Animal Rights and Judaism

Image: A black and white cow. (wernerdetjen/pixabay)

What are the rights of animals in Jewish tradition?

All animals are under the care of human beings; we are responsible for their well-being.

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” – Genesis 1:28

Animals are entitled to rest on Shabbat.

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.

– Exodus 20:8-10

Jews should avoid causing unnecessary pain to an animal, including emotional distress. We are permitted to eat some animals for food, but they  must be treated kindly. Properly schechting an animal involves keeping it calm and then killing it as quickly as possible with a minimum of pain.

For the same reason, physically altering animals is forbidden: docking tails, shaping ears, etc. are unnecessary pain.

One highly difficult question has to do with neutering animals. Castration of any animal or person is explicitly forbidden in Torah (Leviticus 22:24.) Neutering females is somewhat less fraught, but many poskim (rabbis ruling on the question) think it is included under the rule against cruelty. Balancing the commandments and the requirements of public health can be a very complex puzzle.

When an ox or sheep or goat is born, it shall remain seven days with its mother, and from the eighth day on it shall be acceptable as a food offering to the Lord. – Lev. 22:27

You shall not see your brother’s ox or his sheep going astray and ignore them. You shall take them back to your brother.  And if he does not live near you and you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home to your house, and it shall stay with you until your brother seeks it. Then you shall restore it to him.  And you shall do the same with his donkey or with his garment, or with any lost thing of your brother’s, which he loses and you find; you may not ignore it.  You shall not see your brother’s donkey or his ox fallen down by the way and ignore them. You shall help him to lift them up again. – Deut. 22:1-4

Even if we dislike the owner of an animal, we may not take out our frustrations on his animals. A lost animal must be fed and sheltered, and an animal in distress must be rescued.

If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying down under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it; you shall rescue it with him.  -Exodus 23:4-5

Animals are entitled to eat when they are working and surrounded by food.

You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain. – Deut. 25:4

Hunting for sport is forbidden; one may theoretically hunt for food, but shechting the animal (killing it in a kosher fashion) is extremely difficult under those circumstances, and really not practical.

R. Simeon b. Pazi expounded [on Psalm 1:1-2] : ‘Happy is the man that hath not walked’ — i.e., to theatres and circuses of idolaters ‘nor stood in the way of sinners’ — that is he who does not attend contests of wild beasts;  ‘nor sat in the seat of the scornful‘ — that is he who does not participate in [evil] plannings. And lest one say, ‘Since I do not go to theatres or circuses nor attend contests of wild animals, I will go and indulge in sleep.’ Scripture therefore continues, ‘And in His Law doth He meditate day and night.’ – Avodah Zarah 18b

We don’t find any hunters [in our tradition] besides Nimrod and Esau, and this is not the way of the sons of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. . . There is an unseemly element in it, namely cruelty, and also a measure of danger. . . Therefore, one who listens to me will dwell securely and placidly in his house and not waste his time with such things. –  Rabbi Yechezkel ben Yehuda Landau, in Responsa Noda beYehuda II Yoreh Deah 10, 18th c.

Animals should be fed first, before the humans eat.

So says Rav Yehuda that Rav says: It is prohibited for a person to taste anything until he gives food to his animal, as it is stated in the verse: “And I will give grass in the field for your animals” (Deuteronomy 11:15), and only afterward is it written in that verse:“And you shall eat and be satisfied.” – Gittin 62a

 

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rabbiadar

Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi based in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, mom, poodle groomer, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at https://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ as the Coffee Shop Rabbi.

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