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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.
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Discussion (104)
September 26, 2013
I read that before we eat, we should have kavannah that the soul of that fruit or vegetable
or animal should be lifted up.

Another time I read that we should have kavannah that the holy sparks in that food be lifted up.

Another time I read that we should have kavannah that the food should nourish us and strengthen us to serve HaShem.

So I try to have that kavannah with each meal. All three of them. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't seem to, But I keep it up anyway.

The good of beef is that only one animal has to die to feed many people for many days, but many chickens must die to achieve the same. But beef is less healthy for us. So should we eat beef so as to kill fewer creatures? Or must we omit animal products?
St. Louis
September 17, 2013
What about killing pets on the slightest ailment?
This writing is absolutely beautiful and passionate. However, what led me to read it, was the idea that its subject was the euthanasia exerted on pets on the slightest affliction, or even without any, just at the discretion of the owner. But it doesn't matter I learnt a lot from its reading. Thank you very much.
September 17, 2013
I'm told that those hormones and other injections are so harmful that the chicken isn't kosher
That is, if you want a kosher chicken, you can't subject it to those conditions, because it will fail to pass kosher inspection. Its organs fail to develop and it is traif.

But I have a question for the rabbi.

Please answer.

The label on kosher brands of chicken say that the chickens are free range.
What does this mean? They are outdoors all day, like my grandmother's chickens?

Or, they are outdoors for one hour/day?

Or, what?

Meanwhile, I only eat organically reared eggs. The eggs at the health food store have a variety of labels.

A questino for someone who really knows (whoever you may be):
Which label is meaningful?

El Paso
September 16, 2013
Chickens are the worst treated and most unhealthy
It seems that many people only care about their own health and not these intelligent, sensitive beings, so I'll focus on that right now. Chickens' hormones are completely awry, and these creatures are made to grow abnormally fast. They have been genetically and hormonally tampered with possibly more than any farmed animal. Additionally, the bacteria in chicken is rampant and has been traced to many diseases. Former meat inspectors report that there is more bacteria in chicken than on one's toilet and they will never eat it again.
Port Washington, NY
September 16, 2013
One of the local rabbis invited us to go participate in kapparot. The chicken becomes a meal for a poor family. I went but I couldn't do it.

We are allowed to put money in a bag and swing the money around and say basically the same words. Then we give the money to the poor. That is much better. Then the family can use the money to buy food of their own choice.
September 13, 2013
I am Jewish. But Judaism and it's texts are MISTAKEN.
YOU HAVE TO FEEL IT. And "I feel" intuitively that eating meat is, a transgression of Gd and creation itself. If you don't feel it, you don't perceive this., you can't know. And you won't But I do. I think that things evolve, including society and religion should evolve too. To say that something is "the word of god" and written down in a book also mistaken.

You have to look inside yourself, "meditate", become aware and conscious of things that you/are/we/I were previously not conscious of. You breath, your mind, your heart, your food, the gap in-between your thoughts, the awareness of subtle stirrings from within our brain/mind/bodies/hearts/emotions. Nothing external can give us Spiritual Vision. It can only be contacted from within and I don't care if if a foundational document claims it's the word of God. I know sin, and I know goodness! Eating meat is sin. Feel it, take the time, research, feel/think about animals (we are also animals and we don't eat each other! Period.
Queens, NY
September 13, 2013
I am 100% with Anonymous
September 11, 2013
taking the life of an animal
You know i have researched so much about what Torah says what any of our books or Rabbis say about taking the life of an animal for food and for animal sacrifice. There seems to be a division of ( so called facts) .I as a jewess, vegan, and animal activist am appalled by the inconsistencies and the voices that say G-D ordered sacrifice and told us to eat dead animals. This is what turned me away from attending yom kippur shabbat , services for this weekened. the first thing on the list is Kapporoth swinging the poor chicken. What kind of delusion are we under thinking our bad karm a is transferred into a poor chicken and we are forgiven our sins? thi sis arrogant delusion with no thought to the suffering of the sentient being. It is disgraceful and a blot on Judaism which should be leading the world in compassion not stupid customs which are causing pain and suffering to another being as well as deluding ourselves.
sophia rubenstein
nyc, ny
September 5, 2013
No. It is an ancient barbaric tradition.
Totally rationalized and politicized.
And specieist, in that controlling patriarchal way.
Some old guys change the words in an old text and you think therefore it is OK to shed innocent blood?
Such arrogance!

Want to heal the world? Heal thyself first.

BTW, they did not eat flesh nor drink blood in Eden.
Astrid Asimov
God's country, USA
May 31, 2012
To Each His or Her Own
This is in reply to Pinchas. If you prefer to eat meat, that is your prerogative. My belief is different since I come from a family where my grandfather was a shochet, and he and my father and uncles operated a kosher meat market for years. Nevertheless, I was not the only vegetarian in the family, as many of my cousins shared my aversion to killing animals. I loved my zayde dearly, but I just don't like to see an animal suffer. That is just my belief, but to paraphrase Marie Antionette: "Let the rest of you eat meat if you so desire." Zay gesunt!
Omaha, Nebraska
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