This letter contains some teachings from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, which were cited in "The Vision of Eden" and which I later studied in the original source, "Ein Rayah":
We have begun a discussion on the mitzvah to feed our animals before we feed ourselves. This mitzvah is based on the following verse where the Compassionate One promises that there will be food for the animals before promising that we, the People of Israel, will have enough food:
"I shall provide grass in your fields for your cattle, and you shall eat and be satisfied." (Deuteronomy 11:15)
In the previous letter, we mentioned the following reasons for the mitzvah to feed our hungry animals before we sit down to eat:
1. It prevents us from violating the Torah's prohibition against tzaar baalei chayim. (A related reason is that sitting down to a meal may also cause us to forget about feeding our animals.)
2. It enables us to fulfill the mitzvah to emulate the compassionate Divine ways, especially since the Compassionate One promised that there will be food for the animals before promising that there will be food for us.
In this letter, we shall discuss some additional reasons for this mitzvah, and we will begin with excerpts from some teachings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook:
"Aside from enjoining us to recognize our obligation of active concern for the welfare of all creatures, according to the lofty station of this holy directive, it is required as an act of justice, since by means of the animal, the human being brings forth bread from the earth, and 'abundant blessing from the power of the ox' (Proverbs 14:4). Given this, the one that does the work (the animal) deserves priority in benefiting from his labors. In addition, this teaches that the human being must not exploit animals – not only because of compassion, but also because of the justice of showing gratitude; for if not for the animal, the human being would not gain the necessities of life. Therefore, because one is compelled and obligated to feed his animal before eating, his consciousness is raised to know that his obligation to be concerned for animals is not only loving piety and altruism, but an obligation of integrity, righteousness, and justice." (Ein Ayah, Berachos, Vol 2, chap 6, p. 180)
In the modern western world – especially in urban areas - many people have animals in their possession for the purpose of companionship. They are deriving some benefit from their pets; thus, feeding their pets first would be what Rabbi Kook calls, "the justice of showing gratitude."
Since we are discussing the theme of gratitude, I will mention an ancient custom of our people during the winter season which expresses our gratitude towards the birds for a benefit which we received from them on our journey to Mount Sinai: There is a winter Shabbos when we read the Torah portion that includes the song which we sung after we crossed the sea, when we were saved from the Egyptian army that was chasing after us in order to enslave us again. This is a joyous song of deliverance, and it also alludes to the future age of universal redemption when all people will accept the sovereignty of the Compassionate One; thus, the song concludes with the words, "The Compassionate One shall reign for all eternity" (Exodus 15:18). The Shabbos when we chant the Torah portion which includes this song is known as the "Shabbos of Song"; moreover, there is a special custom associated with this Shabbos which involves the birds. I will describe the custom as it is practiced in my community of Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem. Before sunset on Friday, we put out food for the wild birds. "Nefesh Kol Chai" cites halachic sources which state that the reason for this custom is because the birds also sung a special song when we were delivered at the sea! We therefore express our appreciation to the birds for singing their song by giving them food just before the arrival of the Shabbos of Song; moreover, this custom reminds us of the great joy of the Song at the Sea (Aruch Ha-Shulchan).
This year, the Shabbos of Song begins at sunset on Friday, February 10th.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
1. Jewish tradition encourages us to have gratitude to everything in creation, and we discussed this idea in a previous letter, which was titled, "Gratitude to the River." A copy is available upon request.
2. Rabbi Kook also discusses another reason for the mitzvah to feed our animals before we feed ourselves. He points out that a human being who lacks food temporarily can quiet the distress of his soul by pursuing various forms of spiritual gratification. The soul of the hungry animal does not have this option.