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The Rights of animals in Judaism

Question:

What is Judaism's view on hunting? What rights do animals have according to Judaism?

Answer:

Some of the worst abuse of animals was, and still is, carried out in the name of sport. A favorite Roman sport was the "hunting" of wild animals inside the amphitheater, and pitting wild animals against each other. During the reign of Augustus Caesar, more than 3000 wild animals were slaughtered in front of howling Roman mobs. Kings and noblemen throughout the ages hunted a multitude of wild animals — birds, stags, boars, and others. One nobleman in the seventeenth century CE is reputed to have killed more than 4,000 red deer during a lifetime of hunting. How many were wounded and crippled has not been recorded.

Until the eighteenth century the general view among people was that animals have no rights and no feelings. Then some voices began to be raised against cruelty to animals: Finally, in the early years of the nineteenth century, first Britain and then France passed laws forbidding cruelty to animals, under threat of punishment. In many countries humane societies were organized to work for the prevention of cruelty to animals. These societies have influenced governments to pass laws to punish people who mistreat animals.

In the United States the first humane society was organized in New York in 1866, under the name of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). There are now hundreds of similar societies in the U.S. and many others throughout the world.

There are people who go to all sorts of extremes in their attitude to animals. Some believe that it is wrong to kill creatures (animals) to feed other creatures (humans); and they will therefore eat no fish, meat or fowl. Some believe that it is wrong to use animals in medical research. Some people believe that certain animals are sacred. There is one sect in India, called Jainists, to whom all living things are sacred; they sweep the ground while walking lest they trample an insect!

The prohibition of causing pain to animals

It has taken philosophers thousands of years to get down to the debate whether animals have rights of existence and protection, and whether they have feelings, and whether humans have a moral duty to treat them kindly. Even today, hunting and fishing for sport is a favorite pastime in many highly civilized countries. And where this sport is regulated by law, as in this country and many others, it is mainly in order not to endanger the species, but without regard for the animals' feelings, whether or not they enjoy being hunted, wounded and maimed — all for the entertainment of humans. Actually, these hunters are even an insult to the animals they hunt, because in the animal kingdom no animal kills for sport, but only when it is hungry, in keeping with its animal nature that the Creator had given it.

But, while the debate still goes on as to what man's attitude to the lower animals should be, the Torah has already laid down the law of the Creator as to the relationship between man and beast.

The Torah tells us that in the beginning, when G-d created all living creatures, the last ones to be created was Adam and Eve, the first humans, the Creator placed the animal kingdom under the dominion of man. Man was given permission to employ animals in useful services, such as helping him plow his field, carry his loads, provide wool for his clothing, and the like. But meat-eating was not yet permitted.

Only after the Flood, when the animal world was given a new lease on life through the diligent care of Noah and his sons during an entire year, did G-d give man the right to kill animals for food or to enhance his life. But at the same time He gave strict rules that even in the case of such need; the animal should be treated with the least amount of pain. The Torah permits the killing of animals for medical experiments which may save or enhance our lives, but it must be done as humanely as possible. Indeed, the Torah, more than 3300 years ago, laid down a whole set of laws against causing unnecessary pain to animals (tza'ar ba'alei chaim). Here are some examples:

The Torah strictly forbids cutting a piece of meat from a living animal for food — a practice that is still found among ranchers in certain countries, who cut a slice of meat from a steer, bandage the wound, then barbecue for themselves a juicy steak in the field. This law is universal, applying to all mankind, not only to Jews.

Animals belonging to Jews must not do any work on Shabbat, like their masters. Thus, animals, too, are given one day's rest every week. This law is included in the Ten Commandments!

The Torah requires a Jew to help unload an overburdened pack animal as quickly as possible, even if the animal belongs to a wicked person, and regardless whether the owner is a Jew or not.

An ox and a donkey may not be harnessed together to pull a plow. One of the reasons for it is that they are of unequal strength, and one of them is therefore likely to have to work harder than the other.

In a previous article we mentioned the prohibition to slaughter a mother and its calf on the same day. According to Maimonides the reason for this commandments is to prevent the slaughtering the calf in the presence of its mother, which would be very cruel. For, as this great physician explains, the attachment of a mother to its young is a matter of natural feelings, and exists even among animals.

In the Talmud the laws of tza'ar ba'alei chaim are treated in detail, and our Sages often emphasize how considerate and kind human beings must be towards animals, in keeping with the ways of G-d, of whom it is written, "His mercies extend to all His creatures" (Psalms 145:9).

Last updated on: 12/16/2017
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