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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A Suffering Dog – What Does Torah Require?

Image: A dog is locked in a hot car. I am taking a photo through the window to show the security guard. Photo by Ruth Adar.

Kindness to animals is not merely a “good deed.” Unnecessary cruelty to animals (Tza’ar Ba’alei Chayim) is repeatedly forbidden in the Torah.

It’s getting warm outside. You see an animal locked into a hot vehicle. You think, “Is this my business?” and I assure you, the Torah commands that we act when a fellow creature is suffering.  In Exodus 23:5:

If you see a donkey belonging to someone who hates you fallen down under its burden, you may not pass by him, and you must surely release him.

Even if the animal is owned by an enemy, even if it is a work animal fallen down working, we may not pass by and we must surely help. An unusual grammatical construction in the Hebrew (“must surely help”) underlines the urgency of this commandment.

Why does the Torah add “belonging to someone who hates you?” The reaction of the owner – their feelings about us – are not part of the equation. If they are angry that we “meddled,” so be it.

So what are my options when I see an animal locked in a car on a hot day? This happened to me this past week: I saw the dog in the photo above locked in a truck in 90 degree heat (outside – goodness knows what it was inside the truck.) I had been parked next to the truck for 15 minutes waiting for a friend (I was drinking water, with the windows down to catch the breeze) before I noticed the dog. He was panting heavily and had no water.

I took a photo of the dog (above) and of the license plate of the truck, and went inside the business to find help. The business has a security guard, who walked back with me to check the situation. As we walked, a couple sprinted by us and released the dog from the car, taking him out on a leash. The man walked rapidly away with the dog, and the woman walked back to the business, telling us that she “appreciated our concern” but that they had been “checking on the dog every ten minutes.” The security person chose to drop the matter there.

Did the couple understand that they had been cruel to the dog? Probably not. My impression was that they wanted to avoid trouble. It is my hope that they will avoid trouble in future by not torturing the dog.

I share this story because I want to let you know that Torah requires we act when we see a suffering animal. Judaism is very clear about this: while it is permitted to kill and eat some animals for food, we are required to do so with a minimum of pain to the animal. That’s what we are paying for when we pay extra for kosher meat: we are paying for rabbinic supervision certifying that the animal was slaughtered in a kosher fashion. There are a lot of controversies about whether kosher methods are still the kindest available, and a growing number of Jews and others have elected a vegan lifestyle to completely avoid cruelty to animals. However, the principle itself stands: we are not permitted even to witness unnecessary cruelty to animals. It is up to each of us to determine exactly where we will draw the line of necessity.

Nothing about that dog’s situation looked “necessary” to me.

So, if you see an animal suffering in a car in the heat, what can you do?  If it is outside a place of business, notify the business (the dog or ar owner is likely there.) If that doesn’t produce immediate results, call the police with a description of the car, the dog, the license plate, and location. There are laws against animal cruelty in many locales. Keep trying until help arrives.

I would be very reluctant to break a window on the car. Breaking the window gets us into a whole new set of questions. Also, if we’re talking about dogs, unless the dog has collapsed from the heat, there’s always the possibility that the dog will run off and get hurt in traffic or that it will try to protect the car and bite.

May we each have courage and resourcefulness when faced with a situation requiring action!

Animals: A Sacred Trust

shoulder

Gabi is my little dog. I met her one Friday afternoon after I’d spent the afternoon doing some pastoral visits that left me angry and sad. I did not want to bring that energy into Shabbat with me, so I called my friend Julie and asked if I could stop by her place and play with the dogs for a bit.

Julie is one of the good angels of Poodle Rescue of Las Vegas, and she often has a foster dog or two around. That day she had a silver toy poodle with a big white bandage. The tiny dog was found on the street in Las Vegas sporting a huge tumor under one foreleg. She was filthy and her fur was matted from months of neglect.  Animal Control notified Poodle Rescue, and Julie and Colleen saw to it that she got the health care and the grooming she needed.

When I walked into the house, that tiny dog began bouncing and trying to get my attention. I picked her up, and she snuggled into my shoulder as if she’d been my doggie forever.  I was amazed by her trust, despite neglect, despite the cruelty of the street. She trusted me.

In the book of Genesis it says:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

Many human beings have used that verse to support the idea that animals are here to serve us, that we can do whatever we want with them. That’s not how I read it. I believe we have been given our power over animals in trust. We are responsible to see to it that they are treated with decency, with respect, with the same care that their Creator would give them, no less.  Judaism traditionally recognizes decency towards animals as a mitzvah.

If we have animals in our lives, if we have pets, or if we eat animals or animal products, how do we carry out that responsibility of trust? How can we as individuals and as a society do better?

Something to ponder.

If you are interested in acquiring a pet, consider adopting a rescue animal. Your local shelter has many animals that need homes. If you want a specific breed, try Googling “rescue” and the name of the breed. Your BFF may be waiting in a foster home near you.