Painting by Edward Hicks
From David Sears, “The Vision of Eden” Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism” (Orot 2002), Chapter 1. Although currently out of print and in need of updating concerning the practical realities of kosher animal slaughter today, as well as more recent statistics related to Chapter 3 (“Judaism and Animal Welfare”), a free pdf file of the original ms. is available here.
Respect For All Creatures
“God is good to all, and His mercy is upon all His works” (Psalms 145:9). This verse is the touchstone of the rabbinic attitude toward animal welfare, appearing in a number of contexts in Torah literature. At first glance, its relevance may be somewhat obscure. It speaks of God, not man. However, a basic rule of Jewish ethics is the emulation of God’s ways. In the words of the Talmudic sages: “Just as He clothes the naked, so shall you clothe the naked. Just as He is merciful, so shall you be merciful...”
Therefore, compassion for all creatures, including animals, is not only God’s business; it is a virtue that we, too, must emulate. Moreover, rabbinic tradition asserts that God’s mercy supersedes all other divine attributes. Thus, compassion must not be reckoned as one good trait among others; rather, it is central to our entire approach to life.
The Unity of All Things
A fundamental premise of Judaism is belief in the absolute and encompassing Oneness of the Creator, Who brings all things into being. In addition to defining our view of the Creator, this premise informs our view of creation. Since creation in all its diversity flows from the Divine Oneness, it follows that in its Essence, all creation is one—a mystical concept that has profound spiritual and ethical implications. If all creation constitutes a unitary whole, then all things, from the highest to lowest entity in the hierarchy of creation, share a spiritual affinity with one another.
Not that the universe as such is divine; the identification of nature and God is pantheism, a belief inconsistent with the doctrine of God’s incorporeality. Pantheism also disputes the concept of free choice through its implicit moral determinism. Rather, the spiritual affinity of which we speak exists by virtue of the Infinite One Who produces and imparts existence to all things, while at the same time transcending them. As the verse attests, “How worthy are Your works, O God; You have created them all with wisdom” (Psalms 104:24). For this paramount reason, it is natural and proper for human beings to feel kinship with animals and all forms of life, despite the physical and spiritual differences between them.
Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (1522-1570) states: “Although God transcends creation, He sustains all living beings, from the highest to the lowest, and does not disparage any creature—for if He were to reject any creature due to its inferiority, none could exist even for a moment. Instead, He watches over and shows mercy to all. Similarly, a person should be benevolent to everyone, and no creature should seem despicable to him. Even the smallest living thing should be exceedingly worthy in his eyes.”
Kindness Toward Animals
Benevolence entails action. Thus, Judaism goes beyond the subjective factor of moral sentiment and mandates kindness toward animals in halakhah (religious law), prohibits their abuse, praises their good traits, and obligates their owners concerning their well-being. As we shall see, even man’s self-serving use of animals can bring about their spiritual benefit. Certainly, this should be part of our conscious intent in using animals, as well as in using any of the world’s resources.
By example of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the Torah describes the ways of right action. Abraham personifies the divine trait of chesed (kindness). Thus, the Midrash cites a dialogue in which Abraham tells Noah and his sons that they survived the flood because of the faithfulness with which they cared for the animals on the Ark. In the Book of Genesis, Abraham’s servant Eliezer determines that Rebecca is a worthy bride for Isaac when, after serving him water, she voluntarily gives water to his camels. This act of kindness, both to strangers and animals, proves her worthiness to enter the family of Abraham, and thus to become one of the mothers of the Jewish people. Jacob, too, is distinguished by an act of kindness toward animals. Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar (1696-1743) speculates that Jacob may have been the first person to build animal shelters out of compassion for his flocks.
Not only are animals deserving of our compassion, but we may learn a number of good traits from them. The Talmud attests that had the Torah not been given, “we might have learned modesty from the cat, honest labor from the ant, marital fidelity from the dove, and consideration of one’s mate from the rooster.”
To be sure, Judaism asserts that the world with all it contains is not an end unto itself, but serves as a backdrop for man—in particular for man’s exercise of free will. In the phrase of Chassidic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810), “Everything you see in the world, everything that exists, is for the sake of free will.”
This is the central challenge of our lives; for by choosing the path of belief in God and Torah observance (or, in the case of non-Jews, by heeding the Seven Universal Laws of Noah), a person can achieve intimacy with the Creator.
