Jewish Vegetarian - Vegan ArticlesCommandments of Compassion
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Commandments of Compassion

By Lewis Regenstein (who submitted the article to us)

Jewish Teachings on Protecting the Planet and Its Creatures

A righteous man has regard for the life of his beast. Proverbs 12:10

Throughout our long and amazing history, the Jewish people have been leaders in many social, scientific,and moral movements that have profoundly affected the world.

Today, we face challenges of profound importance, problems that endanger the very survival of Israel, of the Jewish people, of our civilization itself.

Among these issues is the global environmental crisis, which threatens to overwhelm the earth's ability to support its varied life forms that G-d Created. And the massive abuse and suffering inflicted on billions of wild and farmed animals every year clearly violate the teachings of Judaism and cannot be justified by any person of faith and decency.

Judaism must address these crucial problems – and, indeed, it does ! From the Creation story, to the teachings of the prophets and the Psalms, of our rabbis and sages, our great and ancient faith repeatedly tells us that we have an obligation to care for and protect the planet and its creatures.

Jews can take pride in our ancient laws and traditions that, for thousands of years, have mandated compassion and concern for animals and required respectful, responsible stewardship of G-d’s Creation. Jews are the first people in the world known to have recorded and adopted such teachings.

The Jewish people are charged with the mission of being “a light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6, 60:3), a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), and “compassionate children of compassionate ancestors” (Beitza 32b). This has inspired the Jews through the ages to provide the world with moral and spiritual leadership.

Compassion for other creatures is one of the important legacies we have given the world, along with Monotheism.

Unfortunately, many of us have been true to the letter of the law but forgotten its moral and spiritual foundation.

By returning to our roots, to the teachings of the Bible and the timeless tenets of Jewish law and literature, we can perhaps again be a "light unto the Nations." In so doing, we can help make this a better world for all of G-d’s creatures – and for humans, as well.

The First Two Commandments Concern Animals

Compassion for animals is a central theme of the Bible, starting at its very beginning. Indeed, the first commandments given by the Lord concern the welfare and survival of animals and nature, and human stewardship responsibilities towards them.

G-d's very first commandment (Genesis 1:22) was to the birds, whales, fish, and other creatures to “be fruitful and multiply,” and fill the seas and the skies. The first Commandment to humans (Genesis 1:28), was to “replenish the earth…and have dominion” over other creatures.

Jewish sages have long interpreted “dominion” as meaning responsible stewardship rather than tyranny over the Creation. Writer and publisher Roberta Kalechofsky points out that “In the Bible, the Sun is said to have ‘dominion’ over the heavens. Dominion is often used in a variety of ways, none of which has the implication of unlawful or cruel power, but rather of a natural relationship.” She notes that “in Judaism, animals share in the divine sympathy of God.”

Throughout the Book of Genesis, G-d creates and looks with special favor on "the swarms of living creatures", blessing them, and repeatedly characterizing their creation as "good."

On the Fifth Day, G-d creates the fish and other life forms of the sea (creatures that the fishing industry is now rapidly destroying in every ocean of the world). The Lord blesses the life forms of the ocean, commands them to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters of the sea,” and says, “Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creatures that hath life…” (Genesis 1:20-22).

G-d pronounces each life form created – the fish, whales, birds, cattle, "everything that creepeth upon the ground," and the other "beasts of the earth --as "good" in itself (Genesis 1:21, 25). And when the Creation is completed and united, the Lord declares it "very good" (Genesis 1:31), as if the resulting balanced ecosystem is ideal.

Later, when G-d promises Noah and future generations that the earth would never again be destroyed with a flood, included in the Covenant is “every living creature….the fowl, the cattle, and every beast of the earth” (Genesis 9: 8-17). The Lord restates the Covenant a total of five times, an emphasis that shows the importance to the Almighty of including “every living creature.”

