One of Judaism’s most distinctive if lesser-known features is its emphasis on teaching kindness to animals. My article last June (toi.sr/2kVp22u) described the many biblical passages stressing this over and over again, including the Fourth Commandment’s giving animals as well as humans a day of rest on Shabbat.
Not only did the Jews, thousands of years ago, practically invented the concept of animal welfare, but also post-biblical Jewish literature is filled with admonitions to avoid cruelty to animals.
An entire code of laws (tsa’ar ba’alei hayim, the requirement “to prevent the suffering of living creatures”) mandates that animals be treated with compassion. Jews are not allowed to “pass by” an animal in distress or being mistreated, even on Shabbat.
As the authoritative Encyclopedia Judaica observes, “In rabbinic literature … great prominence is given to demonstrating G-d’s mercy to animals, and to the importance of not causing them pain.”
Moral and legal rules on the treatment of animals are based on the principle that animals are part of G-d’s creation, toward which man bears responsibility. The Bible makes it clear not only that cruelty to animals is forbidden, but also that compassion and mercy to them are demanded of man by G-d.
The encyclopedia sums up the rabbinical law by saying, “The principle of kindness to animals … is as though G-d’s treatment of man will be according to his treatment of animals.”
Similarly, the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia observes that “the Jewish attitude toward animals has always been governed by the consideration that they, too, are G-d’s creatures … (and) the obligation to respect and consider the feelings and needs of lower creatures. … The non-canonical … writings strongly urge kindness towards animals, declaring that one who harms an animal harms his own soul.”
“The kind treatment of animals was made part of the moral climate of Jewish living,” Nathan Ausubel says in “The Book of Jewish Knowledge.” “The humane regard among Jews for people extended also to encompass animals. But behind it was the all-pervasive feeling of compassion urged upon the righteous.”
The renowned Irish historian W.E.H. Lecky (1838-1903) writes in his monumental work “History of European Morals From Augustus to Charlemagne” (1869), that “the rabbinical writers have been remarkable for the great emphasis with which they inculcated the duty of kindness to animals.”
He observes that the Jews have the longest tradition of any people and “that tenderness to animals, which is one of the most beautiful features in the Old Testament writings, shows itself, among other ways, in the command not to muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn, or to yoke together the ox and the ass.”
He also notes the irony that the Jewish commandment that the ox be allowed to eat while working in the field was already some 2,500 years old when in Sicily, in the 18th century, peasants tending grape orchards had to work with their mouths muzzled so they could not steal a grape.
Two important works from the Middle Ages demonstrate this tradition of compassion.
The 12th or 13th century Hebrew work Sefer Hasidim (the Book of the Pious) says: “Be kind and compassionate to all creatures that the Holy One, blessed be He, created in this world. Never beat nor inflict pain on any animal, beast or bird or insect. Do not throw stones at a dog or a cat.”
The renowned rabbi, physician, philosopher and scholar Maimonides (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, often called Rambam, 1135-1204) emphatically promoted kindness to animals. Considered by many to be the greatest of all rabbinic scholars and authorities on Jewish law, he writes in his famous book “Guide for the Perplexed” that “there is no difference between the worry of a human mother and that of an animal mother for their offspring.”
He also writes that “there is a rule laid down by our sages, that it is directly prohibited in the Torah to cause pain to an animal” and that “it should not be believed that all beings exist for the sake of the existence of man. On the contrary, all the other beings too have been intended for their own sakes and not for the sake of anything else.”
Maimonides also states in the Mishneh Torah (Sepher Madah, Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 2:1-2): “When a person observes G-d’s works and G-d’s great and marvelous creatures, and they see from them G-d’s wisdom that is without estimate or end, immediately they will love G-d, praise G-d and long with a great desire to know G-d’s Great Name.”
The 16th century Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) states: “It is forbidden, according to the law of the Torah, to inflict pain upon any living creature. On the contrary, it is our duty to relieve the pain of any creature, even if it is ownerless or belongs to a non-Jew.”
Similarly, the renowned 19th century Torah scholar Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes in “Horeb: A Philosophy of Jewish Law and Observances” (Chapter 60): “G-d’s teaching … obliges you not only to refrain from inflicting unnecessary pain on any animal, but to help and, when you can, to lessen the pain whenever you see an animal suffering, even through no fault of yours.”
Modern-day Jewish prayer books contain numerous references to kindness to animals, such as the High Holidays passage of the Union Prayer Book, “Every living soul shall praise Thee. … Thou rulest the world in kindness and all Thy creatures in mercy.”
The Gates of Repentance prayer book service for Yom Kippur states, “The Lord is good to all; His compassion shelters all His creatures.”
Observant Jews recite that verse, which is found in all daily prayer books, three times a day.
Morning prayers for Shabbat include praise for “the G-d of all creatures; endlessly extolled, You guide the world with kindness, its creatures with compassion.”
On Shabbat we chant, “The soul of every living being shall praise G-d’s name” (nishmat kol chai tva’rech et shim’chah). And there is a special blessing Jews say when we see something beautiful in nature, like a bird, an animal or a rainbow.
In sum, the many teachings of the Torah and the Talmud and the writings of our sages, rabbis and elders over the centuries repeatedly stress this mitzvah of compassion for other creatures and the requirement to exercise respectful, responsible stewardship of G-d’s creation.
The Jewish people are charged with the mission of being “a light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6, 60:3) and “compassionate children of compassionate ancestors” (Beitza 32b).
Jews have been inspired through the ages to provide the world with moral and spiritual leadership. It is a legacy in which we can take enormous pride.
Lewis Regenstein is the president of the Interfaith Council for the Protection of Animals and Nature and author of “Replenish the Earth” and a booklet in English and Hebrew, “Commandments of Compassion.” Additional information on Judaism and animals can be found at www.jewishveg.com/schwartz and at www.hsus.org.