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Judaism, Animals, and Vegetarianism
French translation

"G-d's tender mercies are over all of His creatures." (Psalms 145:9)

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Judaism requires humane treatment of animals. 

The Jewish concept of tsa'ar ba'alei chaim, the obligation not to cause pain to animals, is one of the most beautiful elements of Jewish thought. Jewish tradition is filled with compassion for animals, and strongly opposes the infliction of suffering on another living creature. Let's take a look at what Judaism says about our proper treatment of animals. 

Many stories from Jewish tradition reflect our concern for animals. In one beautiful story from Midrash: 

While our teacher Moses was tending the sheep of Jethro in the wilderness a lamb ran away from him. He ran after her until she reached Hasuah. Upon reaching Hasuah she came upon a pool of water [whereupon] the lamb stopped to drink. When Moses reached her he said, "I did not know that you were running because [you were] thirsty. You must be tired." He placed her on his shoulder and began to walk. The Holy One, blessed be He, said, "You are compassionate in leading flocks belonging to mortals; I swear you will similarly shepherd my flock, Israel." (Exodus Rabbah 2:2) 

Judaism is clear in mandating concern for animals. The Bible tells us explicitly, "The righteous man regardeth the life of his animal."(1) In Exodus, G-d insists that "If thou see the ass of him that hateth thee laying under its burden, thou shalt surely not pass by him; thou shalt surely unload it with him."(2) The Code of Jewish Law states, "It is forbidden, according to the law of the Torah, to inflict pain upon any living creature. On the contrary, it is our duty to relieve pain of any creature, even if it is ownerless of belongs to a non-Jew."(3) The Talmud explains that the obligation to relieve an animal from pain or danger supercedes rabbinic ordinances related to the Sabbath. 

Indeed, the welfare of animals is so important that the fifth commandment mentions them specifically, and they too must be allowed to rest on the Sabbath.(4) The great Torah commentator Rashi explained that this means animals must be free to roam on the Sabbath day, and graze, and enjoy the beauties of nature. 

The Talmud futher insists that "A person should not eat or drink before first providing for his animals."(5) Indeed, the Shulchan Aruch tells us it is so important that our animals not go hungry while we eat, that a person is legally authorized to interrupt the performance of a rabbinic commandment in order make sure this has been done. 

In Deuteronomy, the Torah instructs us not to take the mother bird and its young together.(6) Maimonides explains this injunction is meant to prevent causing the mother pain at seeing its young taken away. The Torah further commands us, "ye shall not kill [an animal] and its young both in one day," of which Maimonides says is "in order that people should be restrained and prevented from killing the two together in such a manner that the young is slain in the sight of its mother, for the pain of animals under such circumstances is very great. There is no difference in this case between the pain of people and the pain of other living beings, since the love and the tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning but by feeling, and this faculty exists not only in people but in most living things."(7) 

The rabbis further demonstrated their concern for animals by so strongly disapproving of sport hunting, that the Talmud prohibits even association with hunters.(8) 

The laws of kosher slaughter also reflect a deep reverence for the welfare of animals. According to Jewish law, the shochet (slaughterer) must be a pious and learned man, the animal must be perfectly healthy, the knife must be perfectly smooth with no imperfections that may cause momentary pain at the point of death, and the animal must be killed with one quick cut severing the major arteries to the brain. Thus, Judaism requires that if an animal is to be killed, even its moment of death must be as quick and painless as possible. 

Indeed, there are so many commandments mandating humane treatment for animals that the rabbis explicitly declared consideration for animals a biblical law. As the Talmud states, "Great importance is attached to the humane treatment of animals, so much so that it is declared to be as fundamental as human righteousness."(9) As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote, "Here you are faced with G-d's teaching, which obliges you not only to refrain from inflicting unnecessary pain on any animal, but to help and, when you can, to lessen the pain whenever you see an animal suffering, even though no fault of yours."(10) Tsa'ar ba'alei chaim is such an important idea in Judaism, that chief rabbi of England J.H Hertz said, "It is one of the glories of Judaism that, thousands of years before anyone else, it so fully recognized our duties to (animals)." It is absolutely clear that concern for the welfare of animals is an obligation for Jews. 

