By Lewis Regenstein
With our planet facing an ecological crisis of unprecedented proportions, resulting in massive destruction of wildlife and cruelty to animals, the teachings of Judaism may hold the solution to solving the environmental problems that threaten our future.
The Bible and Jewish law are full of admonitions and commandments to protect animals, nature and the environment. Indeed, such teachings are fundamental to Judaism and its traditions.
Kindness to animals is even required in the Ten Commandments, wherein G-d forbids us to make our farm animals work on the Sabbath; we must give them, too, a day of rest (Exodus 20:10, 23:12).
G-d’s very first commandment (Genesis 1:22) is to the birds, whales, fish and other creatures to “be fruitful and multiply” and to fill the seas and the skies. His first commandment to humans (Genesis 1:28) is to “replenish the earth … and have dominion” over other creatures.
These initial commandments concern the welfare and survival of animals and human responsibilities toward them. So the Almighty must have considered this a very important thing.
Clearly, G-d was well pleased with the works of His creation. After He made each of the creatures, He blessed them, “saw” that each “was good,” and pronounced the entire creation, when it was completed, “very good.”
Later, when G-d made his promise to Noah and generations to come never again to destroy the earth with a flood, He included in the covenant “every living creature … the fowl, the cattle and every beast of the earth” (Genesis 9:12-17).
Psalm 36 states, “Man and beast thou savest, O Lord. How precious is Thy steadfast love.” And Proverbs 12:10 suggests there are two types of people: “A righteous man has regard for the life of his beast, but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.”
Truly, in the words of Psalm 145:9, “His compassion is over all His creatures.”
Indeed, the Jews invented the concept of kindness to animals some 4,000 years ago. There is an entire code of laws (tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, the requirement “to prevent the suffering of living creatures”) mandating that animals be treated with compassion. Jews are not allowed to pass by an animal in distress or animals being mistreated, even on Shabbat.
As the Jewish Encyclopedia 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 concerning 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 obligation of humans to respect and protect the natural environment is another theme that appears throughout the Bible. In the books of Jeremiah (9:9-11) and Habakkuk (2:17), the Lord warns against destroying nature and wildlife.
Trees and forests are accorded a special reverence in the Bible, and one of the first things the Israelites were commanded to do when they came into the Promised Land was to plant trees and allow them to mature before eating the fruits thereof (Leviticus 19:23).
One of the world’s first and strongest nature-protection regulations is found in the Mosaic law (Deuteronomy 20:19), which forbids the destruction of fruit-bearing trees even when waging war against a city.
In Leviticus (25:2-7), the Lord commands that every seventh year “the land shall keep a sabbath unto the Lord.” The fields and vineyards shall be allowed to rest, and what grows naturally will be shared with the wildlife, “the beasts that are in thy land.”
The Jewish people are charged with the mission of being “a light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6, 60:3), which has inspired the Jews through the ages to provide the world with moral and spiritual leadership.
It is hard to imagine that abuse of animals would be pleasing to a merciful G-d, whose first commandments concern animals, who calls each animal He creates “good” and the creation itself “very good,” who instructs us in the Bible to allow our animals an entire day of rest on Shabbat, to leave some crops in the fields for the wildlife and to allow oxen to eat while working, and who repeatedly prohibits cruelty to animals.
As the Lord instructed humans on their stewardship duties, “Every beast of the earth and every fowl of the air, … all that moveth upon the earth, and all the fishes of the sea: into your hand are they delivered” (Genesis 9:2).
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.