Cruelty to Animals: The Jewish Perspective

    November 2011          
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The Jewish View: Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

By Avi Lazerson

We are aware of activists who lobby and protest for animal rights. We are also aware that cruelty to animals is forbidden. Many people feel that even eating an animal is disgusting. What is the Jewish view, that is the view from the Torah, on use of animals for man's needs?

One of the clearest sources of the relationship between man and animals regarding the use of animals and also the prevention of cruelty is brought down in the Code of Jewish Law (Choshen Misphat 272). It is based on several verses in the Torah. The passages are (Exodus Chapter 23: 4 - 5)

    "If you should come across your enemy's ox or his donkey going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of your enemy falling (struggling) under its burden, do not pass by him; but rather release him from his burden."

The second passage is (Deuteronomy 22:1)

    "You shall not see the ox of your brother or his sheep driven away, and hide yourself from them; you shall surely bring them back to your brother."

These verses are dealing with several situations. One if the animal is going astray, you are commanded to return it. The second verse tells us that is you see the animal of your enemy falling due to an extra heavy burden placed upon it, you are commanded to unload the animal and re-load it in a more suitable fashion.

There are here two mitzvot: a positive commandment and a negative commandment. The positive commandment is when you see an animal suffering, you must alleviate his suffering. The negative commandment is that if you 'see' the animal suffering, you may not turn away and ignore it. At this point the modern activists' case for animal rights and prevention of cruelty superficially seems fairly evident from the Torah.

* * *

Now before continuing it must be mentioned that every mitzvah has its limits. As an example, how much wine must one drink for kiddish or what is the minimum amount of matzoh that must be eaten on Passover? Similarly, there are conditions that must be fulfilled to properly do the mitzvah or to transgress. As an example how much food is considered food that one would transgress by eating on Yom Kippur or what distance is considered for transgressing by carrying on the Shabbat? Every positive mitzvah and every negative mitzvah has a measurement and if this measurement is not fulfilled then either the mitzvah was not done or the transgression was not transgressed.

* * *

Now according to the Code of Jewish Law, if a person were to see an animal struggling under its load, yet it was not very close to the person who sees it then he would not be under any obligation to help this poor animal. The Code of Jewish Law gives the measurement of 266 cubits which is approximately 133 meters or 400 feet. If the animal is beyond this distance from the man, then the man would not be obligated to help the animal. This does not say that it is not a proper thing to do, but in a case where the animal who is struggling under his heavy burden is beyond this distance, then the man who witnesses the animal struggling is not under any obligation to help.

Let us consider this for a moment!

From one aspect the Torah obligates a man to come to the aid of a over burdened animal who is struggling from the load. From this we see that the Torah is concerned for the welfare of animals. Yet from the Code of Jewish Law, we see that this obligation is only if the animal is in close proximity to the person; if the animal is distant, then there is no obligation on the man. From this we see that the relationship between the man and the animal is not one of total concern for the welfare of the animal. Rather, it is the reverse!

What is the center of focus is the welfare of the man. Man must learn to be kind - kind even to dumb animals and helpful to them. This instills in man the trait of kindness. If to a dumb animal he must be kind and stop and help, how much more so to a person! Yet there is a limit that the Torah sets; the animal must be within close quarters to the man. There is a limit to the amount of effort that a man must expend to help an animal.

The same guideline is true for preventing cruelty to animals. Man is not allowed to cause harm to an animal - that is for man's cruel pleasure. However is there is some positive benefit that man will derive from an animal, then man is allowed to use an animal for man's purposes.

Man is not allowed to kill an animal if there is no purpose other than killing it; that is cruel. The Torah does not want to cultivate a nation of cruel people. However if there is a purpose in killing the animal such as for food or even medical research, then the animal may be killed. Similarly, if an animal is bothering or threatening a man, then the man is allowed to kill it.

We see that the animal is really an object for man's benefit. The Torah requires us to help the animal so that we become gentle and kind people and it rejects being cruel to animals since that will develop a cruel streak in the man's personality. The Torah gave man permission to use the animals for a positive need but not for developing cruelty.

The Jewish view on prevention of cruelty to animals differs from the current popular view held by activists in that we see animals as different than man. Activists tend to see animals almost on an equal footing as man. Just like we can not harm a man similarly, they seem to reason, we can not harm an animal. The Jewish view is different. An animal is there for the benefit of man. Man may not harm it for no reason. If there is a positive benefit to man he may use or even kill the animal.


from the November 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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