To Jewish scholars, animal rights go back to the very beginning. Consideration for other species starts at the very beginning: There is a prohibition against causing animals any suffering as early as the book of Exodus (chapter 23, verse 5) - "If you see the donkey of someone you hate crouching under its burden, would you refrain from helping him? You shall help repeatedly."
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From this and other such verses, the sages discerned that man has an obligation to ensure that animals don't suffer.
The Torah stresses that eating animals is permitted (Genesis 9:3): "Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you" (let's leave kashrut out of it). But consumption has to be considerate. One of the seven Noahide laws (pertaining to non-Jews) is to refrain from eating a limb from a living animal, i.e., not to eat any part of an animal while it is still alive. Why? Maimonides: "It conveys and teaches cruelty" (The Guide for the Perplexed, part 3, chapter 48).
Thou shalt not hunt for pleasure
Halakhic rulings down the ages elaborate on the prohibition against cruelty to animals. For example, the arbiter Rabbi Yechezkel Landau of Prague (1713-1793) came out strongly in his compilation of halakhic responsa "Known in Judah" against hunting for pleasure.
"Indeed, I am very bewildered by this thing: And we haven't found a hunting man except for Nimrod and Esau, and this isn't in the ways of the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and how can a man of Israel put animals to death by his hands without any need, just to conclude a delightful time in hunting?
His dictate does not apply to people who hunt to survive, Landau wrote. "After all, livestock and beasts and fowl are slaughtered, and fish are put to death for a person's needs, and what difference does it make if those of whose flesh he eats are pure, and what difference does it make if those of which he eats are impure and he supports himself by selling their skins. But for anyone who doesn't need this for his livelihood and his main intention is not at all towards his livelihood, it is cruelty. Anyone listening to me will dwell securely, quietly, and calmly at home and won't waste his time on such things."
Don't mess with animals in the name of the law
The State of Israel is also considerate of nonhumans, for which it has three main laws on its books:
The Animal Welfare Law (Animal Protection), 1994
The Animal Welfare Law (Animal Experimentation), 1994
The Wildlife Protection Law, 1955
These laws are based on Judaic definitions of cruelty to animals – but these requirements do not derive from recognition of animal rights per se. It is about man's obligations towards animals, and the constraints Torah imposes on using animals.
To spell it out, the Torah does not require people to behave towards animals as they would towards one another.
For instance, take kosher slaughter, which is designed "not to cause too much suffering to animals because the Torah permitted man the virtue of being nourished by them and fill all his needs, not to make them suffer for naught." (Sefer Hachinuch, commandment 451). Even so, the civilized nations of Europe have recently come out with "modern" legislation forbidding kosher slaughter, on the grounds of cruelty.
Can't make an omelet without breaking chicks?
It bears stressing that the Torah differentiates between man and beast. The difference is fundamental: it is definitely permitted to use animals to fulfill man's needs. But it must be done humanely.
For example, there is nothing specific in Torah to prevent the production of as many chicks as are needed to supply eggs - even if this implies destroying the male chicks, a matter recently spotlighted in the Israeli media. But the male chicks' death must as quick and human as possible, to prevent their suffering.
Thus, under Torah the Agriculture Ministry must invest research and economic resources to find ways to reduce the chicks' suffering. For instance, it could find a way , to identify the gender of the chick while still in the egg. Thus eggs bearing male chicks could be spotted before the baby birds hatch. In parallel the ministry should continue looking for ways to minimize the chicks' suffering after they've hatched.
Man's attitude towards animals, according to midrash, is a test of his greatness:
"And even Moses wasn't tested by God, except with sheep. When Moses tended Jethro's flocks in the wilderness a baby goat ran away from him and he ran after it until it reached Hasuah. On reaching Hasuah it chanced upon a pool of water and drank from it. When Moses arrived he said: 'I didn't know were running because you were thirsty. You must be tired.' He put it on his shoulders and began to walk" (Midrash Exodus Rabbah).