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Parashat Mishpatim

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Mishpatim (Shekalim) 5761/ February 24, 2001

Against Cruelty to Animals in the Jewish Tradition

Dr. Yael Shemesh
Department of Bible

In the halakhic discussion of whether cruelty to animals is prohibited by the Torah or only by the Rabbis, most early posekim held it to be a commandment mi-d'oraitha, Torah law.[1] For the most part substantiation for this point of view is derived from the commandment that appears in this week's reading: "When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him" (Ex. 23:5, and similarly Deut. 22:4)

This article does not purport to be a halakhic discussion of animal rights, rather it attempts to present a few of the many sources in our Jewish heritage that reveal a compassionate attitude towards animals, viewing them as creatures to be treated with consideration.[2] Following this investigation of the sources we shall also consider some practical applications in our own daily lives.

A. Compassion and decency towards animals

The reason given in this week's reading for observing the Sabbath is "in order that your ox and your ass may rest, and that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed" (Ex. 23:12). The Torah acknowledges that animals have needs which must be taken into consideration and respected, and protects their right to a day of rest just as it protects the rights of the bondman and the stranger - the weak and exploited in human society. Sensitivity to the needs of animals can be seen in other scriptural passages as well. For example, "You shall not muzzle an ox while it is threshing" (Deut. 25:4); "You shall not plow with an ox and an ass together"(Deut. 22:10), for "the Lord had compassion on all His creatures, insofar as an ass does not have the strength of an ox" (Ibn Ezra on this verse).

Similarly, limitations and restrictions are placed on the use of animals, the aim of these precepts being to instruct human beings to shun the cruelty that finds expression in the cynical exploitation of animals:[3] "You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk" (Ex. 23:19; 34:26; Deut. 14:21); "However, no animal from the herd or from the flock shall be slaughtered on the same day with its young" (Lev. 22:28); "If, along the road, you chance upon a bird's nest, ... do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young" (Deut. 22:6-7).

Various sources indicate that animals are to be treated as individuals, their needs being taken into consideration. This is implied by the verse, "A righteous man knows the needs of his beast" (Prov. 12:10), as well as the homily describing Moses and David as devoted shepherds who gave each and every one of their flock personal attention. It was this trait of their personalities that made them worthy in G-d's eyes of leading the Jewish people.[4] The following astonishing story, with its revolutionary message, is told of Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi (otherwise known as "our sacred Rabbi" or simply "Rabbi"): a calf that was being brought to slaughter shoved its head under the corner of Rabbi's garment and began bleeting woefully. Rabbi, however, sent him off, saying, "For that you were created." For this act he was punished measure for measure: since he had not had mercy on the calf, it was decreed that he suffer many years of torment. His healing was also measure for measure. Since, many years later, he had mercy on the litter of a rat and did not allow his maidservant to sweep them out of the house, Heaven had mercy on him and his torment disappeared.[5]

The approach revealed by these sources is diametrically opposed to that of the modern food industry, which views animals as no more than a factor of production, like any other input.[6] The attitude towards them is exploitive, with no concern for their welfare. Therefore, for example, animals are overcrowded in order to economize on expenses, or hens' biological clocks are fooled by artificial lighting to make them lay more eggs. Clearly in such a setting one could not expect individual and personal care of animals.

B. Vegetarianism in Judaism

It is generally accepted in Judaism that the first ten generations of mankind were vegetarian and that only after the generation of the flood did G-d allow human beings to eat meat.[7] The gemara says (Sanhedrin 59b): "Rabbi Judah quoted Rav: Eating meat was not permitted to Adam, as it is written, ‘[All the green grasses]... they shall be yours for food. And to all the animals on land,...' (Gen. 1:29-30), and He did not permit you the living creatures. But when the sons of Noah came, He permitted them, as it is said, ‘As with the green grasses, I give you all these' (Gen. 9:3)."

