Americans cherish their pets, but few realize that the responsibility to care well for them is mandated and even stressed throughout the Bible and Jewish literature.
Jews can take pride in our ancient laws and traditions that, for thousands of years, have forbidden cruelty to animals and required responsible stewardship of G-d’s creations. Jews are the first people in the world known to have recorded and adopted such teachings.
Cruelty is Prohibited
There is an entire code of laws (“tsa’ar ba’alei hayim,” the requirement “to prevent the suffering of living creatures”) mandating that animals be treated with compassion.
In Jewish tradition, Moses and King David were deemed worthy to be leaders because, as shepherds, they treated their animals kindly. And Rabbi Yehuda the Prince, the compiler of the Jewish law book known as the Mishnah, is said to have endured years of heavenly punishment for speaking harshly to a calf being led to slaughter that had sought his help.
The story of Rebekah at the well (Genesis 24:19) stresses the importance of kindness to animals as showing good character, an account that is repeated four times in this chapter. When Rebekah shows concern for and draws water for the 10 thirsty camels of the servant of the patriarch Abraham, she is deemed fit to be chosen as the wife of Abraham’s son, Isaac.
The Talmud even ordains that a person must provide for his animals before eating anything. It states that one should not have an animal unless one can properly feed and care for it (Yerushalmi Keturot 4:8, 29a; Yevanot 15), and that “a good man does not sell his beast to a cruel person” (Sefer Hassidim 13c, #142, p. 64).
Proverbs 12:10 tells us: “A righteous man has regard for the life of his beast,” and rabbinical literature even says that one should avoid living in a city where the bark of a dog is not heard, or the neighing of a horse.
Animals Must Be Allowed Rest on the Sabbath
Animal welfare must have been very important to the Almighty.
G-d’s very first commandment (Genesis 1:22) was to the birds, whales, fish and other creatures to “be fruitful and multiply” and fill the seas and the skies. The first commandment to humans (Genesis 1:28) was to “replenish the earth…and have dominion” (stewardship) over other creatures.
In the beginning, G-d pronounces each life form created – the fish, whales, birds, cattle, “everything that creepeth upon the ground” and the other “beasts of the earth” – as “good” (Genesis 1:21, 25). And when creation is completed, the Lord declares it “very good” (Genesis 1:31).
Even the holiest of the laws, the Ten Commandments, require compassion to animals, prohibiting working them on the Sabbath (Exodus 20).
The revered biblical scholar Rabbi J.H. Hertz cites the tenet that “to relieve an animal of pain or danger is a biblical law, superseding a rabbinic ordinance, the Sabbath observance. Care and kindness to cattle are of such profound importance for the humanizing of man that this duty has its place in the decalogue. The rabbis classed cruelty to animals among the most serious of offenses.”
Celebrating the Animals
Judaism doesn’t just require that animals be protected, it stresses the joy they bring to us.
The Talmud requires that Jews recite special blessings when they behold lovely birds or animals, the beauty of lofty mountains, trees blossoming in the spring, rainbows and shooting stars:
“Blessed art thou, O Lord our G-d, King of the Universe, who created beautiful animals in His world” (Berachot 9).
“Blessed art thou, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who created everything for His glory.”
And Psalm 36 (6-7) states, “Man and beast thou savest, O Lord. How precious is thy steadfast love…”
Animal lovers will be happy to learn that the Bible even suggests that humans and animals will share a common fate, implying an interdependent relationship. As Ecclesiastes (3:19-21) states, “For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts, even one thing befalleth them … yea, they have all one breath, so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast….”
There are many other such biblical verses and teachings, but Psalm 145:9 summarizes it all: “His compassion is over all His creatures.” ■
Regenstein is the author of “Replenish the Earth: A History of Organized Religions’ Treatment of Animals and Nature – including the Bible’s Message of Conservation and Kindness toward Animals.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.