Animal Rights and Jewish Law: Restoring and Transforming an Ancient Holiday

The New Year’s Day for animals must become a day devoted to increasing awareness of Judaism’s teachings on the proper treatment of animals.

The widespread maltreatment of animals on industrial farms is inconsistent with Judaism’s beautiful teachings about compassion to animals. One way for Jews to respond to these inconsistencies is to restore and transform the ancient and largely forgotten Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah Lema'aser Beheima (New Year's Day for tithing animals) into a day devoted to considering how to improve our relationships with animals.

The holiday occurs on the first day of the month of Elul and was initially devoted to counting domesticated animals intended for sacrificial offerings (Mishna, Seder Moed, Tractate Rosh Hashana 1:1).

Rosh Hashanah Le'ilanot (New Year’s Day for the trees), a day initially intended for tithing fruit trees for Temple offerings, was reclaimed in the 17th century by mystics as a day for healing the natural world (Tu Bishvat). It is important that Rosh Hashanah Labeheimot (New Year’s Day for animals) becomes a day devoted to increasing awareness of Judaism’s powerful teachings on the proper treatment of animals and to a tikkun, a healing, for the horrible ways that animals are treated today on factory farms and in other settings.

Jewish Vegetarians of North America, a group that I am president of, is leading a campaign to make this renewed holiday an important part of Jewish life today.

Currently, with regard to animals, Jewish religious services, Torah readings and education are primarily focused on biblical sacrifices, animals that are kosher for eating, and laws about animal slaughter. It is essential that this emphasis on animals that are to be killed be balanced with a greater emphasis on Judaism’s more compassionate teachings.

These include: “God’s compassion is over all his works [including animals] (Psalms 145:9); “the righteous person considers the lives of his or her animals” (Proverbs 12:10); the great Jewish leaders 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 indicates 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 tsa’ar ba’alei chaim, causing any unnecessary “sorrow to animals.”

Despite these and additional teachings, most Jews are ignoring the current widespread abuses of animals.

For example, egg-laying hens are kept in cages so small that they can’t raise even one wing, and they are debeaked without the use of anesthetics to prevent them from harming other birds by pecking them due to their natural instincts being thwarted. Over 150 million male chicks are killed annually shortly after birth at egg-laying hatcheries because they can’t lay eggs and haven’t been genetically programmed to have much flesh.

Dairy cows are artificially inseminated annually on “rape racks,” so that they will be able to continually produce milk, and then their babies are taken away almost immediately after birth, often to be raised for veal, under very cruel conditions.

Renewing and transforming the ancient holiday is especially important today because a shift away from animal-based diets, in addition to lessening the mistreatment of animals, would reduce the number of diet-related diseases that is afflicting the Jewish and other communities, and would also reduce environmental and climate change threats to humanity that are greatly increased by the massive exploitation of animals for food. It would also encourage Jews to consider plant-based diets that are more consistent with Jewish mandates to preserve human health, treat animals with compassion, protect the environment, conserve natural resources, help hungry people, and pursue peace and justice.

Transforming the holiday would also: show that Judaism is applying its eternal teachings to today’s important issues; improve the image of Judaism in the eyes of people concerned about animals, vegetarianism, the environment, and related issues, by reinforcing a compassionate side of Judaism; bring back some young, idealistic Jews who are currently alienated to some extent from Judaism, especially those who are concerned about animal welfare, and strengthen the commitment of vegetarian Jews who are already involved in Jewish life, but feeling somewhat outside the Jewish mainstream as they are often among a very small minority in their congregations, by creating/reclaiming a holiday that they can more closely relate to and find relevant, meaningful, and appealing; and challenge Jews to creatively make the holiday meaningful, thereby helping to revitalize Judaism.

Another reason the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul is an appropriate time for this renewed holiday is that this date is the beginning of a month-long period of introspection during which Jews are to examine their deeds before the high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Starting on that date and for the entire month of Elul (except on Shabbat), the shofar is blown in synagogues during morning services to awaken people to their responsibilities, and that is an appropriate time to consider how we can improve conditions for animals.

It is significant that Judaism considers that for hiddur mitzvah (to enhance mitzvoth) the shofar and other ritual objects should ideally come from animals that have been raised without cruelty and have died natural deaths.

Of course restoring and transforming an ancient holiday cannot be done all at once. Just like Tu Bishvat, it would have to capture the imagination of the Jewish people and gradually evolve. Some initial steps might include:

· Setting up a website that would include material about and links to Jewish teachings on animals, quotations, sample Divrei Torah, and a collection of articles with Jewish perspectives on vegetarianism, fur, animal experimentation, circuses, kapparot, etc.

· Setting up a Facebook page

· Starting to set up a sample Haggadah for a Seder modeled on the Tu Bishvat Seder; the Seder might involve consumption of a wide variety of plant-foods, as well as meat substitutes like veggie burgers; recitation of Jewish quotations on the proper treatment of animals; Divrei Torah on Jewish teachings on animals; songs related to animals; and talks on Jewish teachings related to vegetarianism and other animal-related issues.

The first day of Elul starts at sunset on August 18 and ends at sunset on August 19 in 2012. Several Seders are already scheduled for August 19.

Considering renewing an ancient Jewish holiday that most Jews are completely unaware of may seem audacious. But it is essential to help revitalize Judaism, improve the health of Jews, sharply reduce the current massive mistreatment of animals, and help move our precious but imperiled planet to a sustainable path.

Richard H. Schwartz, Ph.D., is president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America and the author of “Judaism and Vegetarianism,” “Judaism and Global Survival,” and “Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal our Imperiled Planet,” and more than 150 articles at JewishVeg.com/Schwartz