R. Joseph Albo (circa 1380-1444) explains the retroactive permission to eat meat as "an attempt of the Torah to combat the yetzer hara (evil inclination); just as beautiful women were similarly permitted them" (Sefer ha-Ikarim, 3.15). His view on eating meat is expressed in strong words: "Aside from the cruelty, rage and fury in killing animals, and the fact that it teaches human beings the bad trait of shedding blood for naught; eating the flesh even of select animals will yet give rise to a mean and insensitive soul" (ibid.).

Similarly Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508) explained in his commentary on Exodus 16:4 why G-d provided the Israelites in the wilderness "bread from heaven" (i.e., manna) and not meat:

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: Eating meat is not essential to one's nutrition; rather, it is a matter of gluttony, of filling one's belly and of increasing one's lust. Meat also gives rise in human beings to a cruel and evil temperament. Therefore you will find that the animals and birds of prey that eat meat are cruel and evil. But sheep and cattle, hens, turtledoves and doves that sustain themselves on the grass of the field have neither cruelty nor wickedness in them; therefore the Prophet destined that in the future era of Redemption "the lion, like the ox, shall eat straw" (Is. 11:7; 65:25). The reason is explained in the words, "nothing evil or vile shall be done" (Is. 11:9; 65:25). Therefore the Holy One, blessed be He, did not tell Moses that He would give the Israelites meat, rather bread, which is a fitting food and essential for the human temperament. Hence, "I will rain down bread for you from the sky."

C. Vegetarianism and peace in Rav Kook's vision of the future

Rav Abraham Isaac ha-Cohen Kook (1865-1935), himself a vegetarian, in his writings often addressed the question of the proper attitude one should take towards animals. These passages, appearing in Afikim ba-Negev and Talelei Orot, were compiled by Rabbi David Cohen (the Nazir) into a volume entitled Hazon ha-Tzimhonut ve-ha-Shalom me-Behinah Toranit, from which the quotations below are cited.

Rav Kook accepted the view of the Sages (Sanhedrin 59b), that eating meat was forbidden to Adam, and that human beings were only allowed to kill animals and eat their flesh because of the decline in human caliber over the generations (p. 49). His views on the moral reprehensibility of eating meat are expressed in no uncertain terms: "It is an overall moral shortcoming of mankind, in that it does not promote good and lofty sentiments, to not take the life of any living creature to use it for one's own needs and pleasures" (p. 7). Likewise, "It is impossible to imagine that the Lord of all, who takes pity on His creatures, blessed be He, would make such an everlasting law in his very good work of Creation, that mankind would not be able to survive except by violating their sense of morality in shedding blood, even if it be the blood of animals" (p. 8).

In the words, "when ... you have the urge to eat meat" (Deut. 12:20), he finds "an implied rebuke and parenthetical comment. The verse allows eating meat "if your inner sense of morality is not abhorred at eating the flesh of animals, in the same way you are already abhorred at the thought of eating the flesh of human beings" (p. 11). This state of human moral degeneracy is a temporary condition: "For when the time comes when our sense of morality makes eating the flesh of animals disdainful, because of the moral disgust in so doing, then you will no longer have the urge to eat meat, and you will not eat it" (ibid.).

Why, then, did the Torah not forbid us to eat meat? Rav Kook explains that the moral development of humanity must take place gradually. First human beings must solve the problem of hatred and war in their midst, and only afterwards can they reach the high level of morality of treating animals morally and justly: "At the present time, when morality is greatly lacking and the spirit of impurity has not yet passed from the earth, there can be no doubt that such a thing [a blanket prohibition against eating meat] would cause many a mishap. As the animalistic urge to eat meat would increase, there would be no distinguishing between human flesh and animal flesh" (p. 14).

Thus allowing us to eat meat is a "moral concession" destined to be annulled in the future (p. 18).[8] In the current system of commandments, however, higher moral values trickle down, and they provide the basis for the change in human behavior towards animals that is destined to occur in the future (p. 23). For example, we are commanded to cover the blood after slaughtering in order to remind us that taking the life of an animal is a morally reprehensible act of which we ought to be ashamed (pp. 23-24).

