One of the most morally formative memories from my early childhood is watching my father carefully follow a stray fly in our house with a cup, taking great care so as not to hurt our winged visitor. After catching the fly, he would gently slide a piece a paper underneath the cup and proceed outside to release the fly back to its home. The principle of compassion for all living creatures was thus deeply engrained into my psyche from a tender age.
Our connection and responsibility to our fellow animals is a profoundly Jewish concept, finding its origins as far back as the Torah and later developing through rabbinic texts and modern groups and organizations. The Biblical account of Genesis describes the creation of animals preceding that of human beings and portrays the original and ideal universal diet as a solely plant-based one (e.g. Gen. 1:29). The concession to a carnivorous diet was only a post-flood development, when G-d saw humanity could not live up to the Divine’s original ideal of vegetarianism and sought to quench and contain some of humanity’s more animalistic urges.
Animals are even the prime focus of one of our festivals. The Mishna designates four distinct annual new years, including, fittingly, a New Year for domesticated animals, which takes place at the beginning of the current new month of Elul. While the original practice around the new year for the domesticated animals was a Temple-based ritual of selecting which domestic animals were ready to be tithed, today’s celebration of this lesser-known festival has broader implications and offers us new ethical and spiritual opportunities to connect with other animals and affirm our connection to the whole of creation.
This relationship is foundational to biblical morality. Animals greatly outnumbered the count of human passengers aboard Noah’s ark, and the civil Seven Noahide Laws—which, according to the Talmud, G-d commanded Noah and his family—include an explicit prohibition against the savage practice of ripping a limb from a live animal. This particular Noahide law is echoed later in Leviticus and Deuteronomy in the negative commandments not to eat an animal with its blood. (In fact, the percentage of animal-related laws from the Seven Noahide laws corresponds proportionally to the percentage of laws among the Torah’s 613 total commandments concerning animals—roughly 14% of each of the total laws.)
Traditionally, the new month of Elul marks our count-down to the approaching Jewish new year and heralds in the season of heshbon ha-nefesh—taking stock of our souls and our actions through intense introspection and repentance. But as the Jewish New Year for animals, Elul is also the perfect opportunity for us to prepare ourselves for the coming new year through refining and improving our relationships with those with souls around us, perhaps beginning specifically with those most dependent on us for their welfare—domesticated animals. Elul affords us the opportunity to reflect on our relationship with animals and even to confess, as contemporary writer Trisha Arlin has beautifully invited us to do, with her new blessing, “We Confess (for Rosh HaShanah LaBehema/Rosh Chodesh Elul).”
Throughout traditional High Holiday liturgy, G-d is often imagined as a shepherd, and the pastoral metaphor becomes all the more potent and poignant when we consider our own animals for whom we are directly responsible as well as our shared fate with all living creatures. As Jacques Derrida explains in The Animal that Therefore I Am, our call to compassion for all living creatures stems from our shared experience of mortality with vulnerability, recalling a similar sentiment in Ecclesiastes 3:19-20:
For there is a happening for the children of men, and there is a happening for the beasts—and they have one happening—like the death of this one is the death of that one, and all have one spirit, and the superiority of man over beast is nought, for all is vanity.
All go to one place; all came from the dust, and all return to the dust.
Especially affecting are the animal-based images of G-d and ourselves sprinkled throughout Biblical literature to convey love. For example, in Deut. 32:11, G-d is described vis-à-vis Israel “as an eagle awakens its nest, hovering over its fledglings, it spreads its wings, taking them and carrying them on its pinions.”
Rabbinic commentators similarly imply a kinship between humanity and other living creatures, pointing to other animals’ instincts and actions as not only similar to our own, but sometimes even embodying model behavior which we should strive to emulate. In his commentary on Genesis, Nahmanides accounts for the original plant-based diet proscribed in the first chapter of Genesis by describing how animals possess animating souls and certain spiritual capacities, thus making daily decisions which affect their safety and welfare. In the Talmud (BT Eruvin 100b), Rabbi Yochanan declares, “Had the Torah not been given, we would have (still) learned modesty from the cat, [the prohibition against] stealing from the ant, [the prohibition against] forbidden relations from the dove, and good behavior from the rooster.”
Elul, then, is the perfect time to remember our symbiotic relationship with animals—what we have to offer them, and what they, in turn, can teach us. In pondering the challenging questions of theodicy, Job turns to fellow animals: “But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you” (Job 12:7). Today, we are blessed by burgeoning Jewish interest and commitment to animal rights, whether through the explosion of literature dedicated to the topic or through the rapid growth of Jewish environmental and animal welfare organizations (such as Adamah, Chai Online, Grow and Behold, Hazon, Jewish Farm School, Jewish Initiative for Animals, Jewish Vegetarians of North America, and the Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, to name just a few). These groups are invested in a more agriculturally-mindful form of Jewish living and learning and help promote animal rights and integrity from a Jewish perspective.
Elul is an ideal moment to direct our attention towards these initiatives, and ensure that methods used in the processing and production of the food and clothing we consume do not involve unnecessary cruelty to animals. When we blast the shofar throughout the month of Elul, let us heed the plaintive, visceral cry of those we might not see directly before us, including and especially our fellow living creatures.
Rabbi Raysh Weiss is the spiritual leader of Shaar Shalom Congregation in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She holds a PhD in Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.