for All Creatures
Chapter One of The Vision of
Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism
By Rabbi David Sears
"God is good to all, and His mercy is upon all
His works" (Psalms 145:9). This verse is the touchstone
of the rabbinic attitude toward animal welfare, appearing
in a number of contexts in Torah literature. At first
glance, its relevance may be somewhat obscure. It speaks
of God, not man. However, a basic rule of Jewish ethics
is the emulation of God's ways. In the words of the
Talmudic sages: "Just as He clothes the naked,
so shall you clothe the naked. Just as He is merciful,
so shall you be merciful..." Therefore, compassion
for all creatures, including animals, is not only God's
business; it is a virtue that we, too, must emulate.
Moreover, rabbinic tradition asserts that God's mercy
supersedes all other Divine attributes. Thus, compassion
must not be reckoned as one good trait among others;
rather, it is central to our entire approach to life.
The Unity of All Things
A fundamental premise of Judaism is belief in the absolute
and encompassing Oneness of the Creator, Who brings
all things into being. In addition to defining our
view of the Creator, this premise informs our view of
Creation. Since Creation in all its diversity flows
from the Divine Oneness, it follows that in its Essence,
all Creation is one - a mystical concept that has profound
spiritual and ethical implications.
If all Creation constitutes a unitary whole, then all
things, from the highest to lowest entity in the hierarchy
of Creation, share a spiritual affinity with one another.
Not that the universe is Divine; the identification
of nature and God is pantheism, a belief inconsistent
with the doctrine of God's incorporeality. Pantheism
also disputes the concept of free choice (bechirah
chofshis) through its implicit moral determinism.
Rather, the spiritual affinity of which we speak exists
by virtue of the Infinite One Who produces and encompasses
all things, while at the same time transcending them.
As the verse attests, "How worthy are Your works,
O God; You have created them all with wisdom" (Psalms
104:24). For this paramount reason, it is natural and
proper for human beings to feel kinship with animals,
despite the physical and spiritual differences between
Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (1522-1570) states: "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 even for a
moment. Instead, He watches over and shows mercy to
all. Similarly, a person should be benevolent to everyone,
and no creature should seem despicable to him. Even
the smallest living thing should be exceedingly worthy
in his eyes."
Kindness Toward Animals
Benevolence entails action. Thus, Judaism goes beyond
the subjective factor of moral sentiment and mandates
kindness toward animals in halacha (religious
law), prohibits their abuse, praises their good traits,
and obligates their owners concerning their well-being.
As we shall see, even man's self-serving use of animals
can bring about their spiritual benefit. Certainly,
this should be part of our conscious intent in using
animals, as well as in using any of the world's resources.
By example of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the Torah
describes the ways of right action. Abraham personifies
the Divine trait of chesed (kindness). Thus,
the Midrash cites a dialogue in which Abraham tells
Noah and his sons that they survived the flood because
of the faithfulness with which they cared for the animals
on the Ark. In the Book of Genesis, Abraham's servant
Eliezer determines that Rebecca is a worthy bride for
Isaac when, after serving him water, she voluntarily
gives water to his camels. This act of kindness, both
to strangers and animals, proves her worthiness to enter
the family of Abraham, and thus to become one of the
mothers of the Jewish people. Jacob, too, is distinguished
by an act of kindness toward animals. Rabbi Chaim ibn
Attar (1696-1743) proposes that Jacob may have been
the first person to build animal shelters out of compassion
for his flocks.
Not only are animals deserving of our compassion, but
we may learn a number of good traits from them. The
Talmud attests that, had the Torah not been given, "we
might have learned modesty from the cat, honest labor
from the ant, marital fidelity from the dove, and consideration
of one's mate from the rooster."
To be sure, Judaism asserts that the world with all
it contains is not an end unto itself, but serves as
a backdrop for man - in particular for man's exercise
of free will. In the phrase of Chassidic master Rabbi
Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810), "Everything you
see in the world, everything that exists, is for the
sake of free will." This is the central challenge
of our lives; for by choosing the path of belief in
God and Torah observance (or, in the case of non-Jews,
by heeding the Seven Universal Laws of Noah), a person
can achieve intimacy with the Creator. This is not true
of a master-slave relationship, which is devoid of the
element of choice. Nevertheless, if man is the main
performer on the stage of Creation, this does not mean
that the "supporting cast" is of small consequence.
