Afterlife for Animals?

Jewish authorities disagree as to whether all cows go to heaven.

Print this page Print this page

Mystical Approaches

A very different perspective on the issue was introduced by the Kabbalah, and especially by the rise of the Hasidic movement in eastern Europe.

One of the most bitter struggles waged by the Hasidim against the Jewish establishment had to do with the mechanics and administration of ritual slaughter. Not only did they appoint their own shohetim [slaughterers], but they also insisted on the use of specially sharpened knives.

On one level, the Hasidic position was motivated by their suspicion that the communal authorities, who had come to rely on the taxes paid to the slaughterers as an important source of revenue, would not be stringent enough about disqualifying meat that was halakhically unfit.

There was, however, an additional dimension to the controversy, one that derived from their distinctive beliefs about the destiny of the soul.

Like many adherents of the Kabbalah, the Hasidim believed in the doctrine of gilgul, the transmigration of souls. According to this belief, those persons who are not quite ready to be admitted to Paradise are sent back into the world until they succeed in repairing their spiritual state. The souls of sinners have to rise through the stages of inanimate objects, plants and animals before being allowed to resume their human status. Kosher animals, such as cattle and sheep, are the penultimate stage in the scale of spiritual ascent, such that the slightest flaw in the slaughter can prevent the soul from achieving its final restoration.

By building on this theological premise, Hasidic ideology was able to offer a compelling new reason to be exceedingly scrupulous about the procedures for slaughtering. That poor cow whose neck is stretched out under the knife might well house the soul of a repentant sinner, whose last chance for eternal serenity depends on the performance of the slaughter according to the strictest standards of Jewish religious law.

This idea was promoted with especial vigor by students of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, such as the Maggid Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezritch. For this reason, manuals for the use of professional slaughterers would include calls to repentance and special prayers, in which the slaughterers expressed the hope that they were spiritually worthy of the awesome metaphysical responsibility that they bore.

Hasidic folklore told bloodcurdling tales about the dreadful punishments that awaited negligent slaughterers in the next world, such as the one who was doomed to spend the afterlife standing on a rooftop, slashing his own throat until he dropped to the earth, and then rising again and repeating the bloody pattern for all eternity.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Eliezer Segal

Dr. Eliezer Segal is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary. A native of Montreal, he holds a PhD in Talmud from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of Holidays, History, and Halakhah, and many of his writings can be found on his personal website.