Articles on Talmidaism Theology
The treatment of animals
Kindness to animals was one of those principles that were so ingrained in Israelite culture, that it was not considered necessary to have any direct commandments about it. This is in the same vein as for example, how there are no written laws on hospitality, because the rules of being a good host and guest were so ingrained in Israelite culture, that it was not considered necessary to write commandments about them.
Similarly with the kind and humane treatment of animals. There are no direct references or commandments regarding the rights of animals, but you can see it in several places, underneath the surface as part of Israelite culture.
For example, in Gen 24:14 & 19, because Rebecca had concern for his camels, Abraham’s servant knew she was the right wife for Isaac. She offered to water the camels until they had all had their fill, which would have involved considerable labour. And the law forbidding eating an animal while it is still alive (Gen 9:4) presupposes a concern for the suffering of the animal. This principle was considered so important, that it was one of the marks of a righteous Gentile; a righteous Gentile society would be marked out as such, because it had concern for the welfare of its animals.
Also, Moses and David were said to have been chosen as leaders of Israel, because of their experience as shepherds who showed kindness to their animals. The prophet Yeshua often used the image of a good and caring shepherd as an analogy of God’s love.
‘Fill the earth and subdue it’
A big sticking point for people outside of Hebrew culture in understanding humanity’s biblical relationship to the animal kingdom, is the verse in Gen 1:28 – pointed in the Masoretic text to read as ‘mil’u et ha-arets ve-khivshuha’, often translated in English as ‘Fill the earth and subdue it’.
The verb translated as ‘subdue’ is kabash. However, the last letter, a shīn ( שׁ ), can also be read as the letter sīn ( שׂ ) – without modern pointing, the two letters look exactly the same. The Masoretic pointing of the text interprets the reading as kabash – ‘to trample over, to tread underfoot’, (probably because of Ps 8:6, but this refers to the metaphor of a king’s subjects being ‘under his feet’); or even, ‘to subjugate and oppress’, hence the interpretation of ‘to subdue’. However, if the verb is read as kabas, then the verb means ‘to force to beget’ – that is, to force something to be fruitful and plentiful (hence the Hebrew word for lamb, kéves). If the verb is read this way, then the verse implies that we are to be good stewards of creation, to look after the earth and help God to make it fruitful and abundant.
Consider this: Can we really justify continuing to believe that God commanded humanity to subjugate and oppress God’s creation? Can we really justify a belief that God commanded humanity to ill-treat and abuse God’s creation? If we cherish an image of a loving, nurturing, creating God, then we should read the verb as kabas – to force to be fruitful, and NOT kabash – to subjugate and oppress. How can we understand a creating God if we think God has commanded us to destroy God’s creation?
Biblical Commandments that reflect the Hebrew mindset
The one commandment that comes immediately to mind is the one that on the Sabbath, even our animals must rest (Ex 20:10). If a society had no concern for its animals, that society would get Gentiles to work their animals for them on the Sabbath. However, this commandment leaves no room for doubt; the right to rest on the Sabbath and refresh oneself extends even to our animals. This means that it is not permitted to ride an animal on the Sabbath day, or to ride in a vehicle drawn by animals, even when the driver is a non-Jew.
Torah does enjoin kindness to animals. “If you see the donkey of your enemy fallen under its burden, and your instinct is to refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.” (Ex. 23:5).
Prov 12:10 says, “A righteous person regards the life of his beast, but the innermost feelings of the wicked are for cruelty.” It is considered a kindness in Israelite tradition to feed animals even on the Sabbath, or help them if they are in trouble on the Sabbath, or to carry tools and equipment to help save an animal on the Sabbath, or to milk a cow on the Sabbath if she is suffering from an over-production of milk. And before an owner could sit down to eat, it was considered a great virtue to feed one’s animals first.
On the other hand, animals should not be subjected to psychological torture. For example, an ox must not be muzzled while treading grain (Deut. 25:4), but must be free to eat of the grain while working, exactly the same as a human worker is allowed to do (Dt. 23:26 [23:25 in Xtian bibles]). It would be cruel to prevent an animal from eating the very food it is treading in plain sight.
It is forbidden to yoke animals of different species for example when ploughing (Deut. 22:10) because to do so would be a cruelty to the weaker animal.
Mother and young must not be slaughtered on the same day (Lev. 22:28), and it is forbidden to take both a wild bird and young from a nest. When the mother is liberated the eggs or young may be taken (Deut. 22:6). This law assumes a measure of conservation, since the mother can breed again, but taking both would kill off the supply of eggs or young. The compassionate interpretation of this verse is that it does not give us the automatic right to go raiding birds’ nests. It only allows us to take wild eggs if we have gone on a journey, and have run out of food.
