Ethical Treatment of Animals in Judaism

The concept of Tzaar Baalei Hayim demands that we take animal suffering seriously.

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Responsibilities Toward Animals

The prohibition against tzaar baalei hayim not only prevents unnecessary cruelty to animals, but also imposes certain positive obligations on those entrusted with caring for animals. Owners must feed, water, and otherwise care for their animals' basic needs, and may, in some cases be required to take extra precautions to alleviate the suffering of their animals.

One commonly cited mitzvah mandates relieving an animal who is suffering from carrying too heavy a load. In the words of Maimonides, "If one encounters one's friend on the road and sees that that person's animal is suffering from its burden, whether the burden is appropriate for the animal or is excessive, it is a mitzvah to remove this burden (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Rotzeah 13:1)." While some interpretations understand this law as a commandment only to relieve one's friend of a burden, others stress that the basis for the mitzvah is the prohibition against tzaar baalei hayim and that one must relieve an animal belonging even to an enemy (Kesef Mishneh, Hilkhot Rotzeah 13:9).

In some instances, it is even permissible to break Shabbat in order to care for a wounded animal. The Talmud, for instance, allows a person to break certain laws of Shabbat in order to prevent the death of an animal that has fallen into a pool of water (Talmud Tractate Shabbat 128b). While it is not permissible to help an animal to give birth on Shabbat, some authorities allow assistance in the birth if an animal is suffering greatly or is in danger of dying. (See, for example, Har Tzvi Tal Harim Shvut 3, Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank [1874-1960]). While not as extensive as the laws that require one to break Shabbat in order to save human life, tzaar baalei hayim can overrule certain ritual laws when the life or comfort of an animal is at stake.

Righteousness and the Care of Animals

Beyond simply prohibiting cruelty to animals, Jewish tradition associates care for animals with righteousness. Within the Torah, the commandment to send a mother bird away before taking eggs or chicks from her nest is one of the few commandments that promises long life to those who fulfill it. The book of Proverbs comments that, "A righteous person knows the needs of his beast, but the compassion of the wicked is cruelty (Proverbs 12:10)."  

The medieval Rabbi Yehuda ha-Hasid even defines a cruel person as "one who gives one's animal a great amount of straw to eat and the next day requires that it climb up high mountains. Should the animal, however, be unable to run up quickly enough in accordance with its master's desires, its master beats it mercilessly (Sefer Ha-Hasidim paragraph 669)."

Traditional Jewish texts about animals neither forbid the use of animals for food or work, nor give humans license to do with animals as they wish. Rather, these texts demand that we engage in a more complicated negotiation between the simultaneous impulses to provide for human need and to prevent unnecessary cruelty to creations of the divine.

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Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She previously served as the Rabbi-in-Residence for the Jewish Funds for Justice.