Vegetarianism and the Ethical Treatment of Animals in Judaism

Some time ago an article appeared on the website My Jewish Learning written by Rabi Jill Jacobs.

Medley Ethical Treatment of Animals in Judaism 2 Jill-Jacobs
Rabi Jill Jacobs

Here follows an excerpt:

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

Beginning with the first chapters of the Torah, Judaism establishes a fundamental connection between human beings and animals. Animals, created on the fifth day of the biblical story of creation, can be understood as prototypes of the first human beings – Adam and Eve, created on the sixth day. One of Adam’s first responsibilities as a human being is to name the animals. As evidenced by the episode in which a serpent tempts Eve to eat a forbidden fruit, humans and animals originally speak one another’s language (Genesis 1-3).

The story of Noah’s ark represents a turning point in the relationship between human beings and animals. Furious about human misbehavior, God decides to destroy the world by flood, saving only the righteous Noah and his family and enough animals to sustain all of the species. When the waters recede, God gives Noah seven laws – now known as the Noahide laws–aimed at establishing a just society.

Perhaps as a concession to the violent tendencies that God now recognizes within human nature, God here permits humans to eat animals. At the same time, God protects animals against unduly cruel slaughter by banning the practice of cutting a limb off a living animal (Genesis 9:3-4). This balance between simultaneously permitting the use of animals for human need and prohibiting unnecessary cruelty to animals becomes the overarching principle of later Jewish law regarding the treatment of animals.

Within the Talmud, this prohibition against unnecessary cruelty acquires a name–tzaar baaleihayim: the suffering of animals.

For the complete article follow this link:

Medley Ethical Treatment of Animals in Judaism 3


Judaism and vegetarianism go very much hand in hand. Included in their common ideals are kindness to animals, promotion of other mitzvot, the way of life before Noah and aspiration for the future.

  1. Kindness to animals

Consideration for the well-being of animals features in several Torah commandments. For example:

If thou see the ass of him that hateth thee lying under its burden, thou shalt forebear to pass by him; thou shalt surely release it with him” (Exodus 23:5) – and – “Thou shall not muzzle the ox when he treadeth the corn” (Deuteronomy 25:4)

As Rabbi Dr. Joseph Hertz notes in his commentary on this verse, “This prohibition applies to all animals employed in labor, and not to the ox alone. …It is a refinement of cruelty to excite the animal’s desire for food and to prevent its satisfaction.”

In the Ten Commandments it is stipulated that animals as well as people are to rest on the Sabbath day:

“… the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the Lord thy God, in it thou shall not do any manner of work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy man-servant, nor thy maid-servant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; …” (Deuteronomy 5:14)

Maimonides, the pre-eminent Torah scholar and Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages, points to animals’ capability for feeling pain and anguish when he writes, “It is prohibited to kill an animal with its young on the same day, 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 the 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 creatures.

Medley Ethical Treatment of Animals in Judaism 4

Examples of more recent expositions of the requirement to care for animals are:

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 or belongs to a non-Jew.”

“… 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.”

Indeed, Jewish tradition is filled with compassion for animals and many commentators, drawing on the statement, “A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast” (Proverbs 12:10), argue that it is impossible to be righteous if one is unkind to animals.

  1. Vegetarian support for other mitzvoth

Jewish Law requires us to give food to the hungry, protect the environment, conserve natural resources and preserve human health. In each case, vegetarianism accords with the requirement and meat eating practices conflict with it.

Jean Mayer, a leading twentieth century expert on hunger issues, showed how vegetarianism can help fulfil the above when he estimated that if people reduced their meat consumption by just 10 percent, enough grain would be released to feed 60 million people.

The Talmud asserts that people’s role is to enhance the world as “co-partners of G-d in the work of creation” (Shabbat 7a) and the following refers to the effects of our actions on future generations:

Consider the work of G-d; for who can make that straight, which He hath made crooked?” (Ecclesiastes 7:13)

The Midrash on this adds: “In the hour when the Holy One, blessed be He, created the first human being, He took him and let him pass before all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: ‘See my works, how fine and excellent they are! Now all that I have created, for you have I created it. Think upon this and do not destroy and desolate My World, for if you corrupt it, there is no one to set it right after you.’”

However, a 2006 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), stated that animal agriculture is “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global”. Modern meat production causes environmental and ecological damage via substantial energy outputs as well as the emission of climate changing gases. The FAO estimates that livestock production is responsible for up to 18 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions7 , while more recent estimates put the figure as high as 51 per cent.

That a reduction in meat eating contributes to good health is shown, for example, by a recent study carried out at Oxford University. A key finding was that eating meat no more than three times a week could prevent 31,000 deaths from heart disease, 9,000 deaths from cancer and 5,000 deaths from stroke, as well as save the NHS £1.2 billion in costs each year.

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  1. Vegetarianism the original intention

Many leading Jewish commentators throughout the ages have held that G-d originally intended human beings to be vegetarian. They argue that the permission to eat meat given to the generation of Noah after the flood was only a temporary concession. (Rabbi Isaak Hebenstreit believed that meat eating was sanctioned because of the conditions after the flood when all plant life had been destroyed and it suggested that it was a concession to human weakness, to ward off the possibility of cannibalism at a time when people had degenerated spiritually.

The belief that we were originally meant to be vegetarian is largely based on the following verses from Genesis:

And G-d said: ‘Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed – to you it shall be for food; and to every beast of the earth, and to every foul of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is a living soul, [I have given] every green herb for food.’ And it was so.” (Genesis 1: 29 and 30)

  1. Vegetarianism is an aspirational ideal in Judaism

The permission to eat meat after the flood was not unconditional. For example, there was an immediate prohibition against eating blood:

Only flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.” (Genesis 9:4)

On this Rabbi Samuel Dresner wrote: “The removal of blood which kashrut teaches is one of the most powerful means of making us constantly aware of the concession and compromise which the whole act of eating meat, in reality, is. Again it teaches us reverence for life.”

The laws of kashrut later greatly limited people’s permission to eat meat.

Further to the view that G-d originally intended human beings to be vegetarian, many commentators believe that in the days of the Messiah people will again be vegetarians. For example, commenting on Genesis 1:29, Rabbi Joseph Hertz wrote:

In the primitive ideal age (as also in the Messianic future …), the animals were not to prey on one another.”

There is a relevant passage in Isaiah:

And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
And the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
And the calf and the young lion and the fatling together;
And a little child shall lead them.
And the cow and the bear shall feed;
Their young ones shall lie down together;
And the lion shall eat straw like the ox….
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain.” (Isaiah 11:6-9)

Isaac Arama (1420-1494) and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel, derive from the above that in the days of the Messiah people will again be vegetarians: “the effect of knowledge will spread even to animals…and sacrifices in the Temple will consist of vegetation, and it will be pleasing to God as in days of old…”.

Rabbi Kook states that a day will come when people will detest the eating of the flesh of animals because of a moral loathing, and then it shall be said that “because your soul does not long to eat meat, you will not eat meat.He believes that the high moral level involved in the vegetarianism of the generations before Noah is a virtue of such great value that it cannot be lost forever.

For all references, the full article and much more about Judaism and Vegetarianism follow this link:

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