Ethical Treatment of Animals in Judaism

The concept of Tzaar Baalei Hayim demands that we take animal suffering seriously.

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Beginning with the first chapters of the Torah, Judaism establishes a fundamental connection between human beings and animals. Animals, created on the fifth day of the biblical story of creation, can be understood as prototypes of the first human beings--Adam and Eve, created on the sixth day. One of Adam's first responsibilities as a human being is to name the animals. As evidenced by the episode in which a serpent tempts Eve to eat a forbidden fruit, humans and animals originally speak one another's language (Genesis 1-3).

The story of Noah's ark represents a turning point in the relationship between human beings and animals. Furious about human misbehavior, God decides to destroy the world by flood, saving only the righteous Noah and his family and enough animals to sustain all of the species. When the waters recede, God gives Noah seven laws--now known as the Noahide laws--aimed at establishing a just society.

Perhaps as a concession to the violent tendencies that God now recognizes within human nature, God here permits humans to eat animals. At the same time, God protects animals against unduly cruel slaughter by banning the practice of cutting a limb off a living animal (Genesis 9:3-4). This balance between simultaneously permitting the use of animals for human need and prohibiting unnecessary cruelty to animals becomes the overarching principle of later Jewish law regarding the treatment of animals.

Within the Talmud, this prohibition against unnecessary cruelty acquires a name--tzaar baalei hayim: the suffering of animals.

Kashrut and Animal Sufferingnature quiz

Later biblical and rabbinic law extends the prohibition against taking a limb from a living animal to mandating that animals meant for human consumption be slaughtered as humanely as possible.

In order to be kosher, an animal must be slaughtered through a process known as shehita, in which the animal is killed with a single stroke of the knife. Shehita is generally understood to cause less suffering to the animal than modes of slaughter that do not guarantee immediate death.

According to Moses Maimonides, "Since the desire of procuring good food necessitates the slaying of animals, the Torah commands that the death of the animal should be the easiest. It is not allowed to torment the animal by cutting the throat in a clumsy manner, by piercing it, or by cutting off a limb while the animal is still alive (Guide of the Perplexed III:48)." Jews are permitted to eat meat, but are commanded to take precautions to ensure that our carnivorous desires do not cause unnecessary suffering to animals. Thus, the Torah prohibits both cooking a kid in its mother's milk and taking eggs or chicks from a nest while the mother bird is present (Deuteronomy 22:6). These two laws indicate a concern for the emotional pain of the mother bird or cow, who should neither see nor participate in the killing of her children.

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Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She previously served as the Rabbi-in-Residence for the Jewish Funds for Justice.