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What Gives Us the Right to Kill Animals?

What Gives Us the Right to Kill Animals?


Dear Rabbi Freeman:

There is a quote from Henry Beston that lives in my heart. But so does G‑d, yet G‑d and Henry Beston seem to be at odds.

The quote is: "We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth."

Our Torah condones, indeed encourages, us to take the lives of animals and eat their flesh. It even mandates animal sacrifices to G‑d. If one believes Henry Beston's words to be truth, would it go against our faith?

Susan G.

Tzvi Freeman: There is much truth in that quote, but only when read in a very different context than the author originally intended. And you need to know that context very well in order to do that. You need to understand the Torah's view of life, and life's purpose, and the place that each of G‑d's creations hold in that purpose...

Susan: How would the quote read in that different context you speak of?

We do patronize animals, no two ways about it. And too often are cruel to them. From man I expect good and bad. From G‑d I expected, past tense, only good. Until, way, way back, when I learned about the animal sacrifices. G‑d actually wants them. He doesn't mind the innocent animal's fear, slaughter and blood on His altar. I'm glad that temple is destroyed, and I dread the thought that, one day, it will be built again. Imagine, a place set aside for fear, for pain, for slaughter --and in a temple!

(I can't help but wonder, Rabbi, if you're smiling right now, the way an adult often smiles at a child when it takes things which are not serious to the "grown ups" seriously. It's a smile I've been quite familiar with, and one that doesn't exactly open me up to learning.

(Or maybe you're frowning because of the way I've talked about the Temple... I'm familiar with those frowns as well.)

And so I've been distant from G‑d for a very long time. At the same time, I've never lost my longing for Him. My longing for a G‑d who loves each of His creatures, and would not want pain inflicted upon them. Not even a moment's worth of pain (or fear), if it can be avoided.

Tzvi Freeman: Let's backtrack a minute: How is it that you were so enamored with G‑d until discovering the Temple sacrifices? Didn't you know that lions eat zebras, cheetahs eat antelope, tigers eat whatever they can kill? And most often, the killed are the helpless young, old and sickly. So who created these creatures and this order of nature? What makes the temple sacrifice any more cruel?

In truth, the cruelty of the jungle is only in our eyes. To the animals, it does not exist. As the frog told King David (Midrash, Perek Shira): "I have a mitzvah greater than any of yours. For there is a bird that lives by the swamp and hungers. And I sacrifice my life to feed it."

To the animals, to be eaten is only to be transformed, from one being to another in an endless cycle of metamorphosis. The leaves become a deer, the deer a cougar -- or a human being, the cougar or human returns to the dust and feeds the trees that produce leaves. And that is their fulfillment, their mitzvah of life.

The Torah adds another dimension, a supernatural dimension to the order of nature: The grass becomes a cow, the cow becomes a human and the human performs a G‑dly act and is swallowed into the world of the Divine. Better yet, the cow could enter directly the world of the Divine, swallowed by the fire of the altar and consumed by the angels above that are fed, according to the Kabbalah, by the sacrifices of the Temple. And then those angelic beings respond by returning life and holiness to all cows below in this world.

Nevertheless, Susan, your outrage is appropriate. And this is part of the paradox of being a Jew: We love G‑d and we are outraged by Him at once. And that is what He expects of us.

This needs a story to explain:

Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 85a: Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi was a perfect tzaddik, yet he suffered great pain. How did it begin? Through a deed of his. He was walking through the marketplace when a calf being led to the slaughter ran to him and hid under his cloak. He told the calf, "Go. For this you were created." That is when his suffering began.

And it ended through another deed. His maid was sweeping the floor and found the young of a weasel nested beneath the boards. She began to sweep them away, when he stopped her. "It is written," he said, "that His compassion is upon all of His works." That is when his suffering ceased.

We are meant to not understand, because not understanding is what allows us to have compassion.

The Baal Shem Tov, in the years that he was a hidden mystic, would make his livelihood slaughtering chickens and beef for Jewish communities before a festival. When he left this occupation, a new slaughterer took his place. One day, the gentile helper of one of the Jewish villagers brought a chicken to the new slaughterer. As the new man began to sharpen his knife, the gentile watched and began to laugh. "You wet your knife with water before you sharpen it!" he exclaimed, "And then you just start to cut?"

"And how else?" the slaughterer asked.

"Yisroelik (the Baal Shem Tov) would cry until he had tears enough to wet the knife. Then he would cry as he sharpened the knife. Only then would he cut!"

The Torah commands us not to cause unnecessary pain to any living being. No distinction is made whether that living being is a cow or a lizard or a fly. Rabbi Sholom Dovber of Lubavitch once chided his son for tearing up a leaf of a tree, saying, "What makes you think that the 'I' of the leaf is the lesser than your own 'I'?"

Even when it is deemed necessary to consume the life of another, there are rules. An empty-minded person, the sages taught, has no right to eat meat. They also said to never eat meat out of hunger-first satisfy the hunger with bread. A person who eats meat solely for his palate and for his stomach degrades both himself and the animal. But if it is "mindful eating" -- eating for the sake of harnessing that animal's energies to do good; eating that lifts the animal into a new realm of being; eating to give at least as much to the animal as it gives to us -- then it becomes a way of connecting with the Divine and elevating our universe.

