Moshe Cordovero on Compassion For Animals
From The Vision of Eden:
Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Tradition
by Rabbi David Sears
There is none so patient and humble as our God in
His attribute of Kesser (the Supernal Crown).
For He is absolute compassion; before Him there is no
flaw or transgression, no severe judgment or other quality
that could prevent Him from watching over [Creation]
and bestowing bounty and goodness constantly. So, too,
should a person conduct himself. Nothing in the world
should prevent him from doing good to others; no transgression
or misdeed should deter him from helping whoever needs
a favor, always and at every moment. Although God transcends
Creation, He sustains all living beings, from the highest
to the lowest, and does not disparage any creature -
for if He were to reject any creature due to its inferiority,
none could exist for even a moment. Instead, He watches
over and shows mercy to all. Similarly, a person should
be beneficent to everyone, and no creature should seem
despicable to him. Even the smallest living thing should
be exceedingly worthy in his eyes; he should consider
it and exert himself for its benefit. This quality,
too, comes from the attribute of Kesser (Rabbi
Moshe Cordovero, Tomer Devorah, chapter 2).
One should respect all creatures, recognizing in them
the greatness of the Creator, Who formed man with wisdom.
All creatures are imbued with the Creator's wisdom,
which itself makes them greatly deserving of honor.
The Maker of All, the Wise One who transcends everything,
is associated [with all His creatures] in having created
them. If one were to disparage them, God forbid, this
would reflect upon the honor of their Maker.
This is the meaning of the verse, "How worthy are
Your works, O God..." (Psalms 104:24). It does
not say "how great (gadlu)" but "how
worthy (rabbu)," as in the verse "the
head (rav) of his house" (Esther 1:8), indicating
great importance. [The verse concludes,] "You have
made them all with wisdom." That is, since Your
wisdom is imbued in them, Your works are great and worthy.
Therefore, a person should consider the Divine wisdom
within them, and not their disgrace (ibid.).
One's compassion should extend to all creatures, and
he should not disparage or destroy them, for Divine
wisdom extends to all Creation: "silent" things
[such as dust and stones], plants, animals, and humans.
For this reason our sages warned us not to treat food
disrespectfully. Just as Divine wisdom despises nothing
- since everything proceeds from it, as the verse states,
"You have made them all with wisdom" (Psalms
104:24) - so should a person show compassion to all
of God's works.
That is why Rabbi Yehudah the Prince was punished when
he did not show pity to a calf that tried to evade slaughter
by hiding behind him. "Go!" he told it. "You
were created for this purpose." Compassion shields
against the Divine attribute of strict judgment. Therefore,
suffering - which derives from [the Divine attribute
of] strict judgment - came upon him. But when Rabbi
Yehudah the Prince had mercy upon a weasel, quoting
the verse, "His mercies extend to all His works"
(Psalms 145:9), he was delivered from strict judgment.
The light of Divine wisdom spread over him, and his
Similarly, one should not disparage any creature, for
all of them were created with Divine wisdom. One should
not uproot plants unless they are needed or kill animals
unless they are needed. And one should choose a humane
manner of death for them, using a carefully inspected
knife, in order to be as compassionate as possible (ibid.
[The Zohar states that while crossing a stream, Rabbi
Yossi stepped on some worms and exclaimed that he wished
such creatures did not exist. At this, his master Rabbi
Shimon Bar Yochai declared that it is forbidden to disparage
or to kill any creature, for they all serve to benefit
the world (Emor, 107a).]
One might ask: if so, how can the Torah permit us to
kill a snake on the Sabbath in the land of Israel, or
[to kill any dangerous or bothersome animal] under similar
The term "disparage" could mean either in
word or in deed. Rabbi Yossi was guilty of both. First,
by stepping upon the worms, he violated the prohibition
of wantonly killing small creatures that are not harmful
to humans [such as flies, gnats, and worms]. Second,
by exclaiming, "Would that they did not exist!"
he spoke disrespectfully regarding the order of the
universe, which reflects upon the honor of the Creator.
