Animal suffering vs. human needs

The three determining rules in cases of a conflict between human needs and animal suffering * Cruelty versus mild suffering * Animals possessing developed senses versus those with less * Domestic animals versus wild animals.

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Rabbi Eliezer Melamed,

מצווה. הרב מלמד
מצווה. הרב מלמד
פלאש 90

The Rules of Cruelty to Animals

I received several questions and responses following my column on cruelty to animals, and I learned something from each response. From most of them, I learned about the various questions bothering people, and from the hateful responses, I learned just how distorted people’s ethics and thoughts can become – some even reaching heights of evil – as a result of a distorted moral viewpoint.

In order to answer the majority of the questions, I would like to emphasize that the essential rule in this issue is that it requires a balance between two values. On the one hand, the needs of man precede those of animals, as the Torah says: “God said to them: Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the land and conquer it. Dominate the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every beast that walks the land” (Genesis 1:28).

After this, the sons of Noah were permitted to eat the flesh of animals, as it is written: “There shall be a fear and dread of you instilled in all the wild beasts of the earth, and all the birds of the sky, in all that will walk the land, and in all the fish of the sea. I have placed them in your hands. Every moving thing that lives shall be to you as food. Like plant vegetation I have now given you everything” (Genesis 9: 2-3).

On the other hand, it is a mitzvah to try as best as possible not to afflict animals and not to treat them cruelly. Therefore, when the sons of Noah were permitted to eat meat, the Torah forbade eating ‘eiver min ha’chai’ (a limb torn from a live animal) because of the cruelty it entails.

In practice, when there is a conflict between human needs and the goal of not causing suffering to animals, one must weigh the necessity of man versus the suffering caused to the animal. For example, eating meat is essential for humans, and ritual slaughter causes animals’ minimal suffering, therefore it is permissible to slaughter them. But when it comes to a less vital need for man, or when the need causes the animals’ great suffering, the question is more complex. The halakhic ruling is determined by weighing three basic rules:

The First Rule: Levels of Suffering

There are different levels of suffering: great and terrible suffering, great suffering, and ordinary suffering. Great and terrible suffering is forbidden, just as the Torah forbade eating a limb torn from a live animal. However, in very rare cases, and for highly essential purposes, it is permissible to cause great and terrible suffering to animals, such as the decree to “sterilize” horses (to cut off their feet above their hooves) which were bought in a market of idolatry (Avodah Zara 13a).

Great suffering: Our Sages taught that if a beast fell into an aqueduct on Shabbat and there was no way of feeding it there and consequently it would starve, since this is considered great suffering, it is permitted to violate ‘issurei d’rabanan’ (prohibitions of the Sages) in order to extricate it. But if the beast can be fed there, although it is suffering, since this is not considered a great suffering, one must wait until Shabbat is over, and then extricate it (Shabbat 128b).

Normal suffering: For the purpose of one’s livelihood and other uses of man, it is permissible to cause some suffering to animals, including burdening them with loads, and riding horses with bridles that cause them some pain. When necessary, it is even permissible to cause them great suffering for the purpose of earning a living, such as training a horse by using a whip, or loading heavy cargoes onto beasts of burden.

The Second Rule: Categories of Animals

Animals are divided into different categories; the more developed the species, the more suffering it feels, and thus, the more careful we must be in dealing with it. The level of development is measured by the brain and nervous system. In mammals such as dogs, beasts, monkeys and dolphins, these systems are relatively developed and therefore feelings of sorrow and joy can be discerned in such animals, they can be even be taught certain things, the mother animal recognizes her children, and takes care of them compassionately. There are also differences between the species of mammals. For example, a dog is more developed than a lamb and thus is more capable of expressing certain emotions, and when afflicted, its suffering is greater. On a lower level of the mammal family are birds; beneath them are reptiles, such as lizards; then fish, and on the lowest level, insects.

Therefore, for example, when a person has to get rid of mice from his house, when possible, it is best to hound them out or kill them quickly, in order to minimize their suffering. But when a person needs to get rid of insects from his home, he can kill them in any manner whatsoever and without hesitation, since their feelings are weaker.

One of the main reasons for the mitzvah of ‘shechita‘ (ritual slaughter) is based on this rule. Therefore, we are commanded to slaughter mammals with two ‘simanim‘ (physical signs), which is the easiest form of death; for birds whose feelings are less sensitive – we are obligated to slaughter them with only one ‘siman‘; for fish and grasshoppers who are even less sensitive – there is no mitzvah of ‘shechita’, rather, they can be killed in the most convenient way for man. In that vein, when scientific research is required when possible, it is preferable to perform it on a species that is less sensitive.

