Judaism and Animals

Happy Hanukkah to my Jewish friends and family!

My parents came from different religious backgrounds – my father born Jewish, my mother Roman Catholic. I was brought up as neither, but because the grandfather, aunts, uncles, and cousins I saw most often and on holidays were Jews, I have always felt culturally Jewish.

There are many religions and cultures in the world, and because humans do not occupy this planet alone, each has some relationship with animals. Judaism teaches that animals are part of God’s creation and should be treated with compassion. The Talmud specifically instructs Jews not to cause pain to animals, and there are several Bible stories which use kindness to animals as a demonstration of virtue. In the Jewish tradition, humans must avoid tzar baalei chayim – causing pain to any living creature. In this regard, Jews were trailblazers; cruelty to animals was not outlawed in other cultures until the 1800s, and even now animal suffering is sadly ignored in so many.

In the Bible, those who care for animals are heroes, while those who hunt animals are villains. Jacob, Moses, and King David were all shepherds, people who cared for animals. Rebecca was chosen as a wife for Isaac because of her kindness to animals. When Abraham’s servant asked for water for himself, Rebecca took it upon herself to water his camels as well, a demonstration of her care for animals. On the other hand, the two hunters in the Bible, Nimrod and Esau, are both depicted as villains. Hunting for sport is strictly prohibited under Jewish law. The Talmud also tells the story of a great rabbi, Judah Ha-Nasi, who was punished with years of kidney stones and other painful ailments because he was insensitive to the fear of a calf being led to slaughter; he was relieved years later when he showed kindness to animals.

When people tell me that God gave humans “dominion” over animals, I remind them that “dominion” is more properly translated as “care.” “Dominion” does not give humans the right to cause pain and destruction. “Thou shalt not kill” is one of the Ten Commandments and could not be stated any more plainly.

Under Jewish law, animals have rights. Pets and companion animals must be allowed to rest on Shabbat, just as humans do. Don’t be sending Fido out to fetch the newspaper for you – it’s his day off, too! Shabbat may be violated only to rescue an animal in pain or at risk of death, but walking, playing with, and caring for your companion animal is never a violation.

In the Talmud, the rabbis dictated that a person may not purchase an animal unless he has made provisions to feed it, and that a person must feed his animals before he feeds himself. This carries over to faithful Jewish pet owners who have an obligation to feed their pets before themselves. That’s part of the “dominion,” or “care,” I was just talking about.

The Bible informs us that humans were intended to eat a vegan diet. Note that in Genesis 1:29, God gives humanity all the fruits and vegetables of the world for food, but not the flesh of his animals. It seems humanity has forgotten this. Veganism is making a tremendous rise worldwide, though, which is exciting and encouraging, and vegan food options are now easy to find in most grocery stores and restaurants. For Jews, there is no holiday or observance for which it is a mitzvah (commandment) to eat meat, and most symbolic foods used in holiday rituals are not taken from animals; vegan substitutes for honey at Pesach are allowed.

Over the past few years, Israel has been swept by a vegan revolution. It is now the most vegan country on Earth, with a full five percent of its population eschewing all animal products. That number has doubled since 2010, when only 2.6 percent of Israelis were either vegan or vegetarian. Israeli vegans are both widespread and well-fed. There are more than 400 vegan-friendly restaurants to be found in that small nation, including Domino’s, which sells a vegan pizza made with soy cheese exclusively in Israel. The site of the world’s biggest annual vegan festival is in Tel Aviv. Even the Israeli Defense Forces have gone vegan, offering animal-free food, boots, and berets (no wool) to vegan soldiers.

Christianity has its roots in Judaism and incorporates the Jewish Bible into its own as the Old Testament. Jesus, after all, was a Jew, and although he wasn’t a shepherd by trade, his care for humanity is frequently compared in the Christian Bible to that of a shepherd for his flock. Jews and Christians share the same wish for peace, joy, and goodwill, especially at Hanukkah and Christmas. That is my wish for the world, too, which is why I end all of my essays by saying –

Peace to ALL of the animals with whom we share this planet.