The inherent conservation principles in Kashrut
If you eat only kosher animals, your diet becomes restricted to the commonest animals. This means that rarer animals are left alone.
Consider how, in Chinese culture, there are no restrictions on which animals can be eaten. As a result, many animals around the world have become endangered, simply to feed the market in China.
Furthermore, restricting the range of animals you eat also restricts the range of viruses and diseases that human beings come into contact with; this was surely one of God’s concerns in the kosher laws of Torah.
There are no laws specific to the keeping of pets in Torah. However, if kindness to animals is one of the general principles of Torah, then we can derive further principles from this – Dt 13:19 (Xtian bibles Dt 13:18) says that we should do whatever is right and pleasing in the sight of God. Therefore Jewish sages have said that, if you keep an animal as a pet, you must have the right means to look after it and provide for it. It naturally follows that, in the Yahwist mindset of ethics, your pets must not be obtained and disposed of like a material accessory. Your pets are part of your household, and responsibility for them should not be taken lightly.
If we take on board the general Yahwist mindset of concern for animals, it naturally follows that we should not capture wild animals in order to keep them in our homes, because to do so would be to inflict psychological cruelty upon them. You are taking them away from the habitat which God created them for, from the balanced surroundings and inter-species interactions which are natural to them, and putting them in an environment for which they are completely unsuited, and which more often than not, is severely lacking in what is needed for their physical and psychological welfare.
Nevertheless, the principal of the saving of life allows us to look after an injured or sick wild animal until it can be returned to the wild. However, if a wild animal has become imprinted on humans, and that imprinting would be a dangerous hinderance to its survival, then an exception can be made with regard to returning it to the wild.
If a population of animals has been captured in order to keep them in a zoo, in order to breed them and so save them from extinction, thereby increasing their populations so that they can be returned to the wild, then that is also acceptable, as long as they are kept in a habitat that is as close as possible to the one that God created them for.
The general ethical principle is that an animal should not be sought out and taken from its wild, natural habitat in order to be kept as pets, because to do so is a form of cruelty.
In Israelite culture, unlike the cultures of the surrounding peoples, Israelite kings did not engage in hunting for sport; it was not part of Israelite culture, and in time came to be considered distasteful, even though there are no laws as such forbidding it in Torah. Even when hunting for food, it was considered particularly distasteful to hunt with dogs, as they would torment the animal before its death.
Hunting in order to obtain food is permitted (assumed from laws such as Dt 12:15, 12:22), but hunting for sport – that is, for the purpose of enjoying seeing the suffering and death of an animal – is absolutely forbidden. Similarly, fishing for food is permitted, but fishing for sport is frowned upon in the Israelite mindset (fish are caught to be eaten, not to stress them for sport).
Hunters in the Bible get a bad press. Esau is contrasted with Jacob – Esau is the hunter, but Jacob is the shepherd. Also, King Herod the Great engaged in hunting, influenced by Hellenist and Roman patrons, and was therefore another reason why he was held in low esteem by his Jewish subjects.
Hunting is ultimately ecologically destructive. While natural predators generally go for the weakest prey, leaving the fittest to survive, a human hunter will go for the largest and healthiest animal to kill. This means that over time, animals decrease in size (because those animals with genes for a large size have been killed off), and only weaker animals are left to breed.
Hunting is generally regarded as cruel, and therefore un-Jewish. Whether hunting controls a population of a particular animal or not is completely irrelevant; the issue is the enjoyment of the suffering and death of an animal, which is not permitted in the Israelite mindset. For these reasons, no Talmidi should ever engage in hunting for sport.
As for the slaughter of animals, it is an underlying part of Hebrew culture that the slaughter should be as quick as possible, to cause the animal as little pain and distress as possible; the practical laws in this matter, although not specified in Torah, are dictated by concern for the welfare of the animal. In spite of the attempts made in various western countries to forbid the Jewish mode of slaughter on the grounds of cruelty, this institution of Judaism still stands as far more humane than any of the modes employed by non-Jews (eg electric shock).
It is also a principle that animals to be slaughtered should not have to witness their fellow animals being killed – again, out of concern for the stress caused to the animal in its final hours.
Even though there are no direct commandments to show kindness or concern for animals, it is an ingrained part of Israelite culture. A person’s compassion can be measured by how far they will go to show concern even for animals. The relationship between humans and animals, according to the Hebrew mindset, is that of a benevolent king and his subjects, or of a caring and nurturing steward.
 pointing refers to the dots placed above Hebrew letters, which mostly indicate vowels, but for certain letters (the sīn and the shīn) can also indicate a change of consonant. The current system of pointing dates back to the Masoretes of the 9th century CE.