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A Religion of Sensitivity

A Religion of Sensitivity


It was a sight to behold and a wedding procession to remember. As they walked toward the chupah (wedding canopy), the bride and her mother held a tiny old colorful umbrella together over their heads, despite the balmy Jerusalem day.

When subsequently asked about the umbrella, this is the story they told.

It was a frigid winter day in Brooklyn, made worse by a heavy downpour. A young girl holding a tiny colorful umbrella stood patiently in front of "770," Lubavitch World Headquarters, waiting to catch a glimpse of the Rebbe as he arrived for prayers.

The Rebbe's car pulled up and the Rebbe quickly alighted. He didn't have an umbrella with him and was about to hurry to the door when he noticed the little girl waiting expectantly to greet him.The Rebbe bent beneath the miniature umbrella she proudly held out He smiled at her warmly and started towards the synagogue when she offered to share her umbrella with him. The Rebbe bent beneath the miniature umbrella she proudly held out and walked bent over until reaching 770, thoroughly soaked. After holding the door open for her, the Rebbe smiled broadly and said, "Thank you for sharing."

It was underneath this umbrella, which had witnessed such an elegant act of sensitivity, small in size but gigantic in symbolism that the young bride chose to begin the next chapter of her life.

A Sensitive Manuscript

Long before tree-hugging was in, and before the world went green, prior even to the smorgasbord of human and animal rights movements our world has welcomed in recent times, there existed an ancient document, the bedrock of a historic people and their law, that advocated these values and more.

That document is the Torah, which concerns itself not only with the wellbeing of man, but of animal and vegetative life as well, and even mandates respect for inanimate objects.

It promotes sensitivity and respect for all beings, regardless of their capacity for intelligence or emotive expression.

Following are but a few examples of the exceptional sensitivity the Torah encourages us to display towards our non-human neighbors in the diverse and multi-faceted world we inhabit.

Regarding animals we don't have to look far.

The very first set of G‑d-given commandments was actually not the famous Ten given at Sinai, but a group of seven.

Not George Orwell's Seven Commandments in Animal Farm, but the same amount given by G‑d to all of humanity at the dawn of civilization, called the Seven Noahide Laws.

You will find there, in the illustrious company of such fundamental and universal laws as the belief in G‑d and the forbiddance of murder and adultery, a law forbidding the practice of eating from live animals. Yes, concern for animal welfare!1

The Torah sought to ingrain in its adherents a sense of compassion towards animalsIn addition to banning cruel behavior to animals, itself a moral contribution ahead of its times, the Torah sought to ingrain in its adherents a sense of compassion towards animals.

This can be seen from the emphasis the Torah places on a particular act of our forefather Jacob, when he served as a shepherd. The Bible (Genesis 33:17) says that: "for his cattle he made sukkot [booths or huts]; therefore the name of the place is called Sukkot." Jacob cared for his animals and built sukkot to protect them from the elements. So remarkable was the sensitivity he showed his animals, and so important was this lesson for posterity, that an entire town was named after this deed!2

A Bad Hair Day

The following is a unique display of consideration for animals that was manifest in a puzzling detail of the Tabernacle's construction. Instead of first building walls and then a roof, G‑d commanded3 that the Tabernacle's covering first be built, followed by the walls.

But what's the point of creating a cover before there is anything to cover?4

The reason for this: Immediately upon being notified that G‑d had honored them with the building of His home, the Mishkan, the righteous women of Israel responded with zeal.

The verse states: "All the women whose hearts inspired them with wisdom spun the goats [to create the panels that would cover the Tabernacle]."

What is the meaning of this strange phrase, to "spin the goats"?

Rashi explains: "This was extraordinary craftsmanship, for they would spin [the panels using] the fleece on the backs of the goats, before it was shorn from them." (This acrobatic feat was performed in order to produce "live" fleece rather than "dead" fleece, considered a more advantageous offering.)

It turned out, though, that due to the women's enthusiasm being greater than the men's, the beams and sockets that would make up the walls would be longer in coming.

Beyond mere animal-compassion, the Torah demands that we place our animals even before ourselves!Thus, rather than leave the goats "dreadlocked" until the walls were made, the goat-hair was quickly shorn and the panels for the Tabernacle's roof immediately made, so as to minimize their discomfort (and restore their self-image).5

In addition: it turns out that beyond mere animal-compassion, the Torah demands that we place our animals even before ourselves!

Based on the order of the verse,6 "And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and [then] you shall eat and be satisfied," the Talmud7 derives the law that one is prohibited from eating before providing food for his or her animal.

Talk about animal rights.


On to the vegetable kingdom, called tzomeach.

A telling Biblical8 injunction prohibits soldiers from cutting down fruit trees when conducting a siege on an enemy city. Amazingly, we find that fruit-producing trees must be protected at all costs, even at the expense of an expedited military victory!

