Rabbi Y’hudah HaNasi observed a calf as it was being led to the slaughterhouse. The animal broke away from the herd and hid itself under Rabbi Y’hudah’s clothing, crying for mercy. But Y’hudah pushed it away, saying, “Go. This is your destiny.” They said in heaven, “Since he showed no compassion, we will bring suffering to him.” For many years after this act, Rabbi Y’hudah suffered a series of painful illnesses. One day, Y’hudah’s servant was sweeping the house. She was about to sweep away some young weasels that she found on the floor. “Leave them alone,” Y’hudah said to his housekeeper. Subsequently they spoke of Y’hudah this way in heaven, “Since he has shown compassion to these rodents, we will be compassionate with him,” and he was cured of his illness.
This tale involves Rabbi Y’hudah HaNasi, the editor of the Mishnah. The tale revolves around the theological concept called reward and punishment, a belief that one is rewarded in life by God for one’s acts of kindness, and punished by God for not following in God’s ways. As the tale begins, Rabbi Y’hudah HaNasi fails to fulfill the mitzvah of compassion for animals. For this transgression, he is struck down with a variety of illnesses.
Time passes, and once again Rabbi Y’hudah is presented with an opportunity for showing compassion to animals, this time some weasels. Having learned his lesson well, Rabbi Y’hudah informs his servant not to lay her hands on the animals. For this act of kindness, he is rewarded by being cured of his illness.
Kindness to Animals: What Does Judaism Say?
Judaism has always been aware of the importance of proper treatment of animals. The fourth of the Ten Commandments, which ordains the Sabbath, mandates that “the seventh day is a Sabbath to God: you shall do no work, you, your son or daughter, your male or female servant, or your cattle…”(Exodus 20:10).
In Deuteronomy 22:10, we are told that “you shall not plow with an ox and mule harnessed together.” The reasoning here is that since these animals are of different size and strength, the smaller one would suffer.
One of only two mitzvot legislated in the Torah for which a reward is presented is the following: “If along the road you come upon a bird’s nest with fledglings or eggs, and the mother is sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother fly away and only then take the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life” (Deuteronomy 22:6-7). Commenting on this law, the medieval philosopher Maimonides states that the mother is chased away to be spared the painful sight of her offspring being removed.
Maimonides’s concern with the suffering of animals is also reflected in his legal code, the Mishneh Torah:
If one encounters two animals, one crouching under its burden and the other unburdened because the owner needs someone to help him load, he is obligated to first unload the burdened animal because of the commandments to prevent suffering to animals
Mishneh Torah, Laws of Murder and Preservation of Life 13:13
The Rabbis of ancient times spoke at great length about the responsibility that humans have for animals. At a time in history when animals were undoubtedly treated very cruelly but other peoples, the Sages elaborated upon the mitzvah of tzaar baalei chayim, literally “compassion for the pain of living creatures.”
One of the most memorable laws in all the Talmud is one that says that “a person is prohibited to eat until one first feeds one’s animals” (Talmud, B’rachot 40a). Even on Shabbat, when there are so many work restrictions, one is required to properly care for one’s animals. This law was initiated when the Jewish people were primarily agriculturalists, but the law is still in force today.
The laws of keeping kosher guarantee that an animal is permitted to be eaten only if it is slaughtered in such a way as to cause instant death. All animals killed through hunting are un-kosher. It is no surprise, therefore, that hunting remains a generally unpopular sport among Jews.
Questions for reflection
- How do you feel about the use of animals in medical research?
- Can you think of a time when a person will use an animal in a way that might otherwise be considered cruel?
Adapted from Ronald H. Isaacs, A Taste of Text: An Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash
(New York: UAHC Press, 2003), 41-55.