When Hannah Elzer was planning her bat mitzvah at the Reform Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita, there was no question that her theme would involve animals. She’d known what it would be since she was 10 years old.
“I always had a really strong connection and love of animals and nature,” said Hannah, now 16. “I really wanted to convey the message that we are all a part of the Earth, and that animals have homes here, too. When we build and expand, we sometimes take that away.”
The Jewish relationship with animals is long and complicated: When Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, they ate only plant-based foods, though there were plenty of animals around (Genesis 1:29-31).
“What does God say? To eat vegetarian, or even, you might say, vegan, because it doesn’t say you can take milk from cows or eggs from chickens,” explained Rabbi Ahud Sela of Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge. “[The French rabbi] Rashi, in the 12th century, had already recognized that this probably was the ideal state.”
But in Parashat Noach, the story of Noah and the flood, which is read this month, things change. After the flood, God states: “Every moving thing that liveth shall be for food for you; as the green herb have I given you all. Only flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat” (Genesis 9:3-4).
This concession was conditional in that the consumption of flesh with a creature’s blood in it was forbidden; blood was considered to have a creature’s nefesh (life) in it. Sela said that rabbis have viewed this prohibition as implying respect for the principle of life.
Animals figure prominently throughout portions of Jewish literature and history, from the tale of Noah to animal sacrifice to dietary laws.
“Whether it was the dove that brought the olive branch to Noah, signifying land and hope of salvation and peace, or the fact that Jacob, Moses and David were all shepherds, animals and nature are extremely relevant to Judaism,” Hannah said. “I feel the Torah places huge stress on proper treatment for animals.”
So, what’s the deal with Judaism and animals? Sela said tradition teaches us to be concerned about the pain that animals feel. In the Torah, we are commanded to provide animals with care and respect. Working animals are to be granted rest on Shabbat, just like humans, and an owner is commanded to feed and water his animals before he feeds himself. “It’s just like a baby,” Sela said. “How do we treat someone who is under our [stewardship]?”
Even the consumption of animals is regulated by Jewish law. Humane slaughter is one rule that helps prevent the unnecessary suffering of animals. Shechitah, or kosher slaughter, has strict guidelines designed to protect the animal’s wellbeing and that of the consumer.
In modern times, some synagogues, such as Temple Beth Ami, have created a special service for animals. Typically, the service coincides with the reading of the story of Noah, and congregants and their furry/feathery/fishy family members come together for a blessing.
Why go to such an extent to protect the animals around us? Hannah has her own ideas.
“If you were to hurt a poor, defenseless creature, then you would probably treat your fellow man the same way and be a bad person,” she said. “I’ve always been connected to animals in that sense — that if I can treat people with respect, that respect should extend to all of God’s creations.”