The extent of this mitzvah's importance is underscored by the words of Rabbi Chanina, a Talmudic sage, who declared that his son Shivchat actually died because he cut down a fig tree before its time; i.e., while it was still productive.9

The inorganic world, called domem, does not escape our consideration and respect, either.

A moving expression of this idea is found in the Biblical injunction: "You shall not ascend with steps upon my altar [rather build a ramp], so that your nakedness will not be uncovered upon it."

Rashi points out, "[There was] no actual exposure of nakedness, for it is written, 'And make for them linen pants,' nonetheless, taking wide steps [on stairs] is close to [appears to be] exposing nakedness, and treats the stones in a humiliating manner…"10

The inconvenience of a Holy Priest comes second to the dignity of a slab of lifeless stoneThus, we learn that the inconvenience of a Holy Priest, made to climb a ramp instead of steps while doing his sacred Temple duty, comes second to the dignity of a slab of lifeless stone.11

It's Alive!

Lest the Torah be confused with modern-day movements nobly promoting many of the rights outlined earlier, an important note is in order.

The Torah's basis and motive for advocating kindness and compassion towards non-humans is not fueled by self-interest, or the fear of our own delicate futures. ("If we don't take care of the planet today, tomorrow it won't be there to take care of us." Or, in the case of human rights efforts, "If we don't campaign for the freedom of all, one day we might lose our own.")

The Torah's concern stems rather from the fact that Judaism, as highlighted by Chassidic philosophy, maintains that there is a point of life, or "a spark of G‑d," in every aspect of creation. That spark is an extension of the Creator, and thus must be treated accordingly.

Rabbi Nissan Mangel, an author of note, was commissioned by the Rebbe to translate the Tanya into English. When it came to translating the word domem, he used the standard translation of "inanimate."

One of the major themes of Tanya (in Shaar haYichud v'haEmunah), however, is that in truth there is no such thing as something "inanimate," as everything contains a Divine spark.In truth there is no such thing as something "inanimate" The Rebbe edited his translation and replaced "inanimate" with "silent,"12 meaning to say that while there is life even in domem, an object in this realm is "silent" about it, concealing the inherent Divine spark it possesses. Rabbi Mangel, still wanting to maintain an elegant style, kept the word "inanimate" and placed the word "silent" nearby in brackets. When the Rebbe edited the translation for the final time, he removed the brackets around "silent" and placed them around "inanimate."

The word "inanimate" in that context wasn't just a misnomer, a technical misuse of a word; the difference between these two words touches on the essence of reality, on its Divine root and makeup.

It is this point of Divinity present in all of creation to which we pay tribute and respect, and for which we exhibit sensitivity and consideration.

In the final analysis, then, this is a testament to an ultimate truth and a foundation of our world: that at our core we all come from one Source, continue to be one, and can – and will one day – live as one.

So What?

"Now, if regarding these stones which do not have the intelligence to object to their humiliation, the Torah says, 'Do not treat them in a humiliating manner,' in the case of your fellow man, who was created in the image of your Creator, and cares about his humiliation, how much more so must you treat him with respect!" —Rashi


For example, the Bible forbids the muzzling of an ox (or any animal) when it is working in the field (Deuteronomy 25:4), because this causes the animal to suffer. The animal sees the grain but cannot eat it. Similarly, the Bible prohibits one from plowing a field with different species together (Deuteronomy 22:10). The reason is that different kinds of animals (the Bible's example is an ox and a donkey) do not work as a team, since one is bigger and stronger than the other and this causes undue suffering for them (see commentary of Ibn Ezra on this verse). Similarly, sending away the mother bird before taking its fledglings or eggs is explained by some to be a way of minimizing the pain of the mother bird (Deuteronomy 22:6).


The Talmud (Bava Metzia 85a) tells a story to explain why Rabbi Yehuda the Nasi, known as Rebbi, suffered for thirteen years with kidney stones and scurvy. (In fact, his pain was so great that his cries when he went to the bathroom were heard at a great distance.)
There was once a calf being taken to the slaughter. It went and hid its head under Rebbi's garment and cried. Rebbi said to it: "Go! For this you were created." They said [in Heaven]: "Since he has no pity, let us bring suffering upon him." The suffering departed because of another incident. One day, Rebbi's maidservant was sweeping the house. Some weasels had been cast there and she was about to sweep them away. Rebbi told her: "Leave them alone. It is written (Psalms 145:9): 'and His mercy is over all His works.'" They said [in Heaven]: "Since he is so compassionate, let us show compassion to him."


See Rashi on Exodus 38:22.


Based on a talk by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, published in Likutei Sichot volume 16. The Rebbe also gives another explanation, that if left on the goats until the Tabernacle's beams were ready, the hair would grow longer and could not be spun.


Berachot 40a.


Deuteronomy 20:19. The Talmud extends the prohibition of not destroying fruit trees to any type of wasteful destruction and considers wasteful destruction of any kind a violation of Torah law (Shabbat 129a; Bava Kama 91b). This is known as the principle of bal tashchit (literally "do not destroy"), a prohibition against unnecessary destruction or waste.


