Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Animal Suffering and Pleasure - Shabbat 53

The proper treatment of animals on Shabbat was much more important in Jewish life when livestock were part of everyday life – today we are not concerned whether our dogs or cats are carrying to much of a burden any day of the week. A hot topic in today’s Talmud page concerns what a donkey [khamor] may wear, and may not wear, during Shabbat when it is also commanded to rest (see Deuteronomy 5:13-14). The Mishnah text discussed here permits a donkey to wear a cushion tied to its back, and the question the Talmud considers is: why? And what else can it wear if a cushion is permitted?

A saddle is not allowed, according to this discussion, and one must lead around the donkey until it falls off because removing a saddle is intended to cool off the donkey, which is not considered as crucial as keeping it warm as a cushion (i.e. blanket) would. Rab taught that one may put a fodder bag on an animal to feed from on Shabbat, and if one may provide the animal the pleasure of feeding, kal va’khomer [how much more so] may one put on a cushion to avoid causing animal suffering! Samuel, on the other hand, would allow the cushion but not the fodder bag since the animal could be fed by dropping food on the ground and a feed bag is a luxury. When Samuel was told what Rab had taught, he responded, “If he said that, he knows absolutely nothing about Shabbat!”

The question we can consider here is the appropriate level of concern for animals – do we want only to avoid needless animal suffering (and what counts as “needless”), or do we also want to provide them positive pleasures? Modern consumers, who do not personally encounter the wide variety of animals whose meat and other products they enjoy every day, rarely consider the conditions in which the animals are raised, treated, killed or prepared. One need not become completely vegetarian or vegan [use no animal products at all] to contemplate or act on such questions, and releasing cattle into the wild would itself be animal cruelty since they have been bred to be fed fodder and killed for meat for so many generations that they are practically helpless on their own. But this is a case where the difference in life experience from the days of the Talmud to our own times can remind us to consider our lives in a new way.

Rabbi Adam Chalom