The Third Rule: Assisting Man

The more a beast or animal assists a person, the more compassionately and fairly it should be treated. Therefore, the Torah commanded us to help a donkey who had collapsed under its’ burden (Exodus 23: 5), and not to muzzle a beast, thus preventing it from eating while working (Deuteronomy 25: 4). Consequently, it is more fitting to have mercy on domesticated animals, such as cows, goats, sheep, and chickens, as well as dogs that help guard, and cats that get rid of snakes and mice from one’s house (She’elat Yavetz, 1:110).

On a lower level than this is our treatment of wild animals, which we are not commanded to feed; nevertheless, it is a ‘midat chasidut’(pious act) to treat them kindly and with compassion, and for this purpose the poskim (Jewish law arbiters) even permitted one to take pains on Shabbat to give his leftover food to abandoned animals (Aruch Ha’Shulchan 324:2-3; M.B. 31).

The Importance of Animal Life

Q: Rabbi, you wrote that following the ban on the force-feeding of geese, geese have become virtually extinct in Israel. Should this be a consideration? What does it matter to a goose how many other geese there are? All it cares about is not being caused to suffer!

A: The basic principle is that subsistence and life are good and positive things. For this purpose, all animals are willing to suffer greatly, chasing all their lives after food and water, and fleeing predators. Therefore, as long as the geese subsist under conditions that are not horrible and threatening, it is preferable.

Regarding man, who possesses awareness and responsibility, a dispute ensued between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel: “The former asserting that it were better for man not to have been created than to have been created, and the latter maintaining that it is better for man to have been created than not to have been created” (Eruvin 13b). Whereas animals, by their very survival, are happy – their only instinctive concern is to subsist, with no additional considerations. Unless, of course, they are caused great and terrible suffering, in which case, perhaps they would prefer to die. 

The Killing of Male Chicks

Q: Is it permissible to kill male chicks only because they are of no use? Particularly, since they are brutally and cruelly exterminated by shredding or by gas?

A: If male chicks are not in demand because the price of handling them is higher than the price farmers can get for their meat, they are permitted to be killed, because the growers are not duty-bound to feed the chicks until their final day without receiving any financial gain from them. And although this manner of killing them seems harsh, in truth, it is not cruel, because cruelty to animals is measured by the degree of suffering they feel, and the act of killing itself – if done quickly, or with gas used to induce unconsciousness and then death, there is almost no suffering.

Is the Killing of Animals Prohibited?

Moreover, many halakhic authorities have clarified that there is a disagreement among the poskim whether there is a prohibition to kill animals. Some are of the opinion that the prohibition against cruelty to animals is only applicable when they are alive, but the prohibition against cruelty to animals does not apply to killing them (Taz, Y.D. 116:6; Nodah B’Yehudah, Mehadurah Tinyana Y.D. 10; Avodat HaGershuni 13). Others say that the prohibition of cruelty to animals also includes the prohibition to kill them, and consequently, only for the purpose of earning a livelihood or honor is it permissible to kill them, just as causing them suffering is permitted (they learned this from Maimonides, ‘Moreh Nevuchim’ 3:48, Chinuch 451, Radbaz, and Ginat V’radim on ‘schita’. This is also what Marhasham wrote, 4:140).

However, it seems that there is no need to say there is disagreement in this matter, since all agree that the longer the suffering, the greater the prohibition, and consequently, the main prohibition of cruelty to animals is when they are alive, and only in a case of great necessity is it permitted to kill them. On the other hand, all can agree that killing involves a certain amount of suffering, even in the mere fact that they cannot continue living, and therefore, without any necessity, it is forbidden to kill them.

Euthanasia for Animals

There is holiness in every human life, and every moment the Divine soul dwells in a person is priceless, and even if a person is suffering from a serious illness, it is forbidden to kill him. On the other hand, animal’s lives’ are not as precious, and therefore the mitzvah is not to cause them suffering; however, there is no mitzvah to guard over their lives. Therefore, if a person has a cat or a dog suffering from a terminal illness or who was injured in an accident, and the pet suffers without chance of recovery – it is preferable to kill the animal in a painless manner, in order to prevent suffering.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. Other interesting, informative, and thought-provoking articles by Rabbi Melamed can be found at: