Restoring and transforming the ancient New Year for Animals
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion

By Dr. Richard Schwartz, Jewish Vegetarians of North America
August 2013

Many Jews now regard this increasingly popular holiday, Tu Bishvat, as an unofficial ‘Jewish Earth Day.’

Another Jewish holiday? Don’t we have enough already?

Jewish New YearNot according to Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA), of which I am president emeritus. We are working with a coalition of Jewish groups and individuals to restore and transform the ancient and largely forgotten Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana Lema’aser Behema (New Year’s Day for Tithing Animals, originally for sacrifices when the Jerusalem Temple stood) into a day devoted to increasing awareness of Judaism’s beautiful teachings on compassion to animals.

These teachings include: “God’s compassion is over all His works” (Psalms 145:9); “the righteous person considers the lives of his or her animals” (Proverbs 12:10); the great Jewish heroes Moses and King David were deemed suitable to be leaders because of their compassionate care of sheep when they were shepherds; farmers are not to yoke a strong and a weak animal together nor to muzzle an animal while the animal is threshing in the field; the Ten Commandments indicate that animals, as well as people, are to rest on the Sabbath day; and much more, summarized in the Torah mandate that Jews are to avoid causing tsa’ar ba’alei chaim, pain to animals.

Many religious Jews are properly diligent in “building fences” around some mitzvot. For example, there is great care on the part of religious Jews to fulfill the laws related to removing chametz, leaven, before Passover.

But other mitzvot, including tsa’ar ba’alei chaim, are often downplayed or ignored.

Perhaps this is not surprising when one considers that, with regard to animals, the primary focus of Jewish religious services, Torah readings and education are on the biblical sacrifices, animals that are kosher for eating, and laws about animal slaughter, with relatively little time devoted to Judaism’s more compassionate teachings related to animals.

It is essential that this emphasis on the killing and sacrifice of animals be balanced with a greater consideration of Judaism’s more compassionate teachings about animals. Hence the need to restore and transform the ancient, long forgotten holiday into a Rosh Hashana Labehemot, a New Year for Animals.

There is a precedent for the restoration and transformation of a holiday in Jewish history. Rosh Hashana Lailanot, a day initially intended for tithing fruit trees for Temple offerings, was reclaimed in the 17th century by mystics as a day for celebrating nature’s bounty and healing the natural world. Many Jews now regard this increasingly popular holiday, Tu Bishvat, as an unofficial “Jewish Earth Day.”

It is hoped that the transformed New Year for Animals will also serve as a tikkun (healing or repair) for the current widespread mistreatment of animals on factory farms that is far from Jewish compassionate teachings.

Some examples are: Egg-laying hens are kept in cages so small that they can’t raise even one wing, with part of their beaks painfully seared off to prevent them from harming other birds by pecking from frustration in their very unnatural conditions; Male chicks killed almost immediately after birth, since they can’t lay eggs and have not been genetically programmed to produce much flesh; dairy cows artificially impregnated annually on “rape racks” so that they will be able to continue “giving” milk, their babies taken away almost immediately, often to be raised as veal under very cruel conditions.

Ten billion animals in the US alone are slaughtered annually after being raised under very cruel conditions on modern factory farms, where all of their natural instincts are thwarted.

Making increasing awareness about tsa’ar ba’alei chaim even more important is that animal-based diets and agriculture are contributing substantially to many diseases that are afflicting the Jewish and other communities and to climate change and other environmental problems that threaten all life on the planet.

A major shift to plant-based diets is essential to help shift our precious, but imperiled, planet to a sustainable path. In addition, the production and consumption of meat and other animal products arguably violate Jewish mandates to preserve human health, treat animals with compassion, protect the environment, conserve natural resources, and help hungry people.

Restoring the New Year for Animals would have many additional benefits, including showing the relevance of Judaism’s eternal teachings to today’s critical issues; improving the image of Judaism for many people by showing its compassionate side; and attracting disaffected Jews through reestablishing a holiday that they find relevant and meaningful.

Rosh Hashana Labehemot occurs on Rosh Hodesh Elul, the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul (from sunset on August 6 to sunset on August 7 in 2013).

Since that date ushers in a month-long period of introspection, during which Jews are to examine their deeds and consider how to improve their words and actions before the holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, this is an ideal time for Jews to consider how to apply Judaism’s splendid teachings on compassion to animals to reduce the current massive mistreatment of animals on factory farms and in other settings.

Anyone interested in celebrating the New Year for Animals this year can contact me at [email protected] to receive background material, a Haggada draft, and ritual ideas.

The writer is professor emeritus at the College of Staten Island and the author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, Mathematics and Global Survival and Who Stole My Religion.

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