For more on this subject, read Judaism and Animal Rights by Richard Schwartz

The way animals are treated on farms today violates Jewish teachings. 

Judaism is unequivocal in requiring us to treat animals humanely. How do these important Jewish teachings on compassion for animals apply to what we eat? 

If you're like most people, you imagine a farm the way storybooks portray them, with chickens scratching around in the dirt, pigs rolling together in the mud, and cows peacefully grazing out at pasture, the animals living a happy, idyllic life until coming to a quick and painless death at the hands of the slaughterer. This picture is far from reality. These kinds of farms, the norm back in Biblical and Talmudic times, have virtually disappeared in modern America. The mass production techniques which drove our industrial revolution now dominate our farms as well, and today large agribusiness conglomerates have nearly obliterated the traditional family farms that once dotted our landscape. Over 90% of animals on U.S. farms today are raised using intensive rearing methods, on modern "factory farms." Listen to what happens on these factory farms, and consider how the way animals are raised for food today fits in with our Jewish tradition of compassion for animals. 

Chickens, for instance, are raised in absolutely atrocious conditions. Those raised for meat live their short lives entirely indoors, never seeing grass or sun or sky, crowded so tightly that each chicken, with a wingspan of 2½ feet, has on average a mere 6/10 of a square foot in which to live its life. Their droppings are not cleaned, so they spend their entire lives in their own filth. As a result of the ammonia, dust, and disease in the air, farmers complain of sore eyes, coughing, and even chronic bronchitis, and have been warned to avoid entering these areas. If that's true for the farmers, what must it be like for the chickens, who must live their entire lives breathing this air? They all develop respiratory problems as a result, and the ammonia burning their eyes sometimes leads to blindness. Farmers use hormonal and genetic manipulation to make the chickens grow seven times faster than normal, which puts such stress on their bodies that 90% of the chickens suffer leg deformaties, and some just flip over in convulsions and die. Though their normal lifespan is 15-20 years, they are slaughtered at just 7 weeks of age, because if allowed to grow longer, mortality rates surge due to heart attacks, infections, and other diseases. Under these conditions of extreme stress and frustration, the chickens will actually peck each other to death, a behavior virtually unheard of under normal conditions where chickens can establish a natural "pecking order." Farmers deal with this loss to profitability not by alleviating the conditions which lead to such behavior, but by cutting their beaks with a hot knife. This is not a painless procedure like trimming nails, since the birds have sensitive nerves in their beaks, and indeed for some chickens this creates so much pain that they cannot eat and starve to death.

Chickens raised for their eggs have it even worse. After hatching, since male chicks are useless to the egg industry, they are simply thrown into plastic bags where they suffocate under one another, or are thrown alive into grinders to be fed to their sisters. The females are raised in wire cages stacked one on top of the other, so excrement drops from one cage onto the birds below. The birds are generally packed 4-7 birds to a cage the size of a folded newspaper. They cannot stand or perch comfortably on the unnatural slanted wire floor. The result is severe discomfort and serious leg deformities, and their nails can get caught in the wiring leaving them completely immobile. It is typical for one hen to be consistently trampled underfoot by the others. Hens also have a strong need to lay their eggs in privacy, an urge shown in studies to be as strong as the urge to eat after being starved for a day. Of course, privacy is completely impossible under these conditions. Other urges, like dust bathing and nesting, are also completely frustrated. In time, the rubbing of their bodies against the wires causes their feather to fall out and their skin to be rubbed bright red and raw. Indeed, it appears that the birds are driven literally insane by their treatment, as indicated by their hysterical noisiness among naturally rather quiet animals. Conditions are so bad for these layers, 20-25% of them die before slaughter at less than 2 years of age. By the time they're killed, due to confinement and transport, 88% of then hens have broken bones. What's more, when the layers end their egg cycle, they are often "force-molted." This involves leaving them without food in complete darkness for sometimes up to 18 days, in order to shock their bodies into starting another cycle. The birds can lose more than 25% of their body weight in this process, and it is common for 5-10% to die. And egg-laying chickens, like the rest, end up in slaughter. 

