Last week we saw that the book of Genesis shows that from the dawn of man's creation, he is in a close relationship with his animal companions, a relationship that partakes of both lordship and fellowship. Later we find that the Torah includes a number of commandments involving mercy towards animals. This week we will examine some of these commandments.
In the Ten Commandments we find: "Six days shall you work, and do all your labor. And the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; don't do any labor – you, and your son, and your daughter, your manservant and your maidservant and your beast, and the sojourner in your gate"(Exodus 20:8-9). A little later the Torah elaborates: "Six days shall you do your tasks and on the seventh day rest, in order that your ox and your ass shall rest, and the son of the maidservant and the sojourner be refreshed"(Exodus 23:12).
In the same chapter, we find: "If you see [even] your enemy's ass struggling under his load, don't refrain from helping him; surely help him [to unload]" (Exodus 23:5). According to the Talmud, this is one source for learning the prohibition of animal suffering. (1)
In the book of Deuteronomy (12:21), we find the commandment to slaughter animals before we may eat them: "Slaughter from your herd and your flock which the Lord your God gave you, as I commanded you; and [then] eat in your gates according to what your soul desires." Many commentators, including Sefer Hachinukh, express the opinion that one purpose of this commandment is that kosher slaughter is a humane way of killing that causes only minimal suffering to the animal.
In chapter 22 (verses 6-7), we find the commandment to send away the mother bird before taking the eggs for our own use. The commentators explain that seeing the eggs taken away causes distress to the mother, which is partially alleviated by sending her away.
A few verses later (Deuteronomy 22:9) we find the prohibition on plowing with two different kinds of animals. The Sefer Hachinukh suggests that plowing with another kind of animal causes distress to draft animals.
Later in the same book we find, "Don't muzzle the ox as it threshes"(Deuteronomy 25:4). Again the Chinukh explains that it is stressful for the animal to be surrounded by food but unable to eat.
One thing we notice from these commandments is that they go far beyond merely avoiding active cruelty to animals. In most cases the commandment is to take positive action to alleviate distress, and in many cases it is distress that falls short of actual cruelty.
Another thing we notice is that commandments are ultimately limited in scope. Only animals belonging to a Jew, who himself is commanded to keep the Sabbath, needs to be given rest on the Sabbath; humane kosher slaughter is a requirement only when the animal is to be eaten, but not for example if it is needed for fur or leather. While we many not muzzle an ox as it threshes, there is no general requirement to allow animals to eat freely; this commandment refers specifically to when it is actually working with the food.
I believe that these two aspects are related. Ethical obligations to animals are commensurate with the benefit they provide us, and our relationship with them. Animals that work for us all week long rest on the Sabbath day; animals that help us with our loads should be helped when they are overburdened; animals which provide us with vital sustenance need to be slaughtered in a humane fashion.
Cruelty is of course forbidden towards any creature, but the higher levels of obligation are commensurate with the degree of connection with and benefit from the animal.
This answers what some people consider a paradox of the Jewish approach to animals. Some people ask, if Judaism acknowledges ethical duties towards animals, why does it let us use them for our benefit? In fact, the duties to animals are a consequence of the benefit we derive from them. Ethical duties don't arise in a vacuum; they generally stem from a combination of empathy and reciprocity. Reciprocity doesn't have to mean tit for tat; animals won't go on strike and refuse to help us if some people treat them meanly. In this context, reciprocity means that we acknowledge the benefit animals provide us and requite it with basic standards of humane treatment.
Next week we will study in more detail the nature of animal suffering rules in Judaism, and their relationship to the underlying principles we have examined so far.
(1) Bava Metzia 31a.