Animals Should Be Used, Not Abused

Human needs precede those of animals * Nevertheless, it is a mitzvah to treat animals with mercy and compassion, and not to afflict them uselessly * Just as a person burdens himself and takes pain to earn a living, so too, he is permitted to afflict his animals when necessary * It is permitted to afflict animals for the sake of human or national dignity, and also for the sake of faith and the preservation of the Torah * The disputes among the poskim regarding raising animals under crowded conditions, and starvation * Even if the standard of living of animals has changed, in the same manner as that of human beings, any legislation on this issue must be responsible, and free of external pressures

Man’s Relation to Animals

It is permissible for a person to use animals for the sake of his work, just as it was customary in the past to load burdens on donkeys and mules, to plow with oxen and horses, to ride on horses, camels and donkeys, and even to eat the flesh of animals. Not only that, but it is a mitzvah to offer sacrifices from animals and birds, including the mitzvot of the ‘seir ha’mishtalayach‘ (the scapegoat of Yom Kippur), and the ‘eglah arufa’ (the decapitated calf). This is the meaning of our Sages statement, that animals were created to serve man (Kiddushin 82a; Sanhedrin 108a), including eating their flesh. It can be said that just as animals are permitted to eat vegetation, so too, man is permitted to eat animals.

Nevertheless, it is indeed a mitzvah to treat them compassionately and decently, and it is forbidden to cause them needless pain; consequently, we are commanded when we see a donkey lying under its burden, to help unload it (Exodus 23:5; Bava Metzia 32b); not to muzzle an ox when it is treading grain (Deuteronomy 25:4); and not to eat until we give them their food (Gittin 62a).

Thus, we see that striking a balance between the two values is essential: on the one hand, human needs precede those of animals, and on the other hand, we must try to the best of our ability not to afflict them.

The ‘Heter‘ (Permission) for the Sake of Earning a Living

It is permissible for a person to afflict animals (‘tzar ba’alei chayim’) when his purpose is not to cause them pain, but rather, for the sake of ‘parnasa‘ (livelihood), such as burdening them with loads, hitting them so they stride, riding horses and leading them by means of a painful bridle in their mouths, urging them to gallop quickly by whipping them with a lash, or sticking the spurs of one’s boots in their sides. True, the ‘Ba’alei Mussar‘ (the masters of Jewish ethics) warned to treat animals with compassion – not to burden them with heavy loads, or tug at their bridles and beat them unnecessarily. But just as man struggles, sweats, and demeans himself for the sake of his livelihood, his beast also shares in the burden along with him, and since animals’ standing and sensitivities are inferior, it can be subjugated to more difficult and agonizing work. However, afflicting animals beyond necessity is forbidden, and moreover, if an animal is suffering in vain, it is a mitzvah to rescue it from its suffering.

Affliction for the Sake of Human Dignity and Beliefs

Not only that, but just as human beings now and then are willing to bear great sorrow for their dignity and beliefs, in the same way – and even more so – at times, it is permitted to afflict animals for the sake of the dignity and beliefs of human beings. Thus, we find that God commanded Joshua before Israel’s war against the kings of the north, to ‘sterilize’ their horses and burn their chariots (Joshua 11: 6). ‘Sterilizing’ the horses meant the cutting off of their legs above their hooves, causing them to stumble on the stumps of their legs, in shame for having participated in the war against Israel. And even though the horses could have been captured as spoil or killed, Joshua was commanded to ‘sterilize’ them in order to leave them crippled, thus teaching the enemies, and Israel, not to put their trust in horses, and for all to see the horses that were once the pride of the fighters, limping in search of pasture to remain alive (Radak, Abarbanel). And although this ‘sterilization’ caused the horses’ tremendous pain, we learned from this that for the sake of a great moral purpose such as this, it is permissible to afflict animals.

In the same manner, after the death of a king, due to his honor, all his vessels would be burned, so that others would not use them; this included the ‘sterilization’ of his horses’ and animals’ legs, i.e. they would cut off their legs above their hooves, so they could not be used. And although this ‘sterilization’ caused them great pain, the honor of the king, which in effect is the honor of the nation, was more important (Avodah Zarah 11a, Tosfot “okrin”).

Similarly, we find that Rabbi Yehudah permitted the sale of roosters to non-Jews, and to prevent them from using it for idolatry, its’ finger would be cut off. Thus, we see that for financial profit, our Sages permitted the affliction of an animal by way of cutting off a finger (Mishna, Avoda Zara 13:2).

For the Purpose of Preventing a Transgression

We also find that our Sages fined someone who went to trade on a market day devoted to idolatry, that everything he bought there was destroyed, and if he bought cattle, they would cut off their legs above their hooves so the purchaser would not be able to derive benefit from them. And although this entailed ‘tzar ba’alei chayim’ (unnecessary suffering to animals), our Sages decreed to do so in order to distance Jews from idolatry (Avodah Zarah 13a; Tosfot, “amar Abaye”).

Similarly, the Sages ruled that if a person dedicated a beast to the Temple while the Temple was destroyed, to prevent him from stumbling in the sin of using a sanctified animal, they would place it in a fenced-off enclosure so that it would die there of starvation. The Sages did not propose it be slaughtered and thus minimize its suffering, lest someone mistakenly eat its flesh. And they did not suggest killing it in another manner, in order not to be perceived as imposing a defect on sanctified animals (Avodah Zarah 13b). We see then, that for the sake of preventing a person from sinning, our Sages instructed the affliction of an animal by starvation (Ramban, ibid).