This is not true of a master-slave relationship, which is devoid of the element of choice. Nevertheless, if man is the main performer on the stage of creation, this does not mean that the “supporting cast” is of small consequence. Indeed, the divine call to venture beyond the ego and develop a sense of compassion for the rest of creation is a key part of the cosmic test.
“One should respect all creatures,” asserts Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, “recognizing in them the greatness of the Creator Who formed man with wisdom. All creatures are imbued with the Creator’s wisdom, which itself makes them greatly deserving of honor. The Maker of All, the Wise One Who transcends everything, is associated with His creatures in having made them. If one were to disparage them, God forbid, this would reflect upon the honor of their Maker.”
As the central figure in creation, man is responsible for the rest of the world. The Torah describes how God placed Adam and Eve in the center of Eden and commanded them to “tend” and “watch over” the garden. Symbolically, this defines humanity’s continuing role as custodian of nature. As a point of theology, it has important halakhic and ethical consequences: we must seek to relieve the suffering of animals; we must properly feed and attend the domestic animals under our care; our animals must rest on the Sabbath; we only may take the life of an animal to serve a legitimate human need; acts of wanton destructiveness are forbidden; and, according to the Sefer HaChinnukh (13th century c.e.), the prohibition of slaughtering an animal and its young on the same day teaches us that it is forbidden to bring about the destruction of any species. Through our emulation of God, we become the instrument of God’s compassion for the world that He created and pronounced “good.”
The Hallmark of Wisdom
Compassion for animals is the measure of spiritual refinement. In his classic work of Jewish ethics, Mesillas Yesharim (Path of the Upright), Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746) asserts that it is one of the basic characteristics of a chassid, by which he means a person striving for spiritual perfection.
Indeed, the Midrash states that both Moses and King David were chosen by God to be leaders of Israel because of the compassion they had previously demonstrated toward their flocks. There are countless tales of tzaddikim and their concern for the well-being of animals. As several stories in this volume demonstrate, this concern may extend even to wild creatures for which we bear no direct responsibility.
Despite the apparent multifarious character of the universe, there is an underlying spiritual connection between all things. Kabbalistic works speak of four elements: earth, water, air, and fire; in modern scientific terms, these may be related to the four states of matter: solid, liquid, gas, and energy. The four elements, in turn, parallel the four levels of existence: “silent” things such as minerals, earth, and water (domem), vegetation (tzomei’ach), animals (chai), and human beings (medaber), as well as the Four Worlds, or levels of reality. The World of Action (Asiyah) includes the entire physical universe; the three higher “worlds” are those of Formation (Yetzirah), Creation (Beriah), and Emanation (Atzilus). Beyond these categories are transcendent levels of which we cannot even begin to speak. The universe is wondrously diverse; all things differ in form, intellect, and purpose. Nevertheless, a fundamental interconnectedness exists between all creatures in that everything reflects God’s wisdom and plays its part in the divine plan.
This is not merely an abstract concept, but a potent subject of contemplation for anyone who seeks a more enlightened way of relating to the world. The Baal Shem Tov (R. Yisrael ben Eliezer, 1698-1760), founder of the Chassidic movement, declares: “Do not consider yourself superior to anyone else... In truth, you are no different than any other creature, since all things were brought into being to serve God. Just as God bestows consciousness upon you, so does He bestow consciousness upon your fellow man. In what way is a human being superior to a worm? A worm serves the Creator with all of his intelligence and ability; and man, too, is compared to a worm or a maggot, as the verse states, ‘I am a worm and not a man’ (Psalms 22:7). If God had not given you a human intellect, you would only be able to serve Him like a worm. In this sense, you are both equal in the eyes of Heaven. A person should consider himself, and the worm, and all creatures as comrades in the universe, for we are all created beings whose abilities are God-given...”
Compassion and Enlightenment
The Baal Shem Tov’s words proceed from a deeply mystical perception: all things are animated by God, and thus constitute a “garment” for Him. As he observes, “All the worlds are garments, each one for the next, down to the lowest aspect...”
This concept is suggested by the verse that states, “He covers Himself with light as with a garment” (Psalms 104:2). In Kabbalistic terms, this alludes to the Infinite Light of Creation (Ohr Ein Sof). The Infinite Light, in turn, is “garbed” through numerous acts of constriction (tzimtzum) that produce the various “worlds,” culminating in the physical universe.
Thus, the universe may be conceived as the “outermost” garment of God, beneath which His Infinite Light is concealed. Although some elements may be primary and others secondary, all parts of the garment exist in symbiotic relationship with one another, and possess meaning by virtue of the One Who fashioned the garment for His own purpose.