Indeed, the Divine call to venture beyond the ego and
develop a sense of compassion for the rest of Creation
is a key part of the cosmic test.
"One should respect all creatures," asserts
Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, "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 His creatures in having made them.
If one were to disparage them, God forbid, this would
reflect upon the honor of their Maker."
Because man is the central figure in Creation, he is
responsible for the rest of the world. The Torah describes
how God placed Adam and Eve in the center of Eden and
commanded them to "tend" and "watch over"
the garden. Symbolically, this defines humanity's continuing
role as custodian of nature. As a point of theology,
it also has important ethical-halachic consequences:
we must seek to relieve the suffering of animals; we
must properly feed and attend the domestic animals under
our care; our animals must rest on the Sabbath; we only
may take the life of an animal to serve a legitimate
human need; acts of wanton destructiveness are forbidden;
and, according to the Sefer HaChinnuch (13th
century c.e.), the prohibition of slaughtering an animal
and its young on the same day teaches us that it is
forbidden to bring about the destruction of any species.
Through our emulation of God, we become the instrument
of God's compassion for the world that He created and
The Hallmark of Wisdom
Compassion for animals is the measure of spiritual refinement.
In his classic work of Jewish ethics, Mesilas Yesharim,
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746) asserts that
it is one of the basic characteristics of a chassid,
by which he means a person striving for spiritual perfection.
Indeed, the Midrash states that both Moses and King
David were chosen by God to be leaders of Israel because
of the compassion they had previously demonstrated toward
their flocks. There are countless tales of tzaddikim
(righteous individuals) and their concern for the well-being
of animals. As several stories in this volume demonstrate,
this concern may extend even to wild creatures for which
we bear no direct responsibility.
Despite the apparent multiformity of the universe, there
is an underlying spiritual connection between all things.
Kabbalistic works speak of four elements: earth (afar),
water (mayim), air (ru'ach), and fire
(aish); in modern scientific terms, these are
the four states of matter: solid, liquid, gas, and energy.
The four elements, in turn, parallel the four levels
of existence: "silent" things (domem),
vegetation (tzome'ach), animals (chai),
and human beings (medaber), as well as the Four
Worlds, or levels of reality. The World of Action (Asiyah)
includes the entire physical universe; the three higher
"worlds" are those of Formation (Yetzirah),
Creation (Beriah), and Emanation (Atzilus).
Beyond these categories are transcendent levels of which
we cannot even begin to speak. The universe is wondrously
diverse; all things differ in form, intellect, and purpose.
Nevertheless, there exists a commonality among all creatures
in that everything reflects God's wisdom and is part
of the Divine plan.
This is not merely an abstract concept, but a potent
subject of contemplation for anyone who seeks a more
enlightened way of relating to the world. The Baal Shem
Tov (R. Yisrael Ben Eliezer, 1698-1760), founder of
the Chassidic movement, declares: "Do not consider
yourself superior to anyone else... In truth, you are
no different than any other creature, since all things
were brought into being to serve God. Just as God bestows
consciousness upon you, so does He bestow consciousness
upon your fellow man. In what way is a human being superior
to a worm? A worm serves the Creator with all of his
intelligence and ability; and man, too, is compared
to a worm or a maggot, as the verse states, 'I am a
worm and not a man' (Psalms 22:7). If God had not given
you a human intellect, you would only be able to serve
Him like a worm. In this sense, you are both equal in
the eyes of Heaven. A person should consider himself
and the worm and all creatures as comrades in the universe,
for we are all created beings whose abilities are God-given..."
Compassion and Enlightenment
The Baal Shem Tov's words proceed from a deeply mystical
perception: all things are animated by God, and thus
constitute a "garment" for Him. As he observes,
"All the worlds are garments, each one for the
next, down to the lowest aspect..." This concept
is suggested by the verse that states, "He covers
Himself with light as a garment" (Psalms 104:2).
In Kabbalistic terms, this alludes to the Infinite Light
of Creation (Ohr Ein Sof). The Infinite Light,
in turn, is "garbed" through numerous acts
of constriction (tzimtzum) that produce the various
"worlds," culminating in the physical universe.