The Bible Requires Kindness to Animals

Kindness to animals is not only stressed throughout the Bible, it is even required in the holiest of the laws, the Ten Commandments. G-d forbids us to make our farmed animals work on the Sabbath; we must give them, too, a day of rest (Exodus 20:10; 23:12; Deuteronomy 5:14). Indeed, this commandment might constitute the first written record of a law requiring kindness to animals, the first codification of concern for animals, a concept the Jews can be said to have pioneered some 3,500 years ago.

The last verse of Jonah (4:11) describes how the Lord decides to spare the city of Nineveh from destruction, saying, “…should not I have pity on Nineveh…wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons…and also much cattle ?”

Psalm 36 states, “…man and beast thou savest, O Lord. How precious is thy steadfast love…” Psalm 145:9 says that “His compassion is over all His creatures.” And Proverbs 12:10 suggests there are two types of people: “A righteous man has regard for the life of his beast, but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.”

There is even a suggestion that practicing conservation towards animals may ensure one of a long life. In a passage that is remarkable for an ancient agricultural society that gathered all it could from nature, Deuteronomy (22:6-7) says that if one chances upon a bird's nest with the mother sitting upon the eggs or the young, and one takes the latter, one must let the mother go "that it may go well with you," and that you may live a long life ("prolong thy days").

And the prophet Isaiah (11:6-9) describes how the animals will be included in the blessings of peace on earth when that ideal state is achieved: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the young lion…They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the Earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord.”

Judaism Forbids Cruelty to other Creatures

Judaism has strict laws and teachings forbidding cruelty to animals. There is an entire code of laws (“tsa’ar ba’alei hayim,” the requirement "to prevent the suffering of living creatures") mandating that animals be treated with compassion. Jews are not allowed to “pass by” an animal in distress or being mistreated, even on the Sabbath.

As the authoritative Encyclopedia Judaica (The Jewish Encyclopedia) observes, “In rabbinic literature…great prominence is given to demonstrating G-d’s mercy to animals, and to the importance of not causing them pain”:

Moral and legal rules on the treatment of animals are based on the principle that animals are part of G-d’s creation toward which man bears responsibility. The Bible…makes it clear not only that cruelty to animals is forbidden but also that compassion and mercy to them are demanded of man by G-d.

The Encyclopedia sums up the rabbinical law by saying, “The principle of kindness to animals… is as though G-d’s treatment of man will be according to his treatment of animals.”

Similarly, the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia observes that “The Jewish attitude toward animals has always been governed by the consideration that that they, too, are God’s creatures…[and] the obligation to respect and consider the feelings and needs of lower creatures….The non-canonical…writings strongly urge kindness towards animals, declaring that one who harms an animal harms his own soul.”

“The kind treatment of animals wads made part of the moral climate of Jewish living,” notes Nathan Ausubel in The Book of Jewish Knowledge. “The humane regard among Jews for people extended also to encompass animals. But behind it was the all pervasive feeling of compassion urged upon the righteous”:

As the Holy One, blessed be He, has compassion upon man, so has He compassion upon the beasts of the field…and for the birds of the air (Midrash).

Ancient Writings Require Compassion

The renowned Irish historian W.E.H. Lecky (1838-1903) writes in his monumental work, History of European Morals, from Augustus to Charlemagne (1869), that “the rabbinical writers have been remarkable for the great emphasis with which they inculcated the duty of kindness to animals.”

He observes that the Jews have the longest history of such a tradition of any people, and “That tenderness to animals, which is one of the most beautiful features in the Old Testament writings, shows itself, among other ways, in the command not to muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn, or to yoke together the ox and the ass."

He notes the irony that the Jewish commandment that the ox be allowed to eat while working in the field was already some 2,500 years old when in Sicily, in the 18th century, peasants tending grape orchards would have their mouths muzzled so they could not ‘steal” a grape.

Two important works from the middle ages demonstrate this tradition of compassion. The 12th or 13th century Hebrew work Sefer Chasidim (or Hasidim) -- The Book of the Pious -- states: “Be kind and compassionate to all creatures that the Holy One, blessed be He, created in this world. Never beat nor inflict pain on any animal, beast, or bird, or insect. Do not throw stones at a dog or a cat…”

The 16th century Code of Jewish Law (Schulchan Aruch) states that “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 the pain of any creature, even if it is ownerless or belongs to a non-Jew.”

