During the great flood, Noah and his family were kept busy feeding all the animals in the ark. The Talmud1 recounts that Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, asked of Shem, Noah’s son, how they were able to take care of all of the animals and give them individual attention, given that the habits and needs of different species of animals are so divergent.

[Shem] replied: “We had much trouble in the ark. The animals that are usually fed by day we fed by day, and those normally fed by night we fed by night. But my father did not know what was the food of the chameleon.2 One day he was sitting and cutting up a pomegranate, when a worm dropped out of it, which [the chameleon] consumed. From then onward he mashed up bran, and when it became wormy, it devoured it . . .”

Midrash Tanchuma3 tells that one day Noah was late in feeding the lion. As a result, the lion struck Noah, and he became permanently crippled.4

Maharimat5 explains that Noah was commanded to feed the animals in the proper times. As the verse says:6 “And you, take for yourself of every food that is eaten and gather it in to you, and it shall be for you and for them to eat.” Because on this occasion he did not fulfill this command, he was punished.

In fact, the Torah commands every person to ensure his animals are fed—and in the proper time. Actually, we are commanded to feed our animals before we eat ourselves. The Talmud7 derives this from the verse,8 “And I will give grass in your field for your livestock”—and only thereafter “and you will eat and be sated.”

What follows is a digest of laws that pertain to feeding animals.

Feeding Animals before Eating

Righteous men have always sought to observe the precept of feeding animals before themselves. It is told that Rabbi Aharon Rokeach, the Belzer Rebbe of righteous memory, would purchase (or at least become a part owner of) a horse, just so he could observe this mitzvah. Before eating, he would often check to see that the animal was taken care of.9

Some say that feeding one’s animals before eating is a Torah obligation.10 Others say that it is a rabbinic mitzvah (that is merely “supported” by the verse from Deuteronomy quoted above).11 Still others maintain that it’s a pious practice, not an outright obligation.12

The Reasons:

Several reasons have been suggested:

  1. It is cruel to eat while the animals that depend on us for sustenance are hungry.13
  2. We must emulate G‑d’s ways. Concerning G‑d it is written,14 “And His mercy is upon all His creatures”; so we, too, show our mercy to animals.15
  3. The Midrash16 suggests that an entire society might be receiving rain, sustenance, etc., in the merit of the animals. The humans may have sinned to the extent that they do not deserve such blessings, yet G‑d continues to bestow them in the merit of their animals, which committed no sin. Since our food might actually be in the merit of our animals, it’s only fair that they should be fed first.17

Which Animals?

  • This rule applies to all animals, birds and fish in one’s possession that are dependent on their owner for food.18
  • This rule does not apply to animals that belong to another,19 or if they are ownerless. Nevertheless, if one encounters a hungry animal, it is proper to feed it, unless that will cause the animal to continually return for more.20

More Details:

  • One need not necessarily feed his animals before his every meal; some animals only require one feeding a day. The rule simply means that if the animals’ mealtime has arrived, one may not eat before they are fed.21
  • Similarly, if the animals are hungry, the owners must feed them even if they are not yet eating. This falls under the general prohibition against causing pain to animals. Thus, one must feed his animals even on a fast day.22 In fact, it was the custom of some righteous men to personally feed their animals on Yom Kippur, to elicit divine mercy.23
  • If one recited a blessing on his food and then realized that he has not yet fed the animals, he may interrupt—before taking a bite—and instruct someone to feed the animals24—this although it is generally forbidden to speak between the blessing and actually eating.25
  • There is disagreement between halachic authorities whether the rule applies to snacking too. Taz26 holds that it is forbidden only to have a full meal before feeding the animals, whereas snacking is permissible.27 Magen Avraham28, however, holds that one may not even have a taste of food before feeding the animals.29
  • Sefer Chassidim30 says that it is permissible to drink before one’s animals. He proves this from the story of Rebecca and Eliezer—where the Torah says that Rebecca gave Eliezer to drink first, and only afterwards did she fill the trough for the camels. Similarly, when Moses drew water from the rock, it says:31 “An abundance of water gushed forth, and the congregation and their livestock drank”—implying that the people drank before the animals.32

To conclude with a fascinating story: The holy Arizal once mentioned to one of his students that he had a “mark” on his face as a result of the sin of causing pain to animals. Upon investigating, this Torah scholar found out that instead of feeding their chickens in the morning, his wife would let them forage for their own food. When he corrected this, the Arizal remarked that the mark on his forehead was gone.33

Feeding Animals Non-Kosher Food

One may feed animals non-kosher food, unless the food contains a mixture of meat34 and milk that were cooked together.35 Therefore, one should ascertain that pet foods do not contain such a mixture.

Chametz on Passover

As it is forbidden to benefit from chametz (leavened bread or grain) on Passover, one needs to find suitable non-chametz foods for one’s animals. Check your local (or online) Kosher for Passover food list to find out which pet foods are acceptable.

Feeding Animals on Shabbat & Holidays

On Shabbat and major Jewish holidays, it is forbidden to feed stray animals.36 Stray dogs are an exception to this rule, due to their limited food sources.37 Some extend this allowance to include any animal that is actually starving.38

For this reason, it is better not to feed birds on Shabbat Shirah39 (the Shabbat when we read the Song of the Sea as part of the Torah reading), despite the common custom to do so.40 Similarly, one should not feed the fish when reciting Tashlich on Rosh Hashanah, despite the popular custom to do so,41 though some justify this custom.42

Feeding Animals Human Food

It is forbidden to feed animals food that is fit for human consumption, as this is seen as a degradation of the food, and akin to showing contempt for the bounty that G‑d has given us.43 Eliyah Rabah44 questions whether this is the actual halachah, or just one opinion expressed in the Talmud. Some permit the feeding of human food to one’s own animal, but not to someone else’s.45

If the food is leftover and will otherwise be discarded, it is certainly permitted to feed it to animals.46