” Rabbi Yehuda’s toothache ceased only when he prevented his housekeeper from chasing away a family of rats that were nesting in his house (Bava Metzia 85a).

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes in Horeb that "Here you are faced with G-d's teaching, which obliges you not only to refrain from inflicting unnecessary pain on any animal, but to help and, when you can, to lessen the pain whenever you see an animal suffering, even through no fault of yours" (Chapter 60, Sect. 416). Maimonides go as far as to say that “the love and the tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning but by feeling, and this faculty exists not only in people but in most living creatures." (Guide for the Perplexed 3:48).  There are many rabbinic laws in place to care for animals in a way that is sensitive and that will not cause them pain. “A righteous man knows the needs of his beasts” (Proverbs 12:10).

The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute, a community of Jewish vegans, is working to create a paradigm shift in how the Jewish community views veganism.
Shamayim V'Aretz programing includes animal welfare, environmental, and health veganism.
The Institute works specifically to promote veganism within the Jewish community.

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