The Grievance of the Donkey

Dear Friends,

I was born on Shabbos, the 14th of Tamuz. The story that I am about to share with you is part of the "parsha" - Torah portion - which was read on the Shabbos of my birth. I was a bit too young to go to synagogue that day, but I did manage to hear the following story read in the synagogue when I got older:


Introduction: When the People of Israel were journeying through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land, the King of Moab hired the Gentile prophet, Balaam, to curse this people who had been liberated from the slavery of Egypt. The King of Moab sent messengers to Balaam, and the Torah then tells the following amazing story which reveals both the justice and the compassion of the Creator of all life:

Balaam arose in the morning and saddled his she-donkey and went with the officers of Moab. The wrath of the Just One flared because he was going, and an angel of the Compassionate One stood on the road to impede him. He was riding on his she-donkey and his two young men were with him. The she-donkey saw the angel of the Compassionate One standing on the road with his sword drawn in his hand, so the she-donkey turned away from the road and went into the field; then Balaam struck the she-donkey to turn it back onto the road. (Numbers 22:21-23)

The Torah mentions that the she-donkey tried to move away from the angel three times, and on each occasion, Balaam hit the donkey, for he did not see the angel. The Torah then states:

The Compassionate One opened the mouth of the she-donkey and she said to Balaam, "What have I done to you that you struck me these three times?

Balaam said to the she-donkey, "Because you mocked me! If there was a sword in my hand I would kill you right now."

The she-donkey said to Balaam, "Am I not your she-donkey that you have ridden all your life until this day? Have I been accustomed to do such a thing to you?

He said, "No."

Then the Compassionate One uncovered Balaam's eyes and he saw the angel of the Compassionate One standing on the road with his sword drawn in his hand. He (Balaam) bowed his head and prostrated himself on his face.

The angel of the Compassionate One said to him. "For what reason did you strike your she-donkey these three times? Behold! I went out to impede, for you hastened on a road to oppose me. The she-donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. Had it not turned away from me, I would now even have killed you and let her live!" (Numbers 22:28-33)


The Compassionate One gave the she-donkey the ability to express her grievance. She had never behaved this way before; thus, Balaam should have realized that if she turned away three times, there must have been a good reason. There was therefore no need for him to strike her. According to the following teaching from Midrash Hagadol (22:32), the above story is the primary source in the Torah for the prohibition against "tzaar baalei chayim" causing needless suffering to living creatures:

"Rabbi Yochanan said that the prohibition against tzaar baalei chayim is a Torah prohibition, as it is written, 'For what reason did you strike your she-donkey these three times?' " (Cited in "Nefesh Kol Chai")

Maimonides writes in "The Guide to the Perplexed" (3:17) that the prohibition against tzaar baalei chayim is a Torah prohibition, and like the above Midrash, he quotes the following rebuke, "For what reason did you strike your she-donkey these three times?"

Rabbi Yehudah HeChassid, a contemporary of Maimonides, writes that we can learn the following lesson from the story of Balaam and his donkey:

"For every act by which a person needlessly causes pain to his friend, he shall be punished. This applies even if he needlessly causes pain to an animal. For example, if he overloads an animal and then, when it does not move, beats it - in the future he will be called to judgement before the Heavenly court, because inflicting cruelty upon animals is a Torah prohibition. Thus, concerning Balaam it is written, 'For what reason did you strike your she-donkey?' And in response to his having declared, 'If there was a sword in my hand I would kill you right now,' he himself was (later) killed by the sword." (Sefer Chassidim, section 666)

The Torah later states, "And Balaam son of Beor they slew by the sword." (Numbers 31:8). As the Sefer Chassidim pointed out, the one who would have needlessly killed his donkey by the sword was killed by the sword. Why, however, was Balaam, who did not receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai and who was unfamiliar with its prohibition against cruelty to animals, being held responsible for his cruel behavior? The halachic work "Nefesh Kol Chai" discusses several possible reasons which are mentioned in halachic literature. One possible reason is because the Torah's prohibition against cruelty to animals is also part of the universal moral code the Seven Mitzvos of the Children of Noah. (This was discussed in our previous letter.)

Another possible reason can be found in a teaching of Rabbi Nissim Gaon, a noted sage of the 11th century. He writes in his introduction to the Talmud that all human beings in every generation have an obligation to fulfill any mitzvah of the Torah which is suggested by "reason and the understanding of the heart." The mitzvah to avoid cruelty to other living creatures can be viewed as a mitzvah which is suggested by "the understanding of the heart," and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch elaborates on this idea:

"Compassion is the feeling of empathy which the pain of one being of itself awakens in another; and the higher and more human the beings are, the more keenly attuned are they to re-echo the note of suffering which, like a voice from heaven, penetrates the heart, bringing to all creatures a proof of their kinship in the universal God. And as for the human being, whose function it is to show respect and love for God's universe and all its creatures, his heart has been created so tender that it feels with the whole organic that if nothing else, the very nature of his heart must teach him that he is required above everything else to feel himself the brother of all beings, and to recognize the claim of all beings to his love and beneficence." (Horeb, chapter 17).

Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen

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