click here to jump to start of article
  • Torah Reading: Naso
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​

The Jewish Ethicist: Animal Suffering Part 2

The Jewish Ethicist: Animal Suffering Part 2

Ethical obligations to animals stem in large measure from the benefit they provide us.


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.

July 26, 2009

Give Tzedakah! Help create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.
The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Tova saul, August 7, 2009 4:20 PM

To Carol the veterinarean

Carol.......As you know, there are very many vets who will refuse to do senseless and cruel procedures such as de-clawing, ear and tail-docking......As a doctor, Jewish law would dictate that you do all in your power to heal, not hurt. If an animal is suffering needlessly with a terminal illness, it's merciful to euthanize it. For the owners who won't care for their pets for any other reason, you can refuse to euthanize, and offer them possible solutions (such as how to find another home for their animal or a no-kill shelter). Beyond that, it's not your responsibility.

(4) Anonymous, August 3, 2009 10:32 PM

Is bullfighting good or bad ?

Bullfighting is a major spectator sport in Spain and Mexico. It provides jobs and salaries for everyone form breeders to vendors selling cushions, tourism dollars, spectator sport, collateral sales in bars and restaurants, sociability, etc. It seems to have a lot of positives going for it. So is it wrong ? Is bullriding in Stampede contests wrong ?

(3) carol, July 30, 2009 8:14 AM

when "put to sleep" a pet?

I am a vet and in the daily practice we have to deal with "puting to sleep" pets that we are not allways sure they don't have a posibility of living with reasonable quality of live. The owners usualy have financial problems , health problems to treat and deal with their pets or are convinced the pet is suffering (like "I prefer to kill him before seeing him with only 3 legs" which I can never understand). What is the jewish approach to this problem? Many thanks.

(2) Max Green, July 29, 2009 7:19 PM

animals not here for our benefit

the interpretation(s) you offer are nothing more than rationalizations for the disrespect for our animal brethren. If anything, they were put here to show us unconditional love and compassion but, more importantly, they weren't put here for us at all but, instead, are here just as we all are - for vastly unknown reasons. Stewardship - taking care of G-d's creations - is our only job. Nurture and protect our non-human earth life. In turn, we will be given the love and abundance that G-d provides us all.

(1) Ruth Housman, July 28, 2009 8:27 PM

it's not for me, about benefit

I believe, deeply, most profoundly, in the concept of love, and for me, it's not about benefit when it comes to all forms of life. I am someone who does think, deeply, even if I must kill a moth or bee that is bothering me, and I don't easily kill spiders. I am human, and to be human sets us into constant ethical dilemmas. Perhaps for me, there is an ethical dilemma that does involve the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" because I honestly have great difficulty not loving all creation, and seeing that there is a mystery here, a great mystery, that has to do with all living things, with consciousness itself, and for me, that mystery is entirely tied up, not with benefit analyses but with that inchoate thing called LOVE. And I do believe that this kind of sensitivity is what the world needs most.

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.

  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment