There is a controversy between Jewish scholars concerning the prohibition to inflict pain on animals. The question is if it derives directly from the Torah (mide'oraita) or is only implied by the interpretation of our sages (miderabanan). Most scholars have concluded it is an explicit Torah commandment. This claim is customarily confirmed by the commandment to help unload an overburdened animal, appearing in the portion of the Torah called 'Laws' (Mishpatim): "If you see your enemy' donkey lying under its weight, do not leave him [your enemy] that way, help him to unload the animal" (Exodus 23:5, and similarly Deuteronomy, 22:4).
This article does not aim to discuss the Halakhic approach to animal rights in Judaism, but rather to present a few of the many sources in our Jewish heritage which reveal a merciful approach to animals and relate to them as interest-owners whose wellbeing must be taken into account. The other purpose I have in mind is not theoretical but rather practical – directions for the caring public as to ways of minimizing involvement of each one of us in the suffering inflicted on animals in modern food production industries. These will be given in the last part of the article.
A. Compassion and fairness towards animalsThe reason given in Parashat Mishpatim for the commandment to observe the Sabbath is "so that your bull and donkey may rest, as well as your servant's son and the foreign resident" (Exodus, 23:12). The Torah acknowledges the fact that animals have needs which must be considered and respected, protecting their right to a day of rest, as it protects the right of weak and exploited elements in human society to the same – the son of the servant and the foreigner. Sensitivity towards animals' needs arises from additional verses in the Bible, such as: "Do not stop an animal while it is grazing" (Numbers, 25:4); "Do not plow with a bull and donkey together" (Deuteronomy, 22:10), since "God had mercy on all his creatures, as the donkey's strength is not the same as that of the bull" (Ibid., Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra).
In addition, rules for and limits on the use of animals have been set with the purpose of educating man against cruelty which is expressed in the cynical exploitation of animals: "Do not cook a young goat in its mother's milk" (Exodus, 23:19; 34:26; Deuteronomy, 14:21). "You shall not slaughter a bull or lamb and its offspring on the same day" (Leviticus, 22:28). "Shall you come upon the nest of a bird… do not take the offspring in front of the mother. Send the mother away and then take the offspring" (Deuteronomy, 22:6-7).
Various sources show that animals should be treated as individuals, considering their needs. This arises form the verse "A righteous man knows the mind of its animal" (Proverbs, 12:10), and also the commentary describing Moses and David as dedicated shepherds relating to each of their flock personally. This trait deemed them worthy in God's eyes of leading the Nation of Israel. However, about the famous Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi (called "Our Holy Rabbi" or simply "Rebbi") an astounding story with a subversive message is recited: A calf being led to the slaughter house pushed its head under Rebbi's garment and wept, attempting to escape. However, Rebbi sent it off saying "You were created for this purpose". Rebbi was punished in the 'measure for measure' ('Midah keneged Midah') mode: since he had no mercy on the calf, many years of suffering came upon him from that day on. His relief too was finally granted him through 'measure for measure': when he expressed mercy on rats and did not allow his maid to sweep them out of the house, his suffering abated.
This concept arising from Jewish sources is totally opposed to the modern food industry's view of animals as mere means of production, as any other means. The approach towards them is exploitative, without the least concern for their welfare. For this reason, for instance, they are crowded, in order to save space and hence expenses; the biological clock of laying hens is fooled by artificial lighting, so they lay more eggs. It goes without saying that there is no personal relation with or individual care for the animals.
B. The idea of vegetarianism in JudaismIt is a well known opinion in Judaism that the first ten generations of humans were vegetarian, and that only after the flood was eating of animal flesh allowed. It says in the Talmud, Sanhedrin 59: "Said Rav Yehuda in the name of Rav: Adam was not allowed to eat meat, as the verse says 'for you it [plants, vegetation] will be to eat and for all the animals of the earth' (Genesis 1:29-30) – and not 'the animal for you to eat'. And when the sons of Noah came along He permitted it to them, as written "as grass I have given you everything" (Genesis 9:3).
Rabbi Yosef Elbo (circa 1380-1444) explains the permission given a-posteriori to eating animal flesh: "The Torah spoke for the evil inclination, as He allowed them beautiful gentile woman taken hostage, and the like" (Sefer Ha'Ikarim, Third article, chapter 15). His own opinion about it is stated sharply: "Besides the killing of animals containing cruel anger and the learning of a bad trait for man to spill blood, the eating itself of animal flesh generates vulgarity and a dullness of the psyche" (ibid.).
