The Prohibition Against Cruelty To Animals

Dear Friends,

In the upcoming letters of this series, we will discuss "tzaar baalei chayim" - the Torah's prohibition against cruelty to living creatures; moreover, we will also discuss how the principle of this prohibition is expressed in several "mitzvos" Divine mandates of the Torah. In this letter, we will discuss a mitzvah given to all humankind which expresses this principle.

According to our tradition, this universal mitzvah is included in the universal moral code, which is the spiritual legacy of all the peoples of the earth. This moral code has seven basic precepts which are known as the "Seven Mitzvos of the Children of Noah." The Talmud (Sanhedrin 56b) states that this code was first taught to humanity at the very dawn of human history, beginning with Adam and Eve; however, this code was reaffirmed during the generation of Noah, after the great flood, and it therefore became known as the "Seven Mitzvos of the Children of Noah."

The Seventh Mitzvah is the prohibition against severing a limb or flesh from a living animal, and Maimonides writes in his Mishneh Torah that this seventh mitzvah was given to humanity in the generation of Noah, after the great flood, when human beings were given Divine permission to eat meat (Hilchos Melachim 9:1). According to our tradition, the source for this universal mitzvah is found in the following passage:

"Every moving thing that lives shall be yours for food; as with the herbal greenery have I given you all these. But flesh; with its soul, its blood, you shall not eat" (Genesis 9:3,4).

"But flesh with its soul" - Rashi explains: "He forbade them to eat a limb which was detached from a living animal; as if to say, all the while that its soul is still in it, you shall not eat the flesh."

"Its blood" - Rashi adds that the mention of the word "blood" is coming to teach that it is also forbidden to eat blood which is taken from a living animal.

This mitzvah is also one of the 613 mitzvos which were given to the People of Israel. The "Sefer Ha-Chinuch" - a classical work on the Torah's 613 mitzvos - discusses this prohibition, and it states:

"A root principle of this mitzvah is that we should not train our spirit in the quality of cruelty, which is a most reprehensible trait of character. In truth, there is no greater cruelty in the world than when one cuts a limb or flesh from an animal while it is yet alive before him, and he eats it." (Mitzvah 452).

The practice of taking a limb or flesh from a living animal was more common in the ancient world; however, in our modern era, this practice can still be found in certain areas of the earth. We who live in the modern world should not feel so superior to the ancient world, as some of the ways animals are treated on many factory farms are inhumane! This is a topic for a future discussion.

It is written, "The Compassionate and Just One took the human being and placed him in the Garden l'avdah u'leshamrah - to serve it and protect it" (Genesis 2:5). As we discussed previously, the Divine mandate to "serve" the Garden is a prototype for all the mitzvos of the Torah which enable us to improve and elevate the world; moreover, the Divine mandate to "protect" the Garden is a prototype for all the mitzvos of the Torah which prevent us from damaging and degrading the world (Tikunei Zohar 55). The Torah's prohibition against cruelty to living creatures is therefore within the category of "protecting" the world.

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)

Related Teachings and Comments:

1. The Sefer Ha-Chinuch, in its discussion on mitzvah 416, mentions that the Seven Mitzvos of the Children of Noah are actually seven broad categories which contain many of the 613 specific mitzvos which are incumbent upon the People of Israel. The noted commentator on the Talmud, known as "the Meiri," explains that most of the principles of the Torah are contained within the Seven Mitzvos of the Children of Noah (Commentary to Sanhedrin 59a). These teachings are discussed in greater detail in the Hazon essay on the universal moral code.

There are also sources which indicate that there are additional mitzvos which all human beings are to fulfill, beyond those specifically mentioned within the universal moral code, and the mitzvah of "tzedakah" - sharing our resources with those in need - is cited as an example. For further study, visit the archive (upper section) of our website which has articles on the mitzvah of tzedakah, and see the following articles: "Tzedekah Activists Vs. Sodomites" and "The Mitzvah to be Human."

2. A law of the Torah is known in Hebrew as a "halacha" - a word which is derived from the Hebrew word for walking, "holech." The word "halacha" therefore reminds us that the mitzvos are a path, and each halacha reveals how we are to walk on this path. In the upcoming lessons, we will be discussing various halachos concerning the humane treatment of other creatures, so at the recommendation of Rabbi David Sears, I bought an excellent Hebrew work which discusses these halachos. It is titled, "Nefesh Kol Chai" - The Soul of All Living Things, and the author is Rabbi Eliyahu Shtisman, who lives in Jerusalem. In this work, we find a discussion of various mitzvos and stories in the Torah which express the principle of "tzaar baalei chayim" - the prohibition against cruelty to living creatures; however, there are differing opinions as to which of these mitzvos or stories is the primary source of this principle.

3. The Torah gives the leading sages of the High Court the right to enact halachos in order to reinforce or protect Torah teachings and mitzvos. A halacha enacted by these leading sages is often referred to as a "mitzvah d'rabanan" a rabbinic mitzvah. The Talmud discusses whether the prohibition of tzaar baalei chayim is a rabbinic mitzvah or whether it is actually a mitzvah of the Torah. As the work Nefesh Kol Chai points out, most of the great authorities on halacha conclude that tzaar baalei chayim is a mitzvah of the Torah. For information in English on this subject, see "The Vision of Eden" by Rabbi David Sears (pages 63-66).

4. As Rabbi Sears points out in "The Vision of Eden," the Torah path encourages sensitivity to the feelings of other living creatures beyond the strict requirement of the halacha, and in a future letter, we will cite some examples.

Hazon - Our Universal Vision