“Feeding the Animals–Beasts and Humans”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Eikev, we encounter the well known second paragraph of the daily Shema prayer (Deuteronomy 11:13-21) that speaks of the relationship of accountability and responsibility of the people of Israel toward G-d. This portion, often referred to as, “V’ha’ya eem sha’mo’ah,” and it shall come to pass if you harken to my commandments, is a central component of a Jew’s daily affirmation of the dominion of G-d.

It is in this second paragraph of the Shema that we find the verse of Deuteronomy 11:15, in which we read: “V’nah’tah’tee ay’sev b’sahd’chah, liv’hem’teh’chah, v’ah’chal’tah v’sah’vah’tah,” and I will provide grass in your field for your cattle, and you will eat and you will be satisfied. The very next verse, Deuteronomy 11:16, contains the warning that the People of Israel must beware, lest their hearts be seduced and turn astray and serve other gods.

The juxtaposition of these two verses, says Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible), serves as a warning to the People of Israel about waxing fat and rejecting G-d. Says Rashi, “Since you will be eating and will be full, you must beware for yourselves that you should not kick or rebel against G-d. For a person does not rebel against the Holy One, Blessed be He, except as a result of being sated.” Once again, we are warned that the challenge of wealth is often greater than the challenge of poverty, especially when it comes to resisting temptations and straying from our commitments to the Al-mighty.

Perhaps the best known of all the educational messages that are derived from this verse is the one that is cited in the name of Rabbi Judah in the name of Rav (Talmud Berachot 40a). It is forbidden for a person to eat until one has fed one’s animals, since the verse states, “and I will provide grass in your field for your cattle,” and only then does it say, “and you will eat and you will be satisfied.”

It is quite amazing that a Talmudic sage, nearly 2,000 years ago, emphasized that it is proper to feed one’s animals before one eats himself. But, in truth it is not so surprising, since Judaism has a long history of treating animals kindly, and a host of mitzvot may be found in the Torah regulating the treatment of animals. One must not muzzle an animal that is working on the threshing floor (Exodus 25:4). One must not hitch a strong animal, an ox, with a weaker animal, a donkey (Deuteronomy 22:10). One must not look away when an animal is falling under its load (Exodus 23:5).

Of course, there are many other mitzvot that have bearing on the rights of animals. Going back to the fundamendal laws of humanity, known as the Noahide Principles, the Torah forbids the eating of an animal’s limb while the animal is still alive, not only for Jews but for all humanity. The laws of kashruth also reflect on the need for proper treatment of animals. Animals must be slaughtered painlessly. The verse that prohibits seething a goat in the milk of its mother is the basis of the Jewish practice of separating milk and meat during food preparation and at meals. Our rabbis explain that meat must never be eaten together with