If there’s one thing I’ve learned as the Rabbi of Lancaster's Congregation Beth Knesset Bamidbar, it’s that we love our pets!
Most – if not all – are spoken of as members of the family; many share the family portrait; and quite a few enjoy privileges not bestowed upon other (human) family members. So it didn’t surprise me when I was recently asked, “What does Judaism say about how we should treat animals?”
Today, many of us experience a relationship with our domesticated family members (I’m referring to pets, not children or spouses,) unlike any previous era of human history. Nevertheless, within the sacred texts of our ancient past, Torah (The Five Books of Moses) and Tanakh (The Hebrew Bible), as well throughout the whole of Rabbinic Literature, it is made exceptionally clear that not only is cruelty to animals absolutely forbidden, but that compassion and mercy are demanded of humankind by God.
There is no question that Judaism consistently values human life more than that of other living things. And while the Ancient Rabbis were not completely opposed to animals coming second to the priority of human needs – they were completely and entirely against the causing of pain to animals. We know that many prohibited activities on Shabbat are permitted, even obligatory, when the purpose is to save a human life. Similarly, many activities that the Rabbis did not allow on Shabbat are in fact permitted when the purpose is to relieve animals’ pain. Their justification is found in their understanding of a particular verse, Exodus 23:5, “When you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.” Talmudic sages hold that this commandment is meant to benefit the animal as well as its owner, and therefore cite it as the basis of our obligation to prevent animals from suffering (in Hebrew, צַעַר בַּעֲלֵי חַיִּים, tza’ar ba’alai chayim) (BT Bava Metzia 32a–b). Thus, it is permitted to unload a burden from a laboring animal, even on the Sabbath (BT Berachot 40a).
A question: When you wake up, who eats first: you or your pet?
For the Rabbis, it was relatively clear, as it’s stated in the Talmud: “It is forbidden for a man to eat before he has fed his animal...” And why is this? Because, in Deuteronomy 11:15, we read that the animals are mentioned first in text: “I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you shall eat and be satisfied.” Consequently, based on the same consideration, the Rabbis legislated that one is not permitted to buy animals unless one can properly provide for them.
Perhaps most moving, if not most telling, are the mitzvot (commandments) found in Deuteronomy 22:1-3, in which we read that, “If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow...You must not remain indifferent.” As Jews, we are obligated to not only prevent animals from suffering, but much more: we are taught to never turn away from it; never ignore it; to never turn a blind eye to the plight of those most in need of advocacy, shelter, and care. Which is only one of the many important reasons why Congregation Beth Knesset Bamidbar and our Sunday School Religion Class, taught by Kim Kilgore, selected as their Class’ Mitzvah Project, Operation Blankets of Love, which collects and distributes blankets, towels and other pet items to animal shelters and rescue groups – and they need our help! We have been enlisted to collect blankets, comforters, bath-size towels, pet beds, and pet toys – and to drop them off in the large collection boxes in our lobby and Sanctuary. Studies show that soft bedding in shelters can immediately relax and calm an animal – and relaxed, calm dogs and cats have a much higher adoption rate.
When you’re looking into the eyes of your loved one (the furry one this time), and thinking to yourself, “I could’ve named him ‘Jackpot’ because he sure hit it with me!” – take a moment to think about those dogs and cats who haven’t – yet – hit their own jackpot. And then help make it happen – not necessarily by adopting them all, but by making them better fit to be adopted and thereby expressing our genuine love for all animals, not just the ones fortunate enough to share our family portraits.