If a dangerous creature threatens a person, or if there
is a harmful snake in one's house or courtyard, one
is justified in killing it to avoid being hurt. However,
if a snake is in the field going its own way, one must
not interfere with it; for the snake is fulfilling its
mission according to the Divine will. The story cited
above attests to this, as do many such stories that
we have discussed elsewhere.
Even when creatures are sent on a mission to do harm,
"God is good to all" (Psalms 145:9); for,
in truth, this too is a good mission, since the death
they cause will benefit the soul of the transgressor.
God's mercy extends even to creatures that do not perform
their mission [i.e., immoral people] in that He sustains
them nevertheless. Thus, we are obligated to follow
in His ways and show compassion toward all His works,
never destroying them wantonly as long as they do not
harm us. Moreover, to diminish God's Creation is to
diminish the manifestation of His mercies. According
to the diversity of Creation, through each and every
species, God's mercies are evident. This is implied
by the Divine blessing "to be fruitful and multiply"
(Genesis 8:17), as well as by the subsequent verse [in
the psalm quoted above], "All Your works, O God,
shall praise You
" (Psalms 145:10). That is,
over each species in Creation, an angel is appointed
who sings praises to the Creator; and the praises of
the One who sustains all creatures are increased according
to the multitude of angelic hosts. One who destroys
a swarm of bees or flies or a colony of ants therefore
destroys the praises of God, unless these creatures
are in one's house and are harmful. In this case, it
is permitted to remove them, albeit in the most humane
manner possible. And even this is not proper according
to what we see in tractate Ta'anis (85a) concerning
the nest of weasels that were found in the house of
Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi. He told his maidservant to leave
them alone, for "His mercies are upon all His creatures."
Thus, wantonly to kill even harmful creatures such as
mice and weasels would be unseemly, since unlike snakes
they do not physically afflict human beings. It would
be preferable for a person to keep a cat who will consume
them, as this conforms to the ways of the angels who
determine how one species is subjugated to another.
This may be deduced from the words of the Book of Song
(Perek Shira): "The mouse, what does it
say? 'For You are righteous in all that comes upon us,
for You have performed truthfully, and we have acted
wickedly'" (Nehemiah 9:33). The cat, what does
it say? 'I pursued my enemies and overtook them, and
returned not until they were destroyed' (Psalms 18:39)."
This teaches that [the preying of one species upon another]
is God's will, and reflects His absolute mercy toward
the needs of His creatures.
Similarly, Perek Shira concludes by describing
how King David was pleased with himself upon completing
the Book of Psalms, when he happened upon a frog [who
contended that its own praises of God were superior].
This narrative does not mean to extol the croaking of
the frog, but [the songs and praises of] the angel that
presides over frogs. And their leaping, too, was an
expression of the spiritual inspiration that came to
them from their presiding angel, who sings melodies
and praises to God.
This also applies to the frog's remark that it has resigned
itself to its fate, to serve as food for the stork or
crane, or another bird. In other words, the presiding
angel itself fulfills the will of its Maker in compelling
the families of frogs not to rebel, but submit to the
species designated to consume them. Therefore, it is
proper to raise other creatures to prey upon destructive
animals, for this follows the natural order. Thus, when
Rabbi Yehudah's maidservant came to destroy the weasels,
he told her to let them alone; but, nevertheless, he
raised cats, for this [way of ridding oneself of pests]
reflects the Divine mercy. As our sages taught on the
verse, "The righteous knows the nature of his animal..."
One might ask: since the calf was destined for slaughter,
why was Rabbi Yehudah afflicted for saying, "Go,
this is the purpose for which you were created"?
To this it could be said that there might have been
a transmigrated soul in the calf, and it was possible
to save it for all eternity from an evil fate, from
slaughter. Or perhaps he should have entreated the
slaughterer to postpone the killing at least for that
day. [This would have served as an example of compassion
to everyone present] (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, Ohr
Yakar al HaZohar, Emor, 14:13, pp. 137-138).
 Rav Cordovero probably refers to
Vayikra Rabba 27:11, which interprets the term
"righteous" as referring to the Creator, Who
"understands the nature of His animal" in
mandating that His human subjects show compassion toward
 That is, the calf's tikkun might have been
accomplished by other means, without causing it distress.
Back to David