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Question 11.8.3:
Sacrifices: How do sacrifices relate to compassion for animals?


It is difficult to understand how one reconciles the fact sacrifices were demanded in the temple and animals had to slaughtered for G-d, with the requirements for compassion for animals (for example, resting on Shabbat, freeing the mother bird, and helping an overloaded animal). First, note that although animal sacrifices were required, they were not to appease a meat-eating god. This is because in Judaism, G-d is incorporeal and does not eat.

While it is true that there are clear expectations in regard to proper treatment of animals (the hebrew term is "tzar baalei chaim", a prohibition from causing pain to living creatures), it is also true that the Torah approves of human use of animals. In fact, there are detailed laws on how to kill an animal to eat it. If asked to describe the Torah's expectations for our treatment of animals (and in fact for the whole environment), one could summarize them as follows:

The world and everything on it was created for humankind's spiritual growth. Specifically, we are expected to use the physical world to enable and develop our spiritual side. That is, some physical acts we do so that we continue to exist, which enables us to continue doing spiritual acts. Other physical acts we do for their intrinsic spiritual value. Often we try to merge the two: taking an act which we must do in order to exist, and infuse it with some intrinsic spiritual value (e.g., we eat in order to live, but as Jews we do much to change the way we eat [blessings, the kosher laws, etc.] to make even eating a spiritual act). We therefore have a responsibility to use the physical world appropriately. When we use a physical object for spiritual purposes, it suffuses that object with spirituality. That is to say: humans achieve spirituality through their choices, we have free will and our choices matter, and the rest of the physical world achieves spirituality by how it is used by human beings.

To use an animal in the development of spirituality (by offering it on an altar, or by eating it as part of a holiday celebration) is good both for us and for the animal: it makes the creation of that animal meaningful. Additionally, the Torah recognized the human capacity for personification. Humans who treat animals cruelly develop their capacity for cruelty to other humans as well. Humans who treat animals kindly develop their capacity to treat humans kindly.

There are thus two considerations in evaluating a human's use of an animal:

  1. Is it truly useful (preferably in a directly spiritual sense, but at least in a spiritualy enabling sense)
  2. Does it develop the human capacity for kindness or for cruelty.

For those interested in this subject, some references for further reading are: Talmud Baba Metzia 32a-b and 85a; Talmud Shabbat 128b; Maimonides, Laws of Shabbat, 25:26; Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah 451; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 223 (very end); Responsa Noda B'yehuda Vol1, Yoreh Deah, 10; Responsa Yechava Daat 3:66; and Responsa Igrot Moshe Even Haezer 4, 92:3. For information on vegetarianism, compare the verses in Genesis 1:29-30 with Genesis 9:3-4, and then see the Talmud Sanhedrin 59b and Olat HaRiyah Vol 1 p 292.

The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

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