Similarly, the renowned 19th century Torah scholar Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes in “Horeb: A Philosophy of Jewish Law and Observances” (chapter 60) that “ … God's teaching … 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 through no fault of yours.”

Modern day Jewish prayer books contain numerous references to kindness to animals, such as the High Holidays passage of the Union Prayer Book, “Every living soul shall praise Thee … Thou rulest the world in kindness and all Thy creatures in mercy,” which is recited on every shabbat and all major festivals. The Gates of Repentance prayer book service for the Day of Atonement states, “The Lord is good to all; His compassion shelters all His creatures.” Observant Jews recite this verse, which is found in all siddurs (daily prayer books), three times a day.

Morning prayers for the Sabbath include praising “the G-d of all creatures; endlessly extolled, You guide the world with kindness, its creatures with compassion.” And Sabbath worshipers chant the words, "The soul of every living being shall praise God's name" (Nishmat kol chai tva'rech et shim'chah).

Protecting the Environment

The obligation of humans to protect the natural environment is another theme that appears throughout the Bible, often referring to just the kinds of problems we face today: destruction of wildlife and habitat; and pollution of our food, air, and water.

In the books of Jeremiah (9: 9-11) and Habakkuk (2:17), the Lord warns against destroying nature and wildlife. Habakkuk specifically condemns “….the destruction of the beasts.” In both cases, the punishment is that the land is “laid waste” -- just what we are doing today to much of the farmland, wilderness, and oceans.

The Bible accords to trees and forests a special reverence, and one of the first things the Lord commands the Israelites to do when they come into the Promised Land is to plant trees and allow them to mature before eating their fruits (Leviticus 19:23).

One of the world's first and strongest nature-protection regulations is found in the Mosaic law (Deuteronomy 20:19-20), which forbids the destruction of fruit-bearing trees even when waging war against a city. The Jewish sages later extended this biblical law into a general prohibition (known as “bal taschit”) against wasting or destroying anything useful unnecessarily.

Throughout the Bible, in stressing the reverence humans should have toward the land, the Scriptures impart a strong conservation message, warning against over-utilizing and wearing out natural resources. In Leviticus (25:2-7), the Lord commands that every seventh year “the land shall keep a sabbath unto the Lord.” The fields and vineyards shall be allowed to rest, and what grows naturally will be shared with the wildlife, “the beasts that are in thy land.”

Leviticus (26:3-6) cites the Almighty's appreciation for the importance of the land and nature with the Lord’s promise that, if humans obey His commandments, the land will reward them:

If ye walk in My statutes, and keep My commandments, and do them; then I will give you rains in their season, and the land shall yield her produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit.... And I will give peace in the land.

An ancient midrash (rabbinic teaching) tells us: "In the hour when the Holy one, blessed be He, created the first person, He showed him the trees in the Garden of Eden, and said to him: "See My works, how fine they are; Now all that I have created, I created for your benefit. Think upon this and do not corrupt and destroy My world, For if you destroy it, there is no one to restore it after you." [Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:28]

The Talmudic sages showed concern for the environment, writing that the role of humanity is to improve the world as "co-partners of God in the work of creation" [Shabbat 10a], and that "It is forbidden to live in a town which has no garden or greenery" [Kiddushin 4:12; 66d]. Tanneries and threshing floors had to be located far outside of a town to prevent pollution from odors and chaff [Baba Batra 2:8] .

Thus, with our planet facing an ecological crisis of unprecedented proportions, mainly from human activities so destructive that they endanger the earth’s critical biological and life support systems, the teachings of Judaism help provide an effective approach to these problems that threaten our future.

Respect for Wildlife

Appreciation for the sanctity of nature, as the work of G-d, has always been an important part of the Jewish tradition. Jews are to recite special blessings when they behold the beauty of lofty mountains, beautiful animals or birds, trees blossoming in the spring, rainbows, and shooting stars.