Therefore, the Baal Shem Tov teaches us, the enlightened person will sense the kinship of “man and the worm and all small creatures,” and relate to all of God’s works with love. As the Maharal of Prague (R. Yehudah Loewe ben Betzalel, 1512-1609) observes, “Love of all creatures is also love of God; for whoever loves the One, loves all the works that He has made.” The realization of this truth is the central point of Jewish mysticism, and it is the root of the Jewish ethic of compassion for all creatures.
 Sotah 14a; cf. Sifré on Deuteronomy 11:22. Also see R. Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, Me’or Einayim, Tetzaveh, n. 8.
 Mishneh Torah, Yesodei HaTorah 1:1
 Tomer Devorah, chap. 2.
 Midrash Tehillim on Psalms 37:6.
 Ohr HaChaim, Bereishis 33:17.
 Eruvin 100b.
 Likkutei Moharan II, 71, citing Berakhos 6b. Thus, it is said in the name of Kabbalistic master R. Yitzchak Luria, best known as the Ari z”l (an acronym for “our master, Rabbi Yitzchak, of blessed memory”): “Man is a microcosm, and the cosmos are a macroanthropus.” The aphorism may be apocryphal, but is entirely consistent with Lurianic thought; cf. R. Chaim Vital, Sefer Eitz Chaim, Chelek II, Heikhal A-B-Y-A, Hakdamah Li’ha’Drush, Sha’ar Tziyyur Olamos; Sha’arei Kedushah 3:2, s.v. Ve’od yesh chiluk, and 3:5 (beginning); R. Avraham Azulai, Chesed L’Avraham, 4:1; R. Yaakov Yosef of Polonoye, Toldos Yaakov Yosef, Kedoshim, s.v. V’hu achar she-kol ha-olam heim komah sheleimah; R. Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudylkov, Degel Machaneh Ephraim, Bereishis, pp. 5, 7; R. Chaim of Volozhin, Nefesh HaChaim 2:5. That is, all the various levels and facets of creation are contained in each human being—and creation as a whole, including the various spiritual “worlds” beyond the physical universe, reflects the human form in its metaphysical structure. This is why the order of the Ten Sefiros, or divine powers operative in creation, is depicted as corresponding to the human form; cf. “Pasach Eliyahu,” Hakdamah, Tikkunei Zohar. Moreover, all creation is animated by means of the “Cosmic Soul” known as Adam Kadmon, which is the highest spiritual root of all individual souls, and indeed all phenomena. The Kabbalists caution that the nature of Adam Kadmon is utterly beyond the grasp of mortal intellect, thus nothing can be said about it.
 Sichos HaRan 300; also cf. Si’ach Sarfei Kodesh I, 385.
 Tomer Devorah, chap. 2.
 Rabbenu Bachaya (Genesis 2:15) explains this verse on the literal, homiletic, and mystical levels. Like other Rishonim, he interprets the verse in the most basic sense as indicating man’s stewardship over nature. Then he cites several Midrashic teachings: according to the first, the terms “tend” and “watch over” allude to the study of Torah and observance of the commandments; the second interprets these terms as alluding to our divine service during the week through creative activity, as contrasted with our divine service on the Sabbath through non-action and rest; and the third relates them to the sacrifices in the Holy Temple, which elicited God’s blessings. The Kabbalistic explanation relates the two terms to the “upper” letter hey and the “lower” letter hey in the four-letter Divine Name YHVH. (The former corresponds to the spiritual source of understanding, whereas the latter corresponds to the spiritual source of action.)
 Sefer HaChinnukh, Mitzvah 545.
 Mesillas Yesharim, chap. 19.
 Shemos Rabbah 2:2.
 Tzava’as HaRivash 12.
 Sefer Baal Shem Tov, Bereishis 12, citing Chesed L’Avraham; ibid. Bereishis 15, citing Likkutim Yekarim 17c; also cf. R. Pinchas of Koretz, Midrash Pinchas, 2:6, R. Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudylkov, Degel Machaneh Ephraim, Kedoshim, s.v. al tifnu le-elilim, pp. 162-163; R. Nachman of Breslov, Likkutei Moharan, I, 64 (end), citing Bereishis Rabbah 21:5.
 Likkutei Moharan I: 24, I: 33; Sefer HaTanya 1:2, hagahah, citing Sefer Eitz Chaim of the Ari z”l; R. Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, Od Yosef Chai, Chut HaMeshulosh; et al.
 Nesivos Olam, Ahavas Re’a, 1.33.