For ages past, one obvious difference between Jew and non-Jew has been the Jew’s repugnance for “blood” sports such as hunting and bullfighting. When the Torah writes that, “Eisav was a man of the hunt while Yaakov sat in tents,” this is a description of a major spiritual chasm that existed and continues to exist between Jews and many civilizations.
In addition to the Jews’ distinguished aptitude towards mercy, bashfulness, and loving kindness (Yevamos 79a), the Torah also legislates constant performance of deeds of chesed and mercy.
This includes many halachos of dealing kindly with animals and the general prohibition against tzaar baalei chaim – to avoid animal suffering.
While most Rishonim agree that the general injunction of tzaar baalei chaim often discussed in the Gemara (e.g., Berachos 32b) is Torah mandated, its actual source is by no means clear. Rashi (Shabbos 128b) learns it from the command to help someone unload his donkey, the Meiri derives it from the prohibition against muzzling an ox while it threshes grain, and the Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 3:17) and Sefer Chassidim (666) say it is learnt from the angel reprimanding Bilam, “Why did you hit your donkey?” The Chasam Sofer (Bava Metzia 36b hagahos) adds that this prohibition is also alluded to in the verse, “His mercies are on all His creations.”
Other halachos related to animal welfare are the command to allow one’s animal to rest on Shabbos, the prohibition against harnessing an ox and a donkey to haul a plow or load, slaughtering a mother animal and its calf on the same day, and feeding one’s animal before oneself. Indeed, Hashem chose to lead Klal Yisroel because of His compassionate care for his fl ock (Shemos Rabah 2:2). Whether these halachos are based upon actual concern for animal suffering or upon the Torah’s opposition to cruel behavior that leads to evil midos is beyond the scope of this article.
All this led to a vast moral rift between Jews and most of their neighboring societies. Indeed, the trend in many societies including the Western World was not only to not legislate against cruelty, but even to glorify brutality in the hunt and other cruel sports such as bear baiting, cock fighting, and bull tournaments, entertainments that make a Jew’s blood run cold. As the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 18b) comments on the verse (Tehillim 1:1), “Happy is the man… who did not stand in the way of the wicked,” “This is a person who did not stand at a kangayon (hunting animals with dogs).”
The Church, ostensibly responsible for Western society’s moral guidance, was generally indifferent to animals’ treatment and suffering. The most famous Catholic edict forbidding hunting expressly applies only to clerics, stating that, “We forbid to all servants of God hunting and expeditions through the woods with hounds; and we also forbid them to keep hawks or falcons.” Everyone else was free to torment animals as they pleased.
A number of seventeenth and eighteenth century responsa specifically addressed the subject of hunting, all of them emphasizing that that this sport emphatically opposes the Jewish attribute of compassion. Rav Shaul Ha- Levi Mortira of Amsterdam writes, “Hunting is in imitation of cruel kings who trap and kill animals, mercilessly driving dogs onto them. Therefore, our Torah forbids it as it leads to cruelty. The Torah is so stringent regarding this that Hashem commands us to cover the blood of wild animals and birds… as if we spilt innocent blood that needs to be covered.”
Most famous of these responsa is that of Rav Yechezkel Landau (Noda BiYehuda, Yoreh De’ah 2:10), written to the learned Rav Gumfricht Oppenheim, a wealthy Viennese Jew who was always ready to help Jews in need.
The Noda BiYehuda begins by summing up Oppenheim’s question: “I received your letter and although I do not know you personally, since you have sent me a question and write in a learned style, I am ready to answer all… questions. The basis of your query concerns a certain person whom Hashem granted to acquire a large estate with villages and forests that have many wild animals. Is he permitted to go himself to shoot and hunt them, or is it forbidden for a Jew to do such a thing, either because of tzaar baalei chaim or because of bal tashchis?
The Noda BiYehuda concludes that it is permitted to kill animals for human benefi t and that there is also no problem of bal tachshis if one benefi ts from the hides. However, he forbids hunting if danger is involved, citing Eisav’s rationale for selling the birthright, “Behold, I am going to die.” According to the Ramban, Eisav meant that, “He was going to die while hunting animals and would likely die during his father’s lifetime.”
The Noda BiYehuda also raises moral objections.
