Animals are God’s creation too


The Torah portion is Kedoshim, and the topic is “Holy Things,” laws and regulations that can guide us toward a life that is sanctified and set apart from the ordinary and the mundane. The narrative contains dozens of commandments, which provide plenty of opportunities to become an “am kadosh,” a holy people.

It should come as no surprise that Judaism has much to say about animals, and about pets. For example, Judaism teaches that we are forbidden to be cruel to animals and that we must treat them with compassion. Since animals are part of God’s creation, people have special responsibilities to them. These concepts are summarized in the Hebrew phrase “tsa’ar ba’alei chayim,” the biblical mandate not to cause “pain to any living creature.”

While the Torah clearly indicates that people are to have  “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28), we are nevertheless obligated to consider the rights of animals. They are also God’s creatures, possessing sensitivity and the capacity for feeling pain, so they must be protected and treated with compassion and justice.

Judaism thus established a fundamental notion that humans are responsible for the welfare of animals. Let us remember that animals were created on the fifth day of the biblical story of creation – one day before humans! And in Noah’s time, humans are destroyed, while animals are saved.

Furthermore, our pets are considered “fictive kin,” truly members of our family. And even our animals are prohibited from doing any manner of work on the Sabbath. And more: We are to feed our animals before we feed ourselves. Some Talmudic authorities even allow a person to break certain Sabbath laws in order to save an animal’s life, or at least save it from harm.

There are countless places in the Torah where the welfare of animals is underscored – from not sacrificing newborn animals until they have spent a few days with their mothers, to not shooing away a mother bird from its nest before taking the eggs, to not plowing with an ox and a donkey together, not sacrificing an animal and its young on the same day and not muzzling an ox when it is treading corn.

There are also myriad laws governing slaughtering procedures – all intended to reduce and/or eliminate animal suffering. And one of the commandments says that you shall not let your cattle mate with a different kind of animal.

Our tradition even asks us to learn from our animals, as in the well-known proverb, “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and become wiser.” And the Talmud offers this precious advice: “We can learn modesty from the cat, honesty from the ant … and good manners from the rooster.”

In the Book of Job, we find this wonderful sentiment: “But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.”

Finally, on a lighter note, it also seems somewhat appropriate to include our animals in the performance of Jewish rituals – dogs could have a Bark Mitzvah, and cats might enjoy celebrating their Paws Mitzvah, while fish can observe their Bass Mitzvah …. Oh, well.

ETHAN ADLER is the rabbi at Congregation Beth David, in Narragansett.