Similarly, Don Yitzhak Abarbanel (1437-1508) in his interpretation to Exodus 16:4 explains why God gave the Israelites bread from the heavens (Manna) in the desert rather than meat: "God said to Moses: the meat is not a necessary food and is a matter of gorging and filling the intestines and craving. And the meat also generates in man cruel and evil blood. For this reason you will find that the animals and birds which are carnivorous are cruel and evil. But in the sheep and goats and chickens, turtledoves and pigeons, who subsist on the herbs of the field, there is no cruelty or wickedness, and therefore the prophet said that at the time of the future redemption 'Lion as sheep will eat straw' (Isiah, 11:7; 65:25). And he explained this by saying 'they will not do evil nor will they destroy' etc. (11:9; 65:25). This is why God did not tell Moses to supply Israel with meat, but rather with bread, which is a suitable and necessary food for human nature, and this is the reason for 'Here I shower on you bread from the heavens.'
C. Rabbi Kook’s Vision of Vegetarianism and PeaceRabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook (1865-1935) relates in various places in his writings to the question of the proper attitude towards living creatures.
These references are found in his books “Afikim baNegev” and “Talelei Orot” which have been collected and gathered (by Rabbi David Cohen) in the book 'The Vision
of Vegetarianism and Peace from the Torah Standpoint', from which I quote the following:
Rabbi Kook accepted the opinion of the Jewish sages (Chazal) (Sanhedrin Bavli 59B) that Adam was not permitted to eat meat, and that only as a result of the decline of the generations was mankind permitted to kill living creatures and eat their flesh (p. 49).
Rabbi Kook clearly expressed his opinion about the ethical wrongness of eating meat in the following words: “The general ethical fault in humankind lies in not fulfilling the good and noble feeling requesting not to take the life of any living creature in order to satisfy its needs and pleasures.” (p. 7) And also “It is impossible to imagine that the Master of all things Who has mercy on all of His creatures, blessed be He, would make such an eternal ruling upon His very fine creation that would not permit humankind to exist except in transgressing its moral sense by shedding blood, even the blood of animals.” (p. 8)
In the verse “…because it is your desire to eat meat” (Deuteronomy, 12:20) he finds “a sage's subtle reprimand, in other words, as long as your inner morality does not reject eating flesh of living creatures, as you reject eating that of humans". This low moral situation of the human species is temporary: “When the time will come for the moral state of rejecting the eating of animal flesh, due to its moral disgust, then you will no longer desire to eat meat, and you will not do so.”(ibid.).
Why, then, didn’t the Torah forbid eating meat? Rabbi Kook explains that for the sake of a gradual moral development of humankind, people must solve the problems of hatred and war among themselves; only then will they reach the high level of moral and just behavior towards animals: “There is no doubt that if the prohibition to kill animals were publicized in the name of religion and morality, on the part of the pure feeling of Godly justice, worthy of applying to all creatures… at the present, when the moral situation is not yet adequate, and the spirit of contamination prevails, there is no doubt that the matter would cause many misunderstandings; When the animal lust to eat meat would increase, there would be no distinction between the meat of a human being and that of an animal." (p. 14)
The permission to eat meat is therefore 'a moral concession' to be abolished in the future (p. 18). However, the present list of commandments already includes a continual 'trickle' of values, which is actually the ethical preparation for the needed change of human behavior towards animals in the future. For example, the commandment to cover the blood after slaughter is aimed at reminding humans that there is a moral fault worth being ashamed of in taking of the life of a living creature (p. 23-24).
Rabbi Kook emphasizes that in time to come, ethical behavior of mankind towards living creatures will not arise from feelings of mercy or graciousness, but rather from the "absolute law and firm justice” (p. 22). According to his vision, any future religious sacrifices will be of plants, not of animals.
D. Practical suggestions for each of us to limit infliction of pain on living creaturesEven those who have no intention of changing their ways and switching to a vegetarian diet can reduce, without great effort, the infliction of suffering on animals. This can be done, for example, by avoiding such products as goose liver (foie gras) and veal, whose production is brought about by particularly cruel practices, and switching to buying “free range eggs” or organic eggs, instead of industrially produced eggs. The investment is minor, considering that we define ourselves morally among other things by what we lay on our plates and let enter our mouths. Following are explanations as to why it is worthwhile avoiding the products mentioned above.
