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Animal Cruelty and Jewish Law

Animal Cruelty and Jewish Law

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn.

Q: This may sound weird, but I think my neighbor is cruel to his pet beagle. I know that if this was a person we were talking about, Jewish law would obligate me to go to the authorities. But this is a DOG. What’s my obligation here?

A. You need to pursue this. I say this not merely because I am life-long pet-o-phile, a vegetarian with two cuddly standard poodles. I say this also because it is the right thing to do. Jewish culture has long championed animal rights.

The Torah could not be more explicit when it instructs us (Exodus 23:5) to assist the animal of your enemy.

In that verse, the animal is a donkey that has been mistreated, presumably by its owner. Based on this law, the rabbis established the concept of "tza’ar ba’ale hayyim," calling on us to minimize the suffering of all living creatures, literally to "feel their pain" in a Bill Clinton sort of way.

Jews have a long history of opposing such activities as hunting for sport or cockfighting. The Talmud goes as far as to state that even the person who sits in the stadium to watch this kind of event spills blood. We should refrain from eating until we’ve fed our animals and we are not permitted to buy cattle beasts or birds unless we can adequately care for them.

Animals even get to observe Shabbat, during which we are prohibited from placing any burden at all on them. A full chapter of the Shulchan Aruch deals with this. A nice summary of the Jewish view on animal rights can be found here.

The ASPCA web site details how to determine if abuse is really taking place and what you need to do about it. The Michael Vick case has sensitized us all to the need for vigilance against animal abuse, and the first line of defense is the neighbors. The Humane Society of the United States even has a dog fighting tip line – although it likely won’t be relevant with a pet beagle. American Jews have had an animal rights scandal all our own, the inhumane conditions discovered at the now-bankrupt Agriprocessors plant.

Western society has come a long way in its sensitivity toward animals (in Elizabethan England, for instance, bloody dog fights were ubiquitous), but we’ve a long way to go.

So if your suspicions are well grounded, you’ve got to do something.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Read his blog here, and follow him on Twitter.
Have an ethical dilemma? Email Rabbi Hammerman at

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