The cows we eat are routinely branded, receiving third-degree burns; their horns are either torn out or gouged out; and they are castrated. All without anesthetic, of course. Most dairy cows are tied in place for their entire lives, unable even to walk around. To keep their milk flowing, they are impregnated every year, and their calves are taken away immediately so as not to waste any of the milk. This is causes great suffering to both mother and child, and a cow will often bellow for days after its baby. Except for the few added to the dairy line, these babies all become veal, to be raised in darkness and isolation in stalls too small to lie down in, fed iron-free diets to keep them anemic, and slaughtered at just six weeks of age. The dairy industry and the veal industry are the same industry. Giving birth constantly wears the cows' bodies down, so that these animals who normally live to 25 years are spent by the time they're six, and sent to slaughter like the rest. 

All these animals endure transport to slaughter for up to days without any food or water, sweltering under the summer heat or freezing to death in the harsh winter. At the slaughterhouse, they are beaten with electric prods, including in their eyes and anuses, to get them to go up the chute as they smell the blood and hear the screams of the animals before them. They are hung in the air by their back legs, which bruises or breaks them. For non-kosher meat they are supposed to be stunned, but with a documented 25% failure to stun rate, they routinely have their limbs chopped off, their skin peeled off, and they are dropped into tanks of scalding water, all while fully alive and conscious. This is the horrific, bloody end to their life of misery. And all just because we like the taste of meat. 

How does this fit in with the Jewish mandate not to cause pain to any animal? How does their lifelong confinement compare with Rashi's statement that they must be free to roam and enjoy the beauties of nature on the Sabbath day? How is their starvation through weather extremes during transport to slaughter consistent with the mandate that we must not ourselves eat before making sure our animals are provided for, even if this interrupts a rabbinic commandment? How does the dairy industry's practice of removing the calf from its mother just after birth, compare to Maimonides' words that "there is no difference in this case between the pain of people and the pain of other living beings"? How can we as Jews, who are not permitted even a small notch in the knife used for killing an animal lest it cause momentary pain, who are not permitted to take the young away in the mother bird's presence lest it cause her grief, who are not even allowed to associate with hunters, how can we inflict all this suffering on so many of G-d's creatures, about whom the Torah tells us "the L-rd is good to all, and his tender mercy is over all his creatures"? Where is the mercy here for these pitiful animals? 

It is clear that the Torah envisages a peaceful, happy life for animals, and that if they are to be killed for food, they should end their happy lives quickly and painlessly. Today in America, however, we cannot eat animal products without directly participating in cruelty of unfathomable proportions. Each year, in the US alone, 10 billion warm-blooded animals are slaughtered for food. Compare that to the human population of the entire earth of 6 billion, and there is no comprehending the amount of suffering involved. We cannot be compassionate, we cannot abhor cruelty, we cannot be true to the beautiful decency and caring for animals written into the Torah which G-d gave us, indeed, we cannot be good Jews, as long as we continue to pay for the torment of these abused souls. 

Jews have known too well the bitter taste of cruelty and oppression, and Jews have remembered our tragic history when we have seen others suffering under the cold hand of persecution. Jews have taken leadership roles in the battles for worker’s rights, for civil rights, and even today Jews have worked to help the plight of the Kosovo refugees. Let us not forget the suffering we have experienced as a people when it comes our turn to choose whether others will be brutalized at our hands, every time we sit down to dinner. As Nobel prize winning Jewish author Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote, "...as long as human beings will go on shedding the blood of animals, there will never be any peace... There will be no justice as long as man will stand with a knife or with a gun and destroy those who are weaker than he is." Let us, as Jews, who have helped change the world for the better so many times before, continue to spread the concept of tikkun olam, of repairing the world, to the countless animals who live, and die, in abject misery.

Millions of people are going vegetarian every year. Please consider becoming a vegetarian yourself, so that we as Jews can help create a more compassionate world.


(1) Proverbs 12:10 
(2) Exodus 23:5
(3) Rabbi Solomon Granzfried, Code of Jewish Law, New York: Hebrew
Publishing Co., 1961, book 4, Chapter191, 84.
(4) Exodus 20:8-10, Deuteronomy 5:12-14 
(5) from Deuteronomy 11:15 
(6) Deuteronomy 22:6-7 
(7) Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, 3:48 
(8) Avodah Zorah 18b 
(9) Philip Birnbaum, Encyclopedia of Jewish Concepts,
p. 92
(10) Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Horeb, Chapter 60, Section 416 

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