Judaism and Animal Rights


Although it is not well known, Judaism has very powerful teachings about the proper treatment of animals. If Jews took these teachings seriously, they would be among the strongest protesters of many current practices related to animals.

According to Judaism, animals are part of God’s creation and people have special responsibilities to them. The Jewish tradition clearly indicates that we are forbidden to be cruel to animals and that we are to treat them with compassion. These concepts are summarized in the Hebrew phrase tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, the Torah mandate not to cause “pain to any living creature.”

Psalms 104 and 148 show God’s close identification with the beasts of the field, creatures of the sea, and birds of the air. Sea animals and birds received the same blessing as people: “Be fruitful and multiply.” (Gen. 1:22) Animals were initially given a vegetarian diet, similar to that of people. (Gen. 1:29-30) The important Hebrew term nefesh chaya (a “living soul”) was applied in Genesis (1:21, 1:24) to animals as well as people. Although the Torah clearly indicates that people are to have “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth,” (Gen. 1-26) there was to be a basic relatedness, and the rights and privileges of animals were not to be neglected or overlooked. Animals are also God’s creatures, possessing sensitivity and the capacity for feeling pain; hence they must be protected and treated with compassion and justice.

God even made treaties and covenants with animals just as with humans:

“As for me,” says the Lord, “behold I establish My Covenant with you and with your seed after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the fowl, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you; of all that go out of the ark, even every beast of the earth.” (Gen. 9:0-10)

And in that day will I make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field and with the fowls of heaven and with the creeping things of the ground. And I will break the bow and the sword and the battle out of the land and I will make them to lie down safely. (Hos. 2:20)

Ecclesiastes considers the kinship between people and animals. Both are described as sharing the common fate of mortality:

For that which befalls the sons of men befalls beasts;
even one thing befalls them;
as the one dies, so dies the other;
yea, they all have one breath;
so that man has no preeminence above a beast;
for all is vanity.
All go to one place; all are of the dust.
Who knows the spirit of men whether it goes upward;
and the spirit of the beast whether it goes
downward to the earth? (Ecclesiastes 3:19-21)

God considered animals, as well as people, when he admonished Jonah

and should I not have pity on Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons… and also much cattle. (Jonah 4:11)

The Psalms indicate God’s concern for animals, for “His tender mercies are over all His creatures.” (Ps. 145:9) They picture God as “satisfying the desire of every living creature,” (Ps. 145:16) “providing food for the beasts and birds,” (Ps. 147:9) and, in general, “preserving both man and beast.” (Ps. 36:7)

God is depicted as providing each animal with the attributes necessary for survival in its environment. For example, the camel has a short tail so that its tail won’t become ensnared when it feeds upon thorns; the ox has a long tail so that it can protect itself from gnats when it feeds on the plains; the feelers of locusts are flexible so that they won’t be blinded by their feelers breaking against trees.

Perhaps the Jewish attitude toward animals is best summarized by the statement in Proverbs 12:10, “The righteous person regards the life of his beast.” This is the human counterpoint of “The Lord is good to all, and His tender mercies are over all His creatures.” (Ps. 145:9) In Judaism, one who is cruel to animals cannot be regarded as a righteous individual.

There are many Torah laws involving compassion to animals. An ox is not to be muzzled when threshing in a field of corn. (Deuteronomy 25:4) A farmer should not plow with an ox and an ass together (so that the weaker animal would not suffer pain in trying to keep up with the stronger one). (Deuteronomy 22:10) Animals, as well as people, are to be allowed to rest on the Sabbath day. (Exodus 20:10) The importance of this verse is indicated by its inclusion in the Ten Commandments and its recitation as part of kiddush on Shabbat mornings.

Based on the question of the angel of God to Balaam, “Wherefore has thou smitten thine ass?” (Numbers 22:32) the Talmud states that animals are to be treated humanely. Based on Deuteronomy 11:15, “And I will give grass in the fields for thy cattle and thou shall eat and be satisfied,” the Talmud teaches that a person should not eat or drink before first providing for his or her animals.