As for the angels and their part in the deal, "Once the Temple was destroyed," the Talmud tells, "the table of every man atones for him." Your table is an altar. The angels are invited. Eat with humility and with compassion and with mindfulness. Do your part in the Divine cycle of life.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Discussion (118)
October 14, 2016
Misconstrued Logic
Rabbi Tzvi, This rationalization of eating meat, with your charming story, throwing in the angels for good measure, may be valid from the mystic point of view of living beings' metamorphosis into another. Even so, with all the mindfulness and humility that you speak of, it is barbaric. I grew up eating meat, fowl and fish, indoctrinated to the delicious tastes before I learned it wasn't a coincidence that there are chickens in the world and we eat something called chicken. Perhaps I wasn't as bright as someone more "worthy" to eat meat, because my parents never mentioned the connection? When I discovered the truth, my tastes had already been well established, and although very saddened, continued to eat flesh. I grew up cooking wonderful recipes that filled my home with tantalizing aromas, until it hit me one day, while admiring cattle on the side of the road: "Do I want to take a bite out of that?" I have been a vegetarian ever since. We are humans, not lions, and can opt out.
Ileen Ensley
May 31, 2016
Before the first couple ate the forbidden fruit, Gd spelled out what we could eat.
They were told that they could eat the fruit of any tree in the garden except the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Noah, after the Flood, was told that he could eat meat, but he could not eat the flesh of a living animal, and he could not eat the blood of any animal.

At Mount Sinai, Gd told the Jews to eat only kosher animals, and you can find the stipulations of kosher animals in Leviticus 11:1-47. Read it for yourself. However, it applies only to Jews. Others may eat as they see fit, so long as they avoid eating blood and eating a limb taken from a living animal, for they are all descended from Noah and are bound by his promise.
St. Paul, Minn
May 23, 2016
Before the fall
Who says were were Vegans "before the fall" ?? Where do you read this in the Torah?? (Judaism, by the way, does not refer to this as "the fall"...that is a Christian interpretation.)
May 23, 2016
Before the Fall
It appears we were Vegans before the Fall in the Garden. After, we not only lost our innocence but enmity was manifest between Mankind and the Predatory beasts of the field, creating a need for protection and need to harvest flesh to sustain them. I do not believe we were intended to Eat Flesh, it only occurred due to the profound difficulties in food production facing early Man? We were designed to exist in Harmony with all living things.
September 21, 2015
A response without an answer.
You can abhor killing predators (and apparently eating Veal, which I also do not eat, but only because I do not like the taste), but that is far from supporting bloodthirsty murderers who enjoy killing anyone they decide is not politically correct.

Nor did you even address the vicious attacks on the man's daughter when she did not even have anything to do with it.

Supporting the barbarism of murdering fully alive babies, under the excuse that "they do other things that are good'" can be said of any dictatorship or terrorist group.

If those doing it cared in the slightest about the other services, they would have no problem shutting down PP, and starting another center, that had nothing to do with abortions (and did not spend years lying about the utter Barbary that they tried to cover up.

Also, health care for everyone would far cheaper if government had bot ruined it with the Obama health scam plan.
September 20, 2015
Before eating, before making the brachah, I say a prayer on behalf of the food.
May the soul of this (whatever it is) be lifted up.

With Kavannah:

May the soul of these eggs be lifted up.

May the soul of this chicken be lifted up.

May the souls of these cacao beans be lifted up.
September 11, 2015
I eat meat, except veal. I believe in eating meat. I do not eat bread, rice, corn, or potatoes, or anything made from those crops, all of which are unhealthy. I prefer to eat grass-fed beef, or pasture-fed poultry (and their eggs) and I'm willing to pay more for them (and eat less of them), because such animals are happier and healthier. Their happiness is better for them and better for me.

I appreciate lions and abhor the killing of any predator, including wolves, since theirs is the most fragile animal lifestyle, because they are magnificent, and because they have a positive effect on the environment for other animals and for plants.

To those who have a daughter, daughter-in-law, or any female kin who needs to get an annual pap smear or breast exam or whose health demands that she stop having children: Planned Parenthood provides all those services affordably. Do you want your female kin to do without decent health care because it is too expensive?
September 1, 2015
To Richard, continued
I have already addressed (in the post you responded to), the issues of compassion, so please reread that part of that post.

As for 'hungry people' they are hungry not because of eating meat, but because cruel and corrupt regimes destroy farms and burn or steal crops for political reasons.
because oppressed and starving people are easier to control.

It is a myth to say that eating meat uses up natural resources more then eating other things.
I know the leftists love to claim that meat supposedly takes ten times the resources of vegetables, and grain.
but then a person has to eat at least ten times the amount to get just as full, so ultimately there is very little or no savings of resources by not eating meat.

So called "man made climate change" is likewise a myth.
None of those claiming that, can explain why the other planets in our Solar System are heating up at the same rate the Earth is.
RE: Diseases, see an old post of mine about female hormones in the, water.
That is a problem.
bklyn ny
September 1, 2015
To Richard
If you study Genesis with a qualified rabbi (such as at a Chabad yeshiva, for example) then you would learn that just because, meat was nor eaten before the time of Noah, does not mean, that that is a 'higher ideal' then eating meat.
If it was then the Temple would never have had all the meat offerings on the Mezbayach.

Also if we were to say that what went on in the earlier times was 'ideal' then it would also be ideal to learn nothing and to never wear clothes since that how it was in the first hours after Creation.

Eating meat is not uncompassionate or environmentely harmful and it's gluttony not eating meat which causes diseases.
In fact meat is a much better choice for diabetics then breads and cereals since it has necessary protein without so many carbohydrates.
bklyn ny
August 31, 2015
This is a response to the comments (below) of Pinchas. Yes, G-d gave permission for people to eat meat, although G-d's first dietary wish was that people be vegans (see Genesis 1:29). So, we have a choice in our diets and shouldn't that choice consider the highest of Jewish values - that we should diligently guard our health, be compassionate to animals, protect the environment, conserve natural resources, help humgry people, etc. Shouldn't we consider how animal-based diets are causing an epidemic of diseases in Jewish and other communities and that the raising of animals is contributing to climate change and other environmental threats to all life on Earth?
Richard Schwartz
Staten Island