Animals, and Vegetarianism
"G-d's tender mercies
are over all of His creatures." (Psalms 145:9)
here for a quick factsheet!
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
Many stories from Jewish tradition reflect our concern
for animals. In one beautiful story from Midrash:
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
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
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.
more on this subject, read Judaism
and Animal Rights by Richard Schwartz
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
to Jewish Vegetarianism
(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,
(10) Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Horeb, Chapter
60, Section 416