Talmud, ibid.


In fact, the lesson of this law is threefold: We must refrain from insensitive acts even when the other is unaware that he is being disrespected, and even when the offender does not mean to offend, and even when the offense is not full-fledged. See Likutei Sichot vol. 21, pg. 124.


Consider King David who suffered from a rare illness when he was old. His body and his clothing could not provide him with necessary warmth and he was always cold (Kings I 1:1-4). The Midrash says that King David contracted this unusual disease as a Divine punishment for cutting King Saul's garment years back. David covertly cut Saul's garment while the latter was relieving himself in order to prove to Saul that he could have killed him, had he so desired (I Samuel 24:5). The Talmud declares: "Whoever treats garments in a disgraceful manner will in the end derive no benefit from them" (Talmud, Berachot 62b).


As in the word of the verse (Leviticus 10:3), "Vayidom Aaron," ("And Aaron was silent").

Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson is the rabbi of Beit Baruch and executive director of Chabad of Belgravia, London, where he lives with his wife, Chana, and children.
Mendel was an editor at the Judaism Website—, and is also the author of the popular books Seeds of Wisdom and A Time to Heal.
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Rabbi Shmary Brownstein March 13, 2013

Those are indeed good questions. First of all, it is possible that even very religious people may do things that are not in the spirit of the Torah. But there is another important principle to bear in mind: the Torah is a guide to a life of balance. While we may devote our energies to eco-friendliness if we feel strongly about it, we are not required to make it an end in itself. Rather, we can weigh the relative benefits and costs of the practices you mention, such as the higher cost of organic food (which not everyone can afford), negligible health benefits as far as we can tell now, and that using only non-disposable dishware has its own environmental impact in terms of water and energy use. The Talmud teaches with regard to abstinence "What the Torah has prohibited should suffice for you." The Torah's requirements strike the right balance between sensitivity and making life difficult. Mixing of species has been determined by many rabbis not to include genetic modification. Reply

אריה Jerusalem, Israel via March 11, 2013

A critique '...a law forbidding the practice of eating from live animals. Yes, concern for animal welfare!' Animal rights movements' concern for animal welfare extends to a realm that, to date, kashrut and halacha has not. The mass factory production of animals, keeping them in detestable feedlots and cages, is a practice just as ubiquitous in the kosher meat industry as it is in the non-kosher industry. Moving on, the issue of the issue of being forbidden from cutting down fruit trees: it says right after that 'only a tree that you know is not a food tree, it may you destroy and cut down...'(Dt. 20:19). This does nothing to support the later claim in the essay that 'The Torah's basis and motive for advocating kindness and compassion towards non-humans is not fueled by self-interest, or the fear of our own delicate futures.' It contradicts it and demonstrates the degree to which this view is fundamentally (to which I take no qualm, but I'm just asking let's be honest here) anthropocentric. Reply

Anonymous March 9, 2013

respect for HaShem's creation Very Interesting to hear the Torah's innate environmental concern. Yet, how is it that Chasidism today pays no head to the use of organic foods(allowing immense amounts of pesticide poisons to pollute, non-GMO/genetically modified food (doesn't Torah specifically say not to mix the genes say of tomato and fish(which is any non organic tomato today.; incredible consumption of paper plates, plastic ware etc, along with throw away diapers etc etc. Reply

Moyshe Pennsylvania, USA March 7, 2013

Reply to Anonymous - LA, Ca “why is nakedness undignified to a stone? or to inanimate things? I never understood why Judaism is so careful about hiding nakedness even in private?”

los angeles, Cal.

The Torah could be called inanimate, yet it is disallowed to carry the Torah, or any other holy text, into a bathroom. The Torah must even be held a certain distance from a bad smell. The Star of David also is an inanimate object, yet it should not be treated with disrespect. No different then the way a flag of any country is treated even though it is inanimate.

The stone, created by Hashem, is endowed with an innate quality given to it by the same Supreme Being who gave you innate qualities. The stone has been used to build roads and bridges and homes and its contribution to humanity should be recognized and given appreciation and respect, for that is the quality Hashem imbued it with.

Just as it is disrespectful to appear naked before a Judge, so to is it disrespectful to appear naked before his bench. Both are the creation of G-d.

Anonymous los angeles, CA March 16, 2012

why is nakedness undignified to a stone? or to inanimate things? I never understood why Judaism is so careful about hiding nakedness even in private? Reply

Chava Aventura, Fl March 2, 2011

Ahavah I love this article, it is so beautiful. I think I should post it on my wall to remember respect for all things. Thank you for this. Reply

chaim sm, ca via March 1, 2011

great article this is really a good article. thank you rabbi mendel.

i wonder what the rest of the umbrella story was? very moving...

especially considering the fact that the Rebbe really did't approve of the need for an umbrellannn Reply

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