Animal Cruelty

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by R. Moshe Kurtz

Lomdus on the Parsha: Balak

Based on the Acclaimed Sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon

Q: May one use a whip when riding an animal?

The angel of God said to him: “Why did you strike your donkey these three times? Behold, I came out to obstruct you, because your way is contrary to Me. (Numbers 22:32)

Where in the Torah do we find the concept of tza’ar ba’alei chaim, the injunction against animal cruelty?

(A) Rashi (Shabbos 128b, s.v. Tza’ar) says it is derived from Exodus (23:5): “If you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden, and you might not want to help him, [but you should] make every effort not to abandon him.”

(B) Rabbeinu Peretz (Bava Metzia 32b) holds that it is a halacha l’Moshe m’Sinai – a tradition given to Moshe at Mount Sinai without any direct Scriptural basis.

(C) The Ra’avad, cited in the Shitah Mekubetzes (ad loc.), infers the premise of tza’ar ba’alei chaim from the prohibition of muzzling one’s animal from grazing while it works (see Deut. 25:4).

(D) The Chasam Sofer (ad loc) attributes this principle to the verse in Psalms (145:9): “…and He is merciful upon all of His creations.”

(E) The Sefer Charedim (14:1) says that tza’ar ba’alei chaim is simply subsumed under the general principle of “and you shall walk in His ways” (Deut. 28:9).

(F) Interestingly, the Rambam (Guide for the Perplexed 3:17; cf. Sefer HaChassidim no. 666) attributes the source for tza’ar ba’alei chaim to the episode of Bilaam and his donkey which appears in this week’s Torah portion:

There is a rule laid down by our Sages that it is directly prohibited in the Law to cause pain to an animal, and is based on the words: “Why did you strike your donkey?” etc. (Num. 22:32). But the object of this rule is to make us perfect; that we should not assume cruel habits: and that we should not uselessly cause pain to others: that, on the contrary, we should be prepared to show pity and mercy to all living creatures, except when necessity demands the contrary: “When thy soul longeth to eat flesh,” etc. (Deut. 12:20). We should not kill animals for the purpose of practicing cruelty, or for the purpose of play.

However, we may inquire – why would Bilaam, a non-Jew, be held accountable for a sin that is ostensibly not covered under the Seven Noahide Laws? The Rashbam (Gen. 26:5) and Chizkuni (Gen. 7:21) raise a similar challenge in regards to how the people who lived before the Torah was given, such as Generation of the Flood, could be held accountable when God’s laws were not explicitly revealed to the world at that time.

The answer suggested by many commentators is that there exists some form of natural law that one should be able to intuit certain basic ethical principles without a Divine Being directly instructing them (see also Rabbeinu Nissim Gaon’s introduction to the Talmud, and R. Shimon Shkop in Sha’arei Yosher 5:1). On this premise, the Rokeiach (no. 366) states that gentiles are obligated to give charity, honor the elderly, tend to their deceased and ensure public safety. Therefore, even though Bilaam was never explicitly commanded against striking his donkey, it is something that a human with basic decency should have intuited without being told.

At this point, it behooves us to address a very fundamental question: How then are we ever permitted to kill an animal to eat or use its fur (or bring a sacrifice!) if we are by definition inflicting harm upon it? The Terumas HaDeshen (2:105) explains that tza’ar ba’alei chaim, animal cruelty, is by definition harm caused to an animal gratuitously. As Rambam wrote earlier: “We should not kill animals for the purpose of practicing cruelty, or for the purpose of play.” Along similar lines the Noda B’Yehudah issued landmark responsum (Y.D., no. 10) against hunting for sport.

If this is indeed the case, then hadra kushya l’duchta – we are back to the drawing board: What was wrong with Bilaam striking his animal to compel it to behave? Such an act, while it causes the animal some distress, ultimately serves a purpose and should thus not be classified as a form of cruelty.

We might be tempted to understand that the reason human beings are allowed to slaughter and make use of animals is because the needs of  humanity supersede the needs of the rest of nature. However, R. Mordechai Carlebach argues that the reason humans may use animals is because the natural world was fundamentally created for facilitating human enterprise. This is reflected in that which R. Shimon ben Elazar stated (Kiddushin 82b): “But all these [animals] were created only to serve me, and I, a human being, was created to serve the One Who formed me.” However, this only remains true so long as the human pursuit is a legitimate one. In Bilaam’s case, he was on a mission that was antithetical to the will of God and His framework for the world. Therefore, Bilaam’s act of striking the donkey (and possibly even riding on it) was not sanctioned and thus defaulted on the baseline proscription against tza’ar ba’alei chaim

Concerns of tza’ar ba’alei chaim manifest today in many different forms.. R. Moshe Feinstein penned a responsum (Igros Moshe E.H. 4:92) against the extreme conditions utilized in cultivating veal, and R. Ovadia Yosef (Responsa Yabia Omer, Y.D. 9:3) opposed using aggressive practices such as force-feeding ducks and geese to create foie gras.

We should always remember that just as God is “merciful upon all of His creations” so too we must “follow in His ways” and promote mercy and compassion.

Note: This series is not intended to dispense practical halachic conclusions. The Torah presented here is but a small extraction from the breadth of the sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon and is not affiliated with the author in any official capacity. Translations are adapted from Sefaria,, Mechon Mamre, and my  own. Contact: [email protected] 

About Moshe Kurtz

Rabbi Moshe Kurtz is Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Agudath Sholom of Stamford, CT. He welcomes questions, feedback and speaking requests at: [email protected].

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