"You shall not muzzle an ox when it is threshing." (Deuteronomy 25:4)
We are not allowed to prevent an animal from eating from the produce while it is working. As Rashi states in his commentary on the above verse, the ox is cited because it is a common example; however, the law applies to any working animal. The Raavad, a halachic authority of the 12th century, views this verse as a source of the prohibition "tzaar baalei chayim" – causing needless suffering to living creatures. (Commentary on Bava Metzia 32b, cited in "Nefesh Kol Chai" by Rabbi Yitzchak Eliyahu Shtisman)
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a noted sage and biblical commentator, discusses this mitzvah in his work, Horeb, and he writes:
"God demands, as its right, that the animal which works in the cultivation of the field may be allowed to eat of the fruits undisturbed, at the time when it is working there….The law applies to threshing, the bearing of burdens, or any other work. This prohibition gives the animal which helps you in taking possession of the fruits of the earth, a right upon the fruits during its service; and you sin against it by whichever means you prevent it from eating, even if it be calling to it, or indirectly instilling fear, or thirst, or by unnecessary separation from the fruits. You may only prevent the animal from eating if the fruits might harm it (Chosen Mishpat 338)."
All people who work with animals must therefore be very careful that the animals not be deprived of the food they need. According to the Ohr HaChayim, a noted biblical commentator and kabbalist, an example of this concern can be found in a Torah story about a journey of our father Yaacov (Jacob). When Yaacov arrived in the land of the easterners, where the relatives of his mother lived, he encountered a group of shepherds with their flocks, and the shepherds were standing around a well. Yaacov said to them, My brothers, Where are you from?" (Genesis 29:4). The shepherds replied that they are from Charan. Since this was where Yaacov's relatives lived, he asked the shepherds if they knew the family. He then said to them:
"Look, the day is yet young! It is not yet time to bring the livestock in; water the sheep and then go pasture them." (Genesis 29:7)
The sheep were not being given water from the well; moreover, the day was still young, and the sheep were not being given the right to graze in the pasture. Yaacov was therefore concerned about tzaar baalei chayim, explains the Ohr HaChayim, and this was why he raised the issue with the shepherds. In fact, animal rights activists can learn from Yaacov how to raise the issue of tzaar baal chayim with others in a positive way. For example, before Yaacov challenged them regarding their behavior, he addressed them as, "My brothers." The Netziv, a noted sage and biblical commentator of the late 19th century, writes: "Yaacov taught his tongue to speak words of love and friendship, therefore he called these shepherds that he never met before 'brothers'." Before he challenged them about their behavior, Yaacov spoke words of love and friendship. One does not have to be a psychologist to realize that when we challenge others from a place of love, we increase the chances that our words will be heard.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
A Related Story:
The persecuted and poor Jews of Eastern Europe often supplemented their meager income by having some chickens and even a cow or a goat in their yard. The accomplished Talmud scholar, Rabbi Isaac Rosensweig, was one of these poor Jews who tried to make a living by raising chickens. After the German army invaded his village in World War II, Rabbi Isaac was deported to the death camps. The German soldiers laughed when he cried out beseechingly from the window of the death train, "Go to my house and give the chickens food and water, for they have not touched food and water for a whole day!" Then Rabbi Isaac noticed his comrade, Rabbi Moshe Yudah Tziltz, who had not yet been summoned by the authorities, standing at distance. With a loud cry, he called out to him, "Afflicting animals is forbidden by the halacha! Give the chickens food and water!" (This story appears in, "The Vision of Eden - Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Mysticism" by David Sears.)