Rebecca was judged suitable to be Isaac’s wife because of her kindness in providing water to the camels of Eleazar, Abraham’s servant. Many great Jewish heroes were chosen because they showed kindness to animals. While Moses was tending the flock of Jethro in the wilderness, a kid ran away from him. He ran after the kid until it reached Hasuah. Upon reaching Hasuah, the kid came upon a body of water and began to drink. When Moses reached him he said, “I did not know that you were running because [you were]thirsty. You must be tired.” He placed the kid on his shoulder and began to walk. The Holy One, blessed be He, said, “You are compassionate in leading flocks belonging to mortals; I swear you will similarly shepherd my flock, Israel.” (Midrash Exodus Rabbah 2:2)

God deemed David worthy of leading the Jewish people because he, like Moses, tended his sheep with devotion, bestowing upon them the care each one needed. David used to prevent the larger sheep from going out before the smaller ones. The smaller ones were then able to graze upon the tender grass. Next he permitted the old sheep to feed on the ordinary grass, and finally the young, mature sheep consumed the tougher grass.

Consistent with Jewish teachings, animals cannot be equated with human beings. But, one need not believe that human beings and animals have the same value to protest against the extremely brutal treatment that animals are subjected to today. The insanity of current policies toward animals can be summarized as follows: First millions of animals are killed to protect our livestock. Then billions of animals are slaughtered for our food. As a result of our flesh-centered diets, millions of people contract degenerative diseases. Then millions of additional animals are tortured and killed seeking cures for these diseases, which people generally wouldn’t get in the first place if we had more sensible diets.

The following few examples show how far the realities for animals raised on modern factory farms are from the beautiful and compassionate Jewish teachings:

  • After being allowed to nurse for only 1 or 2 days, the veal calf is removed from his mother, with no consideration of his need for motherly nourishment, affection, and physical contact. The calf is locked in a small slotted stall without enough space to move around, stretch, or even lie down. To obtain the pale, tender veal desired by consumers, the calf is purposely kept anemic by giving him a special high-calorie, iron-free diet. The calf craves iron so much that he would lick the iron fittings on his stall and his own urine if permitted to do so; he is prevented from turning by having his head tethered to the stall. The stall is kept very warm and the calf is not given any water, so that he will drink more of his high-calorie liquid diet. The very unnatural conditions of the veal calf – his lack of exercise, sunlight, fresh air, proper food and water and any emotional stimulation – make for a very sick, anemic animal. The calf leaves his pen only when taken for slaughter; sometimes he drops dead from the exertion.
  • Chickens are raised for slaughter in long, windowless, crowded sheds, where they never see sunlight, breathe fresh air, or get any exercise. The results of these very unnatural conditions are feather-pecking and cannibalism. To avoid this, the lighting is kept very dim, the chickens are given special contact lenses, and more drastically, they are “de-beaked.” De-beaking involves cutting off part of the chicken’s beak with a hot knife while her head is held in a guillotine-like device, a very painful process.
  • In egg factories, newborn male chicks, since they are not useful to the egg industry, are tossed into plastic garbage bags, where they slowly suffocate by being buried under the bodies of other live chicks thrown in on top of them. When hens reach egg-laying age, they are crammed four to a wire cage the size of a record album cover. Crowding is so bad that the chickens cannot even stretch their wings. Sometimes cages sit on top of one another in tier fashion, with chicken excrement failing through the bottom of the cage onto the chickens in the cages below.
  • Beef cattle begin life in the pasture, but are then sold to factory farmers. There they are crowded into fenced feedlots or confined to warehouses with automated feed and waste removal systems. Exercise is minimized because it burns calories. Bulls are castrated to produce a more fatty, hence more expensive grade of meat. Cattle are also subjected to dehorning, a painful process to prevent them inflicting injuries in the very overcrowded feedlots.
  • To give as much milk as possible, dairy cows are mechanically impregnated every year. As with other farm animals, they are confined to the smallest space possible.