The Talmud requires that when devout Jews see a lovely animal, they must recite the special blessing, “blessed art thou, O Lord our G-d, King of the Universe, who created beautiful animals in His world” (Berachot 9). Another Jewish blessing states, “Blessed art thou, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who created everything for His glory."

The Mishnaic tractate Ethics of the Fathers, a collection of rabbinical sayings, advises, “Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion in pursuit of the will of your Father in heaven.” The prophet Jeremiah (8:7-8) and the book of Proverbs (6:6-8, 30:24-28) praise the intelligence of birds, ants and other creatures, as does Job (12:7-10), writing of “the beasts … and the fowls of the air…and the fishes of the sea…Who knoweth not in all these that the hand of the Lord hath wrought this ? In whose hand is the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind.”

Psalm 104 extols the creatures of “this great and wide sea”: “O Lord, how manifold are thy works ! In wisdom thou hast made them all: the earth is full of thy riches…The glory of the Lord shall endure forever.” And Psalm 36 (6-7) states, “Man and beast thou savest, O Lord. How precious is thy steadfast love…”

The Bible even suggests that humans and animals will share a common fate, implying an interdependent relationship. As Ecclesiastes (3:19-21) states:

For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts, even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other, yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast....

The Ideal World: Peace with Animals

The ideal world depicted by the prophets is one in which humans and animals are at peace. Hosea (2:18) suggests that the Lord would make a pact with the animals to protect them:

I will make for you a covenant on that day with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety.

Similarly, Job (5:23) prophesizes a day when humankind will be at peace with nature: “for you shall be in league with the stones of the field, and the beasts of the field shall be at peace with you.”

Most famously, Isaiah (11:6-9) depicts how the animals will be included in peace on earth when it is achieved:

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 lion shall eat straw like the ox… They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord.

Treatment of Domestic Animals

Jewish teachings have important implications for regulating how animals raised for food are kept and killed, especially if they are designated as ‘kosher.”

In Biblical times, people were intimately familiar with wildlife and domestic animals, and rules were set forth regulating the treatment of cattle and other creatures to prevent any unnecessary pain and suffering. Oxen must be allowed to eat while they are working in the fields (Deuteronomy 25:4), and animals of different sizes and strengths could not be forced to plow together (Deuteronomy 22:10).

In Jewish tradition, Moses and King David were deemed worthy to be leaders because, as shepherds, they treated their animals kindly. And Rabbi Yehuda the Prince, the compiler of the Jewish law book known as the Mishnah, is said to have endured years of heavenly punishment for speaking harshly to a calf being led to slaughter that had sought his help.

The story of Rebekah at the well (Genesis 24:19) stresses the important of kindness to animals as showing good character, an account that is repeated four times in this chapter. When Rebekah shows concern for and draws water for the ten thirsty camels of the servant of the patriarch Abraham, she is deemed fit to be chosen as the wife of Abraham’s son Isaac.

Similarly, the Lord allegorically uses the sad story of the killing of a poor family’s beloved pet lamb to show King David the error of his ways in having killed another man and taken his wife (2nd Samuel:12 ). And when Jacob called together his twelve sons – representing the twelve tribes of Israel – Simeon and Levi were castigated and chastised for crippling oxen (Genesis 49:6-7).

The Talmud even ordains that a person must provide for his animals before eating anything. According to Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, the duty to give nourishment to an animal first “is no casual statement: it was pronounced as binding law by the greatest rabbinic authority of later centuries, Maimonides” (Yad ha-Hazakah; Avadim 9:8).

The Talmud also states that one should not have an animal unless one can properly feed and care for it (Yerushalmi Keturot 4:8, 29a; Yevanot 15). Another Hebrew teaching is that “a good man does not sell his beast to a cruel person” (Sefer Hassidim 13c, #142,p. 64). Rabbinical literature even says that one should avoid living in a city where the bark of a dog is not heard, or the neighing of a horse.