“So far we have spoken from the viewpoint of halacha,” the writes. “However, I am very surprised about the actual happening, as we do not find hunters except among types like Nimrod and Eisav. This is not the way of the children of Avrohom, Yitzchok, and Yaakov.”
In support of this stance, he cites the opinion of Rav Yaakov Weil (Mahariyo) cited by the Rama (O.C. 223) regarding someone who buys new clothes: “The custom is to say to someone who wears a new garment, ‘May it wear out and may you buy a new one.’ However, one person [the Mahariyo] wrote that one should not say this over shoes or clothes made of leather because if so, there would be a need to kill another animal beforehand in order to produce a new garment, and the verse states, ‘His mercies are on all his creatures.’”
“If so,” remonstrates the Noda BiYehuda, “How can a Jew kill animals with his hands for no other purpose than to have a good time while hunting.” After reaching this conclusion, the Noda BiYehuda cites a relevant Daf (Sanhdedrin 2a) that seems to indicate that it is not only permitted to kill wild animals but even a mitzvah, since they might harm people: “The wolf, the lion, the bear, the leopard, the bardelas, and the snake, are judged with [a beis din of] twenty-three. Rabbi Eliezer says, ‘Whoever kills them fi rst merits [a mitzvah].” In response to this, the Noda BiYehudah argues that we do not rule like Rabbi Eliezer, and even he is only speaking of a case where the animal already killed someone. The Noda BiYehuda sums up that hunting involves “an evil character trait – namely cruelty, also a prohibition and danger. In addition, a person’s sins are mentioned [when he puts himself in danger]. Therefore, whoever listens to me, will dwell in security at home and not waste his time on such matters.”
All this halachic concern about hunting and cruelty is in radical contrast to the Western World where legislation against animal maltreatment was virtually unheard of until the nineteenth century. One of the first people to try and rectify this situation was Lord Thomas Erskine, an English eccentric who loved animals to the extent of keeping two pet leeches in gratitude for their having bled him free of a fever. He tried to push through an animal rights bill in 5569/1809, arguing that man’s dominion over animals must be tempered by moral responsibility.
“Animals are considered as property only,” he criticized. “To destroy or to abuse them, from malice to the proprietor, or with an intention injurious to his interest in them, is criminal. But the animals themselves are without protection. The law regards them not substantively. They have no rights! … I am to ask your Lordships, in the name of that God who gave to Man his dominion over the lower world, to acknowledge and recognize that dominion to be a moral trust.”
Although initially accepted in the English House of Commons, the bill’s reading in the House of Lords was drowned out by catcalls and cock crowing. After another Englishman, Colonel Richard Martin, succeeded in passing an “Ill Treatment of Horses and Cattle Bill” in 5581/1821, his unusual attitude became the butt of merriment as evidenced by the following doggerel poem of his times:
“If I had a donkey wot wouldn’t go, D’ ye think I’d wollop him? No, no, no! “But gentle means I’d try, d’ ye see, Because I hate all cruelty. “If all had been like me, in fact, There’d ha’ been no occasion for Martin’s Act.”
Like animal affectionates of our time, the concern of Thomas Erskine and Richard Martin for animals ran to an extreme. Shortly after passing his bill, Erskine personally directed a case against Bill Burns who was accused of brutally beating his donkey, and when he felt that the jurors were not relating to the novel case with sufficient gravity, he had the donkey hauled into the courtroom so that they could witness its wounds firsthand with their own eyes.
Two years after that, he was present at the opening of the world’s fi rst SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) in London. While this and similar organizations were a big step forward in the lessening of cruelty, they unfortunately have a trend of swinging the pendulum too far in the opposite direction and demanding animal rights equal to or even more than those of man. Without Torah wisdom, it is nigh impossible to detect the point where caring excessively for animals leads to the mistreatment of human beings.
An extreme example of this movement is the “Animal Liberal Front” founded in Great Britain, whose less violent activities include slashing tires and breaking windows in protest of hunting in what they coin “active compassion.” Presently active in thirty- eight countries, this group has described itself as a “nonviolent guerrilla organization dedicated to the liberation of animals from all forms of cruelty and persecution at the hands of mankind.” Only Torah wisdom can draw the line between the mistreatment of animals and the mistreatment of human beings.