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 — tza’ar ba’alei chayim: the suffering of animals.
Kashrut and Animal Suffering
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 shechita, in which the animal is killed with a single stroke of the knife. Shechita 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.
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 19th-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 tza’ar ba’alei 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.
Responsibilities Toward Animals
The prohibition against tza’ar ba’alei chayim not only prevents unnecessary cruelty to animals, but also imposes certain positive obligations on those entrusted with caring for animals. Owners must feed, water, and otherwise care for their animals’ basic needs, and may, in some cases be required to take extra precautions to alleviate the suffering of their animals.
One commonly cited mitzvah mandates relieving an animal who is suffering from carrying too heavy a load. In the words of Maimonides, “If one encounters one’s friend on the road and sees that that person’s animal is suffering from its burden, whether the burden is appropriate for the animal or is excessive, it is a mitzvah to remove this burden (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Rotzeah 13:1).” While some interpretations understand this law as a commandment only to relieve one’s friend of a burden, others stress that the basis for the mitzvah is the prohibition against tzaar baalei hayim and that one must relieve an animal belonging even to an enemy (Kesef Mishneh, Hilkhot Rotzeah 13:9).
In some instances, it is even permissible to break Shabbat in order to care for a wounded animal. The Talmud, for instance, allows a person to break certain laws of Shabbat in order to prevent the death of an animal that has fallen into a pool of water (Talmud Tractate Shabbat 128b). While it is not permissible to help an animal to give birth on Shabbat, some authorities allow assistance in the birth if an animal is suffering greatly or is in danger of dying. (See, for example, Har Tzvi Tal Harim Shvut 3, Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank [1874-1960]). While not as extensive as the laws that require one to break Shabbat in order to save human life, tzaar baalei hayim can overrule certain ritual laws when the life or comfort of an animal is at stake.
Righteousness and the Care of Animals
Beyond simply prohibiting cruelty to animals, Jewish tradition associates care for animals with righteousness. Within the Torah, the commandment to send a mother bird away before taking eggs or chicks from her nest is one of the few commandments that promises long life to those who fulfill it. The Book of Proverbs comments that, “A righteous person knows the needs of his beast, but the compassion of the wicked is cruelty (Proverbs 12:10).”
The medieval Rabbi Yehuda ha-Hasid even defines a cruel person as “one who gives one’s animal a great amount of straw to eat and the next day requires that it climb up high mountains. Should the animal, however, be unable to run up quickly enough in accordance with its master’s desires, its master beats it mercilessly (Sefer Ha-Hasidim paragraph 669).”
Traditional Jewish texts about animals neither forbid the use of animals for food or work, nor give humans license to do with animals as they wish. Rather, these texts demand that we engage in a more complicated negotiation between the simultaneous impulses to provide for human need and to prevent unnecessary cruelty to creations of the divine.