Animals Must Be Allowed Rest on the Sabbath

The Biblical prohibition against working animals on the Sabbath is a very important concept in Judaism. A full chapter of the Talmud and of the sixteenth century code of Jewish law, the “Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 305) discuss this law.

The revered Biblical scholar Rabbi J.H. Hertz, in his authoritative work on Jewish law, “The Pentateuch and Haftorahs,” cites the tenet that “to relieve an animal of pain or danger is a Biblical law, superseding a Rabbinic ordinance (the Sabbath Observance).” He also notes that, “Care and kindness to cattle are of such profound importance for the humanizing of man that this duty has its place in the Decalogue [the Ten Commandments]. The Rabbis classed cruelty to animals among the most serious of offenses.”

Rashi (d.1105), the famous medieval French-Jewish scholar of the Torah and the Talmud, has written that the duty to let animals rest on the Sabbath means they must be free to roam in the fields on this day. Such a requirement could not of course be even partially fulfilled under the factory farming techniques that supply almost all American meat, egg, and dairy products today.

And it is generally prohibited to kill or capture living things on Shabbat, even insects.

The Cruelty of Modern Food Production

The renowned rabbi, physician, philosopher, and scholar Maimonides (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, often called Rambam, 1135-1204), emphatically promoted kindness to animals. Considered by many to be the greatest of all rabbinic scholars and authorities on Jewish law, he wrote in his famous book “Guide for the Perplexed,” “There is no difference between the worry of a human mother and that of an animal mother for their offspring.”

He also wrote that “there is a rule laid down by our sages, that it is directly prohibited in the Torah to cause pain to an animal…,” and that:

It should not be believed that all beings exist for the sake of the existence of man. On the contrary, all the other beings too have been intended for their own sakes and not for the sake of anything else.

The great halachic authority Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986), perhaps the most respected orthodox authority in America in his time, issued an authoritative “responsa” in 1982, stating categorically that Jewish law forbids the usual way calves are raised for veal. (In order to produce white veal, the newborn calf is forcibly taken from his mother, placed in a small crate in which he can hardly move, and deprived of exercise and nourishment his entire short life to make the flesh tender and pale. Some 800,000 calves are crated this way every year in the United States.)

Almost all of the ten billion chickens, cows, pigs, turkeys consumed by Americans each year, at a rate of over 25 million a day, are raised in inhumane conditions. Some 250 million egg-producing hens spending their lives in small cages, never being outdoors and hardly being able to turn around. The billions of chickens cramped together on filthy factory farms are unable to live their natural lives, never being allowed to flock together in small groups, sun themselves and “bathe” in the dust, or scratch in the dirt for food.

Such inhumane treatment of almost all farmed animals raises the question of whether or not the products from such creatures qualify to be considered “kosher,” even if they are slaughtered in the prescribed manner.

In explaining “Why I Became Vegan,” Rabbi Adam Frank, spiritual leader of Jerusalem’s Congregation Moreshet Yisrael, writes, For a Jew who has spent years learning Jewish sources that indicate that part of the mission of an ethical society is to protect its weakest members, the decision to abstain from foods directly related to animal abuse is a mandate… A holistic reading of Jewish law prohibits modern factory-farming practices...My decision to abstain from the consumption of animal products is an expression of my adherence to Jewish law, and it expresses my disapproval and disdain for the cruel practices of the industry.. In explaining why he became a vegetarian, Rabbi David Wolpe, leader of Los Angeles' major Conservative congregation Sinai Temple, explains, “To make those in our power suffer, whether people or animals, is to darken our own souls...We are the custodians of creation. Our first responsibility is to be kind.”

Violations of Jewish Law

Professor Richard Schwartz, an Orthodox Jewish scholar, is widely considered one of the foremost authorities on the teachings of Judaism concerning the treatment of animals, and is the author of “Judaism and Global Survival,” and “Judaism and Vegetarianism.” He has written that “In Judaism, one who does not treat animals with compassion cannot be regarded as a righteous individual.”

