Parashat Noach (Noah) tells the Biblical version of the story of Noah and the Ark. Makers of children’s storybooks have long focused on a sanitized version of the story to tell a charming tale about a boat full of animals that boarded “two-by-two.” Midrash offers us some hair-raising details – definitely not for kiddos! – about what happened on an ark with lions, tigers, and bears.
This Torah portion also offers an opportunity to talk a little bit about Jewish values regarding our treatment of animals. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin points out that there are a number of Torah passages that address our behavior and attitudes about the beasts around us:
Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God: you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements.Exodus 19:9-10
If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young.Deuteronomy 22:6
You shall not plow with an ox and an ass together.Deuteronomy 22:10
You shall not muzzle an ox while it is threshing.Deuteronomy 25:4
There is a Jewish legal term for these laws and their corollaries, which are developed further in discussions in Talmud and elsewhere. It is tza’ar ba’alei chayyim, the prevention of cruelty to animals. Human beings are permitted to make use of animals to do work, and we are permitted to eat some animals, within limits, but we are not allowed to be cruel.
The laws of kashrut specifically forbid cruelty in slaughter, including frightening the animal. The method of slaughter is a swift severing of trachea, carotid artery, and esophagus by a scalpel-sharp knife in one stroke, so death is very quick and as painless as possible. Some Jews go a step further and eschew eating meat altogether.
Our tradition regards careful attention to animals as the mark of a tzaddik, a truly righteous individual.
יוֹדֵ֣עַ צַ֭דִּיק נֶ֣פֶשׁ בְּהֶמְתּ֑וֹ וְֽרַחֲמֵ֥י רְ֝שָׁעִ֗ים אַכְזָרִֽי׃
A righteous man knows the soul of his beast, But the compassion of the wicked is cruelty.Proverbs 12:10