Rav Kook stresses that in days to come human morality concerning animals will not stem from a sense of mercy or "righteous concession," but will be part of "absolute justice and firmly established law" (p. 22). Moreover, he maintains that in days to come there will be no more animal sacrifice, only offerings from plants.[9]

D. Practical suggestions for helping reduce cruelty to animals

Even those who have no intention of changing their way of life and becoming vegetarian can reduce the suffering they cause animals, without especial effort. For example, one can refrain from eating paté de fois gras or veal, which entail especial cruelty to animals in their production, or one can switch to eating organic eggs or eggs from free range chickens, instead of eggs from industrial egg farms. The trouble entailed is negligible, considering that our moral view of ourselves is partly defined in terms of what we put on our plates and into our mouths. Below I explain why one ought to refrain from eating the foods mentioned above.

Eggs from hens in industrial chicken coops[10]

Hens naturally live in small groups, with social stratification in which each individual knows its place and identifies the others in its group. They enjoy taking sand baths, running about the yard and flying around. They lay their eggs in privacy, in nests which they build. None of this, of course, exists in commercial chicken coops, where hens are packed, row upon row, into overcrowded coops (battery hens). The area allotted to each hen is no larger than the hen herself. They cannot move around, let alone spread their wings. The wire netting on which they stand often wounds and distorts their feet. Laying eggs in industrial chicken coops, without an ounce of privacy, has been described by the zoologist Conrad Lorenz as the cruelest form of torture for a hen. Overcrowding and tension cause hens to pick at their own feathers of those of other hens with them in the coop. To prevent this, their beaks are often snipped while they are still chicks. This procedure is done with a guillotine-like instrument with blades heated red hot. Since chicks have nerve endings in the tissue of their beaks, this procedure causes the chicks prolonged and intense pain.

What can we do? Even those of us who have no intention of refraining from eating eggs can switch to buying eggs produced by hens grown in relative freedom. Such egg are often labeled "free range" or "organic." Free range eggs are preferable because the Society for Farm Animals supervises the conditions under which the hens are raised. It is important to know that eggs labeled "fresh farm eggs" are not organic eggs, rather eggs from commercial chicken coops. Likewise, one should not be misled by the deceptive pictures of happy, free-roaming hens printed on certain egg cartons, even though the eggs they contain were actually laid by battery hens. Eating eggs laid by free range hens is not only preferable morally but also better for one's health.

Pate de Fois Gras[11]

The process for making pate de fois gras is especially cruel. Geese are held in tight cages where they cannot move around and expend energy, so that all the food forced into their bodies will go to fattening them. The geese are force-fed through a tube that is used to insert vast quantities of food. Geese that are fattened for the express purpose of enlarging their livers (up to ten times the normal weight) suffer severe health problems, including tears in the esophagus (resulting from insertion of the tube), severe breathing difficulties, swelling of the liver, and internal bleeding. The enlarged, diseased liver presses on other internal organs. A handbook put out by the Ministry of Agriculture says such geese "breathe heavily, have pale beaks, have difficulty walking even to the drinking trough, and are no longer able to digest food" (force-feeding geese, 1970). Approximately 12% of these geese die in the course of force-feeding. The product obtained at the end of this cruel process of force-feeding is a diseased liver, rich in poisons and cholesterol, derived from a tortured dying goose. Because of the cruelty in the process it has been outlawed in the United States, England, Sweden and other countries.

What can we do? Very simply, boycott this product, which causes so much suffering to geese. In addition, when we wish to make reservations at a restaurant we can check if paté de fois gras is served there, and decide on these grounds whether or not to give them our business. This would be an effective measure if we were to inform the restaurant owners (or workers) of the reason for our decision whether or not to eat there.


Veal comes from calves that have been torn away from their mothers close to birth and have been intentionally raised in a way that makes them ill. In order to make their flesh tender and pale, they are fed solely on a liquid diet of milk substitute, without any iron or fiber, causing the calves to be anemic. The calves are kept in tight, dark, wooden stalls, where they have not enough room to turn around. All they can do is stand or lie down. The purpose of such minimally sized stalls is to prevent the calves from using their muscles, thus producing more tender meat and preventing what for the growers would be an unnecessary waste of calories. There is no straw lining the floors of their stalls. This is to prevent the calves from munching it and thus obtaining iron in their diet - a nutrient essential to their health but detrimental to the flavor of the meat they produce. The calves' stalls are so tight that in their last days they can hardly stand comfortably. The calf's life of misery comes to an end at the age of about four months, when the calves are brought to slaughter.