Dr. Schwartz often describes “the many realities about the production and consumption of animal products, and the ways they contradict several basic Jewish teachings”:

~ While Judaism mandates that people should be very careful about preserving their health and their lives, numerous scientific studies have linked animal-based diets directly to heart disease, stroke, many forms of cancer, and other chronic degenerative diseases.

~ While Judaism teaches that "the earth is the Lord's" (Psalm 24:1) and that we are to be God's partners and co-workers in preserving the world, modern intensive animal agri-business contributes substantially to global warming, soil erosion and depletion, air and water pollution, overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, and much environmental damage. We have a mandate to be shomrei adamah (guardians of the earth), based on the admonition that we should “work the earth and guard it” (Genesis 2:15);

~ While Judaism stresses that we are to assist the poor and share our bread with hungry people, over 70% of the grain grown in the United States is fed to animals destined for slaughter, while an estimated 20 million people worldwide die because of hunger each year.

”In view of all this,” asks Schwartz, “shouldn't we sharply reduce or eliminate their consumption of animal products?”

“One could say ‘dayenu’ (‘it would be enough’) after any of the arguments above, because each one constitutes by itself a serious conflict between Jewish values and current practice that should impel Jews to seriously consider a plant-based diet. Combined, they make a compelling case for the Jewish community to address these issues.”

Since we worship a G-d who is "Harachamon" (“the compassionate One”) and "Av Harachamim' (“the Father of mercies”), and, as we say during morning services for Shabbats and festivals, "the soul of all living beings shall praise G-d's name", can we fail to abstain from a diet that involves so much cruelty to animals?

Kosher Slaughter

Thousands of years ago, when rules were formulated for raising and slaughtering farmed animals, the Jewish laws were remarkably enlightened for their time. Their original purpose was clearly to ensure that such creatures were not subjected to any unnecessary pain or suffering.

Kosher slaughter requires that the knife be as sharp as possible to avoid inflicting any unnecessary suffering to the animal being killed. The laws also prohibit the then-common practice of cutting limbs off live animals, a practice designed to prevent meat from spoiling.

In The Book of Jewish Knowledge, Nathan Ausubel writes, “…the extensive regulations that ordered ritual slaughtering (shechitah) were motivated entirely by humane considerations: to cause the animal as little pain as possible.”

But today, some aspects of ritual slaughter fail to employ modern methods that could reduce the suffering of animals being killed, and violate the intent of the original law.

A widely publicized example of this is what occurred at Agriprocessors, once the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse, in Postville, Iowa. Videotapes secretly filmed there showed animals being killed in ways that made them suffer enormously, in apparent violation of Jewish law. For instance, workers were taped abusing conscious cows, cutting off the ears, ripping out tracheas, and using hooks to reach into the cows’ throats. Cows stumbled around with cut throats and torn windpipes, pitifully trying to bellow.

Professor Richard Schwartz observes that sometimes the raising and slaughtering of animals under kosher conditions “completely contradicts our mandates to be 'rachmanim b'nei rachmanim' (compassionate children of compassionate ancestors) and to imitate God whose ‘mercies are over all of His creatures’ ” (Psalms 145:9).

Even if ritual slaughter is performed flawlessly, consistent with halacha, we should not ignore the severe violations of Jewish law occurring daily on factory farms. We should fulfill our charge to be 'a light unto the nations' by helping to lead the world away from a diet that is so harmful to people, the environment, and animals, to one that is far more consistent with basic religious values.

Rabbi Simeon J. Maslin, a past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, observes, “In eating, as in every other human activity, ethical questions must be considered”:

Should food be considered kosher if its production involves pain to animals or the despoliation of natural resources?... I firmly believe that those who do eat meat are obliged by ethical considerations to see to it that whatever meat they eat has been produced with the least possible pain to animals in observance of tzaar baalei chayim.

Rabbi David Rosen, former chief rabbi of Ireland, has written that “the current treatment of animals in the livestock trade definitely renders the consumption of meat halachically unacceptable as the product of illegal means.”