The Prohibition of Benefitting or Earning a Living from Cruelty

Nevertheless, without an essential need for man, it is forbidden to afflict animals. Therefore, it is forbidden for a person who enjoys beating and torturing animals to do so, since this has no real purpose other than satisfying his instinct of cruelty. And even if there are cruel people who are willing to pay a dog owner a million shekels if he gives them his dog so they can torture it, it is forbidden for him to do so for any sum of money, because such torture has no essential need other than cruelty, which is forbidden from the Torah.

It is also forbidden for an edgy person in a bad mood to beat animals cruelly, and even if he claims that by beating them, it helps him calm his nerves, it is forbidden from the Torah (Igrot Moshe, Even HaEzer, sect. 4:92, and seemingly as well from the definition of the Chatam Sofer in Bava Metzia 32b).

Methods of Raising Cattle and Poultry for Food

The general rule is that anything a person does for his own benefit, and not out of cruelty, is permitted. Therefore, it is permitted to raise chickens and calves for meat in overly crowded conditions in order to save money on their growing costs. Similarly, it is also permissible to raise chickens for eggs and cows for milk in very crowded conditions, for just as a person is willing to suffer the hardships of working and living in overcrowded places in order to save costs, all the more so is he permitted to crowd animals in order to save costs.

Nonetheless, there are some poskim (Jewish law arbiters) who are inclined to say that when it involves immense and terrible suffering it is forbidden, because the ‘heter’ (rabbinical permission)
to afflict great suffering on animals, such as the cutting-off of the horses legs above their hooves, was a rare ‘heter’ for a special purpose – for the honor of the monarchy or for the removal of idolatry, but it is forbidden to afflict great suffering on a regular and systematic basis for the sake of earning a living (Rabbi Eliyahu Klatzkin in ‘Imrei Shefer’ 34; Y.D. 196). Many poskim are inclined to say that as long as it is for the sake of earning a living, it is permitted to afflict animals with great suffering (Yam Shel Shlomo, Bava Kamma 10:37; Shvut Yaakov 3:71; Chatam Sofer, Bava Metzia 32b; Sulchan Aruch HaRav Tzar Ba’alei Chaim 4; Daat Kedoshim, Y.D. 24:12).

However, in practice, the questions are generally not based on the principle, rather, the debate is whether this is indeed considered immense and terrible suffering, for under normal circumstances, raising animals for their meat, milk, and eggs does not involve immense and terrible suffering.

An Example: Starving Chicken

Naturally, the chickens lay eggs from the age of six months until they reach the age of twenty months, and then, they are slaughtered. It is possible to extend the egg-laying period by starving them in the fifteenth month for ten days, and consequently, as a result of their starvation, their feathers fall off; then, upon feeding once again, their strength returns, their feathers re-grow, and they are able to lay eggs until they are twenty-eight months old. May chickens be starved and afflicted for this purpose? Some poskim say it is forbidden, because for the sake of earning a living one is only permitted to afflict animals with routine suffering, but there is no ‘heter’ to afflict them with immense pain for the sake of earning a livelihood, because this would already be considered cruelty (Shevet HaLevi 2:7). But in the opinion of Rabbi Goldberg, the rabbi of Kfar Pines, such a method of raising chickens is permitted since it is done for the benefit of the economy, and this is the purpose of raising birds. In addition, in the long run, starvation makes the chickens healthier – the fact is, they live longer (Ha’aretz ve’Mitzvotey’ha, and codified as well, in Minchat Yitzchak 6:145).

In practice, it seems appropriate to follow the lenient opinion, both from the side of its logic, and also because in such issues rabbis from agricultural moshavim have an advantage, for they are considered the ‘mara d’atra’ (“master of the locality”) because they are thoroughly familiar with the methods of raising animals and birds, and know how to properly weigh the benefits of growers, against cruelty to animals. On the other hand, those unfamiliar with the methods of raising birds and calves are sometimes shocked to see them. This is analogous to a city-dweller arriving at a remote village, and is shocked by the sight of people living in huts without electricity and water as their ancestors did for generations, or a countryman who comes to a city and is shocked by the overcrowding, congestion, noise, and pollution in which the locals live.

The Possibility of Change in the Definition of Affliction

There is room to say, however, that with the increase in the standard of living of human beings, both morally and economically, the concept of ‘tzar ba’alei chayim’ can also change. Just as in the past certain things were not perceived as affliction to human beings but today are, in a similar fashion, there may be things that in the past were not perceived as immense and terrible sorrow for animals, but in the future will be considered as such, and thus forbidden to be performed systematically for the sake of ‘parnasa‘. Such a position can have an impact on individuals who will abstain from eating the flesh of animals that are raised under conditions they consider cruel. This position can also affect the general public, whose representatives will responsibly weigh the totality of values, and establish laws that will reduce the suffering of animals and birds raised for the food industry, while at the same time, impose the additional economic costs of enforcing these laws on the general public, without harming the poor. In a less favorable scenario, Knesset members will be swayed by the public pressures of the representatives of animal rights organizations, and without profound moral consideration, determine laws appealing to those with influence, while ignoring the poor.

With God’s help, I will continue discussing this issue next week.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. Other interesting, informative, and thought-provoking articles by Rabbi Melamed can be found at:

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