Chicken Eggs Produced in Industrial HatcheriesChickens naturally live in small flocks, in which there is a social hierarchy where each member knows the others. Chickens enjoy sand baths, running around and flying. They lay their eggs privately in the nests they build. None of this exists, of course, in commercial hatcheries where chickens are caged in very crowded long rows in narrow cages stacked on top of each other. The space allotted to each is as the size of the chicken itself. The chickens cannot move, and certainly not spread their wings. The metal mesh on which they stand often cause them wounds and sores on their feet. Egg-laying in the commercial hatcheries, with not a bit of privacy, is described by the zoologist Conrad Lawrence as the most painful torture for the chickens. The terrible crowding and tension cause the chickens to peck at each other's feathers. In order to avoid this, the hatchery workers cut their beaks off when they are still chicks. This is done by a guillotine-like instrument with hot blades. The process causes the chicks sharp ongoing pain, as there are nerves that pass through the beak's tissues.
Eggs: What Can Be Done?Even one who does not intend on giving up eating eggs can switch over to buying eggs grown freely, i.e. eggs that are labeled “free range eggs” or “organic eggs” (free range eggs are preferable since the [Israeli] organization for farm animals (Amutat Chai-Meshek) supervises the chickens' conditions). It is important to know that eggs bearing the label "fresh farm eggs" ("beitzei meshek triyot") are not organic eggs, but rather eggs from industrial hatcheries. One must not be fooled by drawings stamped on certain egg packages that show the chickens free and happy, although they are actually from industrial hatcheries. It is certainly preferable to purchase free range eggs not only for moral reasons but also for health reasons.
Goose Liver (Foie Gras)The manner in which this “delicacy” of fatty goose liver is produced is especially cruel. The geese are held in very narrow cages lest they move and expend energy, so that all the food that is stuffed into their bodies will serve to fatten them. The stuffing is done by force, by means of a hard pipe through which huge quantities of food are shoved into their bodies. A goose that has been especially stuffed to increase the size of its liver (up to more than ten times its normal weight!) suffers during the stuffing process from serious health problems, among them: tearing of the esophagus (due to the pipe’s penetration); severe breathing problems; decay of the liver and internal bleeding. The sick and enlarged liver presses on other inner organs. In the instruction pamphlet of the Ministry of Agriculture such a goose is descried as “breathing with difficulty, the beak is pale, has difficulty in walking even to the pail of water and is no longer capable of digesting.” (“Hal'atat Avazim" [force feeding of geese] 1970). About 12% of the geese die during the stuffing process. The product that results in the end of the cruel process is a sick liver, rich in poisons and cholesterol, produced from a tortured goose on the verge of death. Due to this cruel process, the stuffing of geese livers has been prohibited in the United States, England, Sweden and additional countries [including Israel].
Goose Liver: What Can Be Done?We can simply boycott this product which involves such great suffering. In addition, when reserving places at a restaurant, we can ask if goose liver is served there and refuse to eat there if it is. This step can be effective, especially if we inform the owner of the restaurant (or its employees) what led us to eat there, or not to.
Calf (Veal) MeatThe calves known as “tender calves” or “milk calves” were torn away from their mothers soon after their birth and were deliberately raised in such a way as to cause them illness, so that their meat will be pale and soft. They are raised on a liquid-only diet of milk substitutes devoid of iron and fibers, which causes them anemia. They are raised in narrow wooden dark cages in which they cannot move around, but only stand or recline and not use their muscles so that their flesh will be more tender, and so that they do not “waste” calories, from the producers' point of view. The floor of the cage is bare, not lined with straw, so that the calves do not munch on straw to obtain the vital iron required for their health, but which harms the taste of their meat. During the last days of their lives their cages are so narrow for their size that they cannot even stand comfortably. This torturous life comes to an end when the calves are slaughtered at about four months.
Calf (Veal) Meat: What Can Be Done?We can simply avoid veal - calf meat which is produced by means of ongoing suffering.
I could not find a more fitting conclusion for this article than to quote the wonderful verse from Psalms: "The Creator is good to all, and His mercy is upon all His creatures” (145:9), as well as the fine words of the Midrash (commentary) and its request of all of us:
“The Lord is merciful, you too must be merciful.
The Holy One is compassionate, you too must be compassionate"
(Sifri Devarim 49).
The Holy One is compassionate, you too must be compassionate"
(Sifri Devarim 49).
Translated by Bat Zion Shlomi