Jewish Compassion for All Creatures

Several biblical laws are intended to cultivate humane, compassionate behavior toward animals.

Print this page Print this page

Reprinted, with permission from Ktav Publishing, from The Concise Code of Jewish Law, Volume 1.

While the Torah permits eating meat, which entails the taking of the life of an animal because it is necessary for man's sustenance, the laws of shehitah [kosher slaughter] assure that the animal is slaughtered in the most humane manner possible. [The medieval scholar] Maimonides notes that although shehitah is primarily a test of man's obedience to the will of God, it is intended specifically "to ensure an easy death and to effect it by suitable means" (Guide of the Perplexed 111, 26). The eating of blood, deemed to be the life force of the animal, is likewise prohibited, in keeping with Judaism's profound reverence for all manner of life.
compassion for all creatures
Slaughtering an animal is a divine dispensation, it being permitted only when it serves a human need, such as food or health. Killing an animal, or inflicting pain needlessly, as in hunting for sport, is wanton destruction, and violates the biblical law against causing suffering to a living creature (tza'ar ba'al hayyim). Maimonides explains the object of the law as follows, "There is a rule laid down by our Sages that it is directly prohibited in the Law to cause pain to an animal…but the object of this rule is to perfect us, so that we should not acquire habits of cruelty and should not inflict pain gratuitously without any utility, but we should be kind and merciful to all living creatures, except in case of need…. We must not kill animals out of cruelty or for sport" (Guide of the Perplexed 111, 17; see Sefer Hahinnuch, Mitzvah 186).

The Torah seeks to cultivate humane and compassionate feelings for animals, as well as for human beings, in emulation of God, whose "tender mercies are over all His works" (Psalms 145:9). Such is the intent of the law prohibiting the slaughter of an animal and its offspring on the same day. Similarly, it is forbidden to muzzle the ox when it treads the corn, a prohibition that applies to all animals employed in labor. The yoking of two animals of diverse species is forbidden. In the opinion of some authorities, this is because it must result in anguish and pain to one of the animals (Sefer Hahinukh, Mitzvah 550; A. Ibn Ezra, Commentary to the Torah, Deuteronomy 22:10).

Rabbi Gersion Appel, (1916-2008) D.H.L., Ph.D., served congregations in Worcester, Massachusetts; Seattle, Washington; New York City and Kew Gardens, New York; and was Professor of Philosophy at Stern College of Yeshiva University. He is the author of A Philosophy of Mitzvot.