Thus, the universe may be conceived as the "outermost"
garment of God, beneath which His Infinite Light is
concealed. Although some elements may be primary and
others secondary, all parts of the garment exist in
symbiotic relationship with one another, and they possess
meaning by virtue of the One Who fashioned the garment
for His own purpose.
Therefore, the Baal Shem Tov teaches us, the enlightened
person will sense the comradeship of "man and the
worm and all small creatures," and relate to all
of God's works with love. As the Maharal of Prague (R.
Yehudah Loewi Ben Betzalel, 1512-1609) observes, "Love
of all creatures is also love of God; for whoever loves
the One, loves all the works that He has made."
The realization of this truth is the central point of
Jewish mysticism. And it is the root of the Jewish ethic
of compassion for all creatures.
 Sota 14a; cf. Sifri
on Deuteronomy 11:22.
 Mishneh Torah, Hilchos De'os 1:1.
 Tomer Devorah, ch. 2.
 Midrash Tehillim on Psalms 37:6.
 Ohr HaChaim, Bereishis 33:17.
 Eruvin 100b.
 Thus, it is said in the name of Kabbalistic master
Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, best known as the Ari z"l
(an acronym for "our master, Rabbi Yitzchak, of
blessed memory"): "Man is a small world, and
the cosmos is a great Man." The aphorism may be
apocryphal, but is entirely consistent with Lurianic
thought; cf. Sefer Eitz Chaim, Chelek
II, Heichal A-B-Y-A, Hakdama L'haDrush,
Sha'ar Tzi'ur Olamos; Sha'arei Kedushah
3:2, s.v. "V'od yesh chiluk" and 3:5
(beginning); Chesed L'Avraham, Mayan 4, Nahar
1; et al. That is, all the various levels and facets
of Creation are contained in each human being-and Creation
as a whole, including the various spiritual "worlds"
beyond the physical universe, reflects the human form
in its metaphysical structure. This is why the order
of the Ten Sefiros, or Divine Powers operative in creation,
is commonly depicted as corresponding to the human form;
cf. "Pasach Eliyahu," Hakdama,
Tikkunei Zohar. Moreover, all Creation is animated
by means of the "Cosmic Soul" known as Adam
Kadmon (literally, "Primordial Man"),
which is the highest spiritual root of all individual
souls, and indeed all phenomena. The Kabbalists caution
that the nature of Adam Kadmon is utterly beyond
the grasp of mortal intellect; thus nothing can be said
 Sichos HaRan 300; also cf. Si'ach Sarfei
Kodesh I, 385.
 Tomer Devorah, ch. 2.
 Rabbeinu Bachaya (ad loc.) explains this verse
on the literal, homiletic, and mystical levels. Like
other Rishonim, he interprets the verse in the most
basic sense as indicating man's stewardship over nature.
Then he cites several Midrashic teachings: according
to the first, the terms "tend" and "watch
over" allude to the study of Torah and observance
of the commandments; the second interprets these terms
as alluding to our Divine service during the week through
creative activity, as contrasted with our Divine service
on the Sabbath through non-action and rest; and the
third relates them to the sacrifices in the Holy Temple,
which elicited Divine blessings. The Kabbalistic explanation
relates the two terms to the "upper" letter
hey and the "lower" letter hey in the four-letter
Divine Name YHVH. (The former corresponds to the spiritual
source of understanding, whereas the latter corresponds
to the spiritual source of action.)
 Sefer HaChinnuch, Mitzvah 545.
 Mesillas Yesharim, ch. 19.
 Shemos Rabbah 2:2.
 Tzava'as HaRivash 12.
 Sefer Baal Shem Tov, Bereishis 12, citing
Chesed L'Avraham; ibid. Bereishis 15,
citing Likkutim Yekarim 17c.
 Likkutei Moharan I: 24, I: 33; Sefer
HaTanya 1:2, hagahah, citing Sefer Eitz Chaim
of the Ari z"l; R. Yosef Chaim of Baghdad,
Od Yosef Chai, Chut HaMeshulosh; et al.
 Nesivos Olam, Ahavas Re'i, 1.
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