Roberta Kalechofsky notes, “the point of Kashrut (Jewish dietary law) was traditionally to teach reverence and respect for life. Does Kashrut do that today ?”

The Eco-Kosher Movement

Today, there is a growing “eco-kashrut” movement that includes environmental, health, and humane factors, as well as fairness to workers, in producing meat under Jewish dietary law. Eco-kashrut advocates support recent efforts of Conservative Judaism to supplement the traditional kosher certification with one called “hechser tzedek” (“justice certification” or “kosher righteousness”), that takes into consideration these additional factors.

With the traditional kosher certification now appearing on some 100,000 products worth an estimated $225 billion a year, the potential for a new approach to the kosher process holds huge potential for having an impact on the way billions of farm animals are treated.

Some Jews consider the violations of civil and Jewish law committed at Agriprocessors to be a blot on the Jewish community, a “shanda” (a shameful thing done in public), and a "‘Chillul Hashem” - a desecration of G-d's name. The Jewish newspaper “The Forward” editorialized on 13 November, 2008:

Agriprocessors' downfall is not simply an economic crisis, but also a spiritual and moral one. Kosher food is not meant to be a mere foodstuff, but rather a vehicle for bringing sanctity into one of the most basic activities of daily life. Those who choose to live by that discipline rely on kosher certification to guarantee that the food they eat has been produced in a manner worthy of its spiritual mission. The behavior attributed to Agriprocessors and its owners - abusing employees, illegally hiring and endangering children, befouling the environment, overlooking sanitation rules - ought to disqualify the company's products from receiving religious certification by any standard worthy of the name. That the products continue to be accepted as kosher, even as the company's owners face massive fines and jail time on suspicion of misdeeds that have shocked a nation, is a scandal nearly as great as the owners' actions themselves.

News media across the country have responded gleefully to images of a company run by devout Jews, its primary mission to enable the observance of Jewish religious rules, acting in ways that violate the ethical and moral standards of everyone else.

The rules of kashrut are a legacy of the Jewish spiritual tradition, preserved by the courage of countless generations as a gift to the present. Dishonoring them and violating their spirit shames all Jews. Those who honor the laws must stand up to their abuse.

The Jewish Tradition of Mercy

In sum, the many teachings of the Torah and the Talmud, and the writings of our sages, rabbis, and elders over the centuries have repeatedly stressed this mitzvah of compassion for other creatures.

Thus, a renewed emphasis on the humane ethic would represent not a departure from traditional Jewish teachings but a return to them.

Sadly, the long Jewish tradition of raising animals gently and humanely is almost forgotten. Who now remembers the story of the Slovakian farmer and Holocaust victim, Itzhik Rosenberg, who, while being taken away to be killed by the Germans, cried out to his neighbors, “but who will take care of my animals ?”

Today, every Jew should consider the massive damage humans are doing to the planet and its creatures, especially the cruelty inflicted on wildlife and farmed animals. We should ask if this is how G-d intended for us to treat the Creation, which the Lord declared “very good” and over which we were given stewardship.

It is hard to imagine that our massive abuse of animals would be pleasing to a merciful G-d. Can this truly be the will of the Lord, whose first commandments concerned animals, and who instructed us in the Torah to allow our animals an entire day of rest on the Sabbath, to leave some crops in the fields for the wildlife, to allow oxen to eat while working, and who repeatedly prohibited cruelty to animals ?

As the great Jewish writer and Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer once wrote, “How can we pray to G-d for mercy, when we ourselves have no mercy ?” ~

Thanks to those who helped made this booklet possible: Dr. Richard Schwartz, and Stephen Kaufman, of Ohio Vegetarian Associates, both of whose brilliant scholarship and editing were invaluable; Christine Gutleben, The Humane Society of the United States; Debra Berger, ICPAN; Karen Dawn ;Dr. Roberta Kalechofsky, Micah Publications.

Copyright 2008 ICPAN ( The Interfaith Council for the Protection of Animals and Nature, Atlanta, GA). Prepared by Lewis Regenstein [email protected]. Additional information on Judaism and animals can be found at,,, and at

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