What can we do? Simply refrain from consuming unhealthy meat, which can be produced only at the cost of severe suffering to young calves.


The most fitting way of concluding this article is with a marvelous quote from Psalms: "The Lord is good to all, and His mercy is upon all His works" (Ps. 145:9); and with the fine words of the Midrash, with the demand it places on each and every one of us: "The Omnipresent is called merciful, therefore you, too, should be merciful; the Holy One, blessed be He, shows kindness; therefore you, too, should be kind" (Sifre on Deuteronomy, 45, s.v. "la-lekhet be-khol derakhav").

[1] Cf. Yehudah Altschuler, Ha-Yahas le-Ba'alei Hayyim ve-ha-Tipul bahem le-Or ha-Halakhah, M.A. thesis, Bar Ilan University, Ramat-Gan 1996, pp. 153-156; Avraham Steinberg, "Tza'ar Ba'alei Hayyim le-Or ha-Halakhah," Sefer Assia, Vol. 1, Jerusalem 1989, pp. 263-269.
[2] For further information and additional sources, cf. Richard H. Schwartz, Judaism and Vegetarianism, USA, 1988, pp. 13-30; Judaism and Animal Rights - Classical and Contemporary Responses, ed. by Roberta Kalechofsky, USA, 1992; Masha Matias Sarid, "Mivhano shel Moshe - ha-Yahas le-Baalei Hayyim be-Moreshet Yisrael," Teva, On u-Vriut 102 (2000), pp. 29-30; 103 (2000), pp. 30-31.
[3] Cf. S.D. Luzzato's commentary on Ex. 23:19 and Lev. 22:28.
[4] Cf. Exodus Rabbah 2.2.
[5] Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 85a; Jerusalem Talmud, Kilayim 9.3; Genesis Rabbah 33.3; Yalkut Shimoni on Psalms, par. 888, s.v. "tehila le-David." For greater detail, see my article, "Min ha-Mekorot - R. Yehudah ha-Nasi Lomed le-Rahem al Ba'alei Hayyim," Teva, On u-Vriut 102 (2000), pp. 27-28.
[6] On the intolerable conditions suffered by animals in the modern food industry cf. Peter Singer, Freeing Animals, Ch. 3: "On the Industrial Farm, or What happened to your meal when it was still alive." Several of his points are presented in section D, below.
[7] For more on the connection between Judaism and vegetarianism, see Richard Schwartz, op. cit., note 2, above, entirely devoted to this subject. Also see Rabbis and Vegetarianism: An Evolving Tradition, ed. by Roberta Kalechofsky, USA 1995; a bibliography on this subject may be found in the book by Rinah Lee, Agnon ve-ha-Tzimhonut - Iyyunim be-Yetzirotav shel S. Y. Agnon min ha-Hebet ha-Tzimhoni, Tel Aviv 1994, pp. 20-22.
[8] He also says that these are "concessions made under pressure," and that "the Torah included them only against the evil inclination" (p. 20).
[9] Cf. David Sperber, "Korbanot le-Atid la-Vo be-Mishnat ha-Re'ayah," in Re'ayot ha-Re'ayah - Masot u-Mehkarim be-Torato shel ha-Rav Kook, z"l, Jerusalem 1992, pp. 97-112.
[10] Cf. Singer, op. cit., pp. 134-156 (Hebrew edition); Russanah Berghoff, "Ma ba kodem, ha-Betzah o ha-Tarnegolet?" Anonymous (le-Zekhuyot Ba'alei Hayyim), Fall 1999, pp 8-10.
[11] From Pitum Avazim (Force-feeding Geese), published by the Amutah le-Ma'an Hayot Meshek (Assoc. for Farm Animals), Rishon le-Ziyyon, 1997.
[12] Cf. Singer, op. cit., pp. 166-173.