Fortunately, we generally do not have an “either-or” situation here; when we mistreat animals, we generally also worsen conditions for people and violate basic Jewish teachings. For example:

  • While Judaism mandates that we be very careful about preserving our health and our lives, flesh-centered diets have been linked to heart disease, several forms of cancer, and other diseases. This has been a major contributor to the increase in medical costs in the U.S. from $80 billion in 1970 to $1,060 billion in 1994 (from 6% of the U. S. GNP to 14%), and this has led to major budgetary problems from the national to the local levels, with the result that spending for many other human needs has had to be reduced.
  • While Judaism stresses that we are to share our bread with hungry people, 70% of the grain grown in the United States is fed to animals destined for slaughter, as 20 million people die annually because of hunger and its effects.
  • While Judaism teaches that “the earth is the Lord’s” and that we are to be partners with God in preserving the world and seeing that the earth’s resources are properly used, flesh-centered diets require the wasteful use of food, land, water, energy, and other resources, and result in much extensive soil depletion and erosion, air and water pollution related to the widespread production and use of pesticides, fertilizer, and other chemicals, and the destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats.
  • While Judaism stresses that we must seek and pursue peace and that violence results from unjust conditions, flesh centered diets, by wasting valuable resources, help to perpetuate the widespread hunger and poverty that eventually lead to instability and war.


In view of its strong message of concern for animals, one might wonder why Judaism doesn’t advocate vegetarianism. Actually, the first dietary law in the Torah is vegetarian:

And God said: “Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed – to you it shall be for food.” (Gen. 1:29)

Later, permission to eat meat was given as a concession to people’s weakness, but with many restrictions (the laws of kashrut). Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, one of the greatest Jewish philosophers of the 20th century, and the first chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, believed that these many dietary constraints imply a reprimand, and are designed to keep alive a sense of reverence for life so that people would eventually return to vegetarian diets.

Rabbi Kook believed that the future Messianic period will be vegetarian. He based this on the words of Isaiah (11:69): “…the wolf will dwell with the lamb…the lion will eat straw like the ox…and no one shall hurt or destroy in all of God’s holy mountain.”

In view of the strong Jewish mandates to be compassionate to animals, preserve health, help feed the hungry, protect the environment, and seek and pursue peace, and the very negative effects flesh-centered diets have in each of these areas, many committed Jews have decided to switch to vegetarian diets.

What about the Temple animal sacrifices? According to Maimonides, these were a concession to the primitive conditions in Biblical times. Since sacrifices were the universal expression of religion in that period, if Moses had tried to eliminate them, his mission would probably have failed and Judaism would have disappeared. However, animal sacrifices were confined to one central location and the then common human sacrifices and idolatrous practices of the neighboring pagan peoples were eliminated. The prophets often spoke of sacrifices as an abomination to God if not carried out along with deeds of loving kindness and justice. After the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis stated that sacrifices should be replaced by prayer and good deeds. Rav Kook believed that there will only be non-animal sacrifices in the Messianic period when the Temple is rebuilt.

In summary, there is much in Judaism that mandates that animals be treated kindly. It is essential that this message become widely known and practiced in order to end the horrendous conditions under which so many animals currently exist.

Further information on Jewish views on animals, health, and vegetarianism may be obtained from:

  1. Berman, Louis, Vegetarianism and the Jewish Tradition. New York: Ktav, 1962. A comprehensive review of connections between Judaism and vegetarianism.
  2. Kalechofsky, Roberta. Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb. Marblehead, Massachusetts: Micah Publications, 1985. Valuable material for conducting a vegetarian Passover seder.
  3. Kalechofsky, Roberta. Judaism and Animals Rights — Classical and Contemporary Responses. Marblehead, Massachusetts: Micah publications, 1992. A wide variety of articles on animal rights, vegetarianism, animal experimentation, from the perspective of Judaism.

Republished with permission from The Schwartz Collection on Judaism, Vegetarianism, and Animal Rights

Featured image: “Rebecca and Eleazar,” by Alexandre Cabanel (1883) / cropped

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About Author

Richard H. Schwartz is a Ph.D. Professor Emeritus at the College of Staten Island. Author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, Mathematics and Global Survival, Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet, and over 250 articles at JewishVeg.org/schwartz He is also President Emeritus of Jewish Veg, formerly Jewish Vegetarians of North America; President, Society Of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV); and Associate Producer of A SACRED DUTY. Click to see author's profile.

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