Ethical Treatment of Animals in Judaism

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

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On the basis of the prohibition against tzaar baalei hayim, some contemporary Jewish legal scholars have forbidden the methods of overfeeding animals used to produce delicacies such as veal and foie gras. On the subject of veal, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the most important Orthodox legal thinkers of the twentieth century, comments:

"[in regard to the situation in which] every calf is in its own pen, which is so narrow that it does not have space even to take a few steps, and the calves are not fed the appropriate food for them, and have never tasted their mother's milk, but they are fattened with very fatty liquids...this is certainly forbidden on the basis of tzaar baalei hayim. Even though it is permissible [to cause pain to animals] in order to satisfy human needs, by slaughtering animals for food, or by employing animals to plow, to carry burdens or other such things, it is not permissible otherwise to cause them suffering, even when one stands to profit from such practices (Igg'rot Moshe, Even haEzer 4:92)."

Animals as Workers

Judaism permits not only the slaughter of animals for food, but also the use of animals to perform other tasks, such as plowing or carrying heavy loads, deemed necessary for human life. The prohibition against unnecessary cruelty to animals, however, sets limits on the use of animals for these types of work. One may not beat one's animal or force it to work excessively or unnaturally. Many interpret the Torah's prohibition against plowing with an ox and a donkey as an attempt to prevent injury or pain to these animals, who naturally work at different paces (Deuteronomy 22:10).

Building on the prohibition against causing unnecessary pain to work animals,the nineteenth-century legal work Arukh ha-Shulhan forbids working one's animal night and day, without a break, saying that such a practice violates the prohibition against tzaar baalei hayim (Hoshen Mishpat 307:13). Similarly, Moses Maimonides comments, "If a thorn happened to be stuck in the animal's mouth and one threshed with it while it was unable to eat, or if one caused a lion to lie down nearby [thereby frightening the animal]...or if the animal was thirsty and one failed to give it water...all this is forbidden (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot S'khirut 13:3)."

Shabbat, perhaps more than any Jewish observance, posits an essential relationship between God, human beings, and animals. Because God rested on the seventh day of creation, human beings also rest on the seventh day of each week. In addition to mandating a day of rest for human beings, the laws of Shabbat also provide a day off for animals. The biblical command to keep Shabbat specifies, "For six days, you shall do all of your work, but the seventh day is God's Sabbath; you shall not do any work, neither you nor your son or daughter or your servant or your animal, or the stranger who is in your midst (Exodus 20:8)." Like humans, animals cannot be expected to work seven days a week, but must be allowed one day a week to recuperate.

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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.