Where do we learn that we need to be kind to animals, and why do we need to be kind to animals? Do animals have significant lives, or do they just exist to serve humans? Do we learn something from being merciful to animals?
Let us start with sources of kindness to animals. There are numerous proofs in Tanach and Torah SheBeAl Peh that teach kindness to animals. In our Parashah, the Pasuk states, “VeYaakov Nasa Succotah, VaYiven Lo Bayit UL’Mikneihu Asah Succot; Al Kein Kara Sheim HaMakom Succot,” “Yaakov traveled to Succot, and he built a house for himself and booths for his cattle; therefore, he named the place Succot” (BeReishit 33:17). This is the first time since Noach it is explicitly written that someone is kind to animals.
Other examples of kindness to animals in the Torah include the Mitzvah that if someone sees his enemy’s donkey struggling with its burden, he must stop what he is doing and help his enemy unload the donkey (Shemot 23:5), as well as the Mitzvah not to muzzle an ox while it is threshing (Devarim 25:4). The Midrash Rabbah on Shemot 2:2 says that once, one of Moshe’s sheep ran away to get a drink, and when Moshe caught up to it, he said: “I didn’t realize that you were running because you were thirsty. Now you must be tired!” Moshe proceeded to carry the sheep all the way back to the group. In both Berachot 40a and Gittin 62b, the Gemara teaches that it is forbidden for a person to to eat before feeding his animals. All of these are proofs that humans are required to be kind to animals.
Now that we know we need to be kind to animals, we are left with a simple question: Why? In Rav Natan Slifkin’s book Man and Beast, he presents three answers. First, animals have a right to live, second, Hashem does not like seeing His creations being hurt, and third, humans have a responsibility to act compassionately to Hashem’s creations.
Rav Slifkin says that animals have a right to live, but are the lives of animals actually significant? The Midrash BeReishit Rabbah (33:1) relates a story in which Alexander the Great came to watch King Ketzia judge. A case arose in which a person had sold a piece of land to another person, but there was a treasure in the land. The buyer wanted to give the treasure back in honesty, but the seller did not want it back because he had already sold the land and everything in it. King Ketzia said the children of the two litigants should marry each other so the treasure would be shared. Alexander said that in his country, the people would be put to death and the treasure would go to the state treasury.
Upon hearing that the litigants would be put to death in Alexander the Great’s land, King Ketzia asked Alexander: “Does it rain in your land? Does the sun shine on your land? Are there cattle in your land?” Alexander the Great answered yes to all the questions. King Ketzia said: “It is not in your merit that the rain falls and the sun shines. It is in the cattle’s merit.” This shows that the lives of animals are significant and can affect the world.
Another proof that animals have significant lives is that Hashem refuses to kill the city of Nineveh because He says, “Now should I not take pity on Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than 120,000 people who do not know their right hand from their left, and many animals as well?” (Yonah 4:11). The Radak (ibid.) explains that animals have neither reward nor punishment, so they deserve to live, not to die.
On the other hand, the Ramban believes that animals were created solely for humans, and their lives have no independent significance. He bases this assertion on the Pasuk, “Ki Nefesh HaBasar BaDam Hi, VaAni Netativ Lachem Al HaMizbei’ach Lechapeir Al Nafshoteichem, Ki HaDam Hu BaNefesh Yechapeir,” “For the soul of flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to atone for your souls, because blood atones for the soul” (VaYikra 17:11). Ramban interprets this Pasuk to mean that Hashem created animals only to satisfy the human need for atonement, because humans are the only beings that recognize Hashem. In addition, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 108a) asks: “If man sinned [in the generation of the Flood and therefore deserved to be destroyed], how did the animals sin? [To answer this question,] a parable was taught in the name of Rabi Yehoshua ben Karcha: A man prepared a Chuppah and many types of food for his son’s wedding. However, his son died [before the wedding], and the man stood and destroyed the Chuppah, saying, ‘I only did it for my son; now that he is dead, why do I need the Chuppah?’ So too, Hashem said, ‘I only created the animals and beasts for man; now that man has sinned, why do I need the animals and beasts?’” This Gemara seems to indicate that animals live only for the sake of man.
So do animals have significant lives or not? A compromise is that animals have significant lives, but their lives are not as important as the lives of humans. The Midrash Tanchuma (BeReishit 6) states if a person is on a ship during a storm and needs to throw things overboard to save his life and the lives of the other people on the ship, it is permissible to throw animals off the ship if they are the only things left on the ship other than people. From here we see that a human’s life takes precedence over an animal’s, but an animal’s life takes precedence over inanimate objects.
What about Rav Slifkin’s second answer that Hashem does not like seeing His creations being hurt? We can support this answer with two Pesukim. Ramban explains that there is a prohibition against killing an animal and its children on the same day (VaYikra 22:28) because of the pain the mother will experience when seeing its child killed. Another proof that Hashem does not want His creations to be hurt is the Mitzvah of Shilu’ach HaKein, that if a person wants to take chicks or eggs from a bird’s nest, he must first send away the mother bird (Devarim 22:6). Rambam in the Guide to the Perplexed states that the mother bird would suffer if she saw her chicks or eggs being taken. Rambam comments that the goal of these commandments is for us to emulate Hashem, showing pity and mercy to all of Hashem’s creations. This is Hashem’s way of teaching us to be merciful.
We should be merciful to animals because we are created in the Tzelem Elokim, image of God, and we are charged to imitate Hashem. We are commanded by Hashem to be kind to animals, not only because they have a right to compassion and because Hashem cares about them, but because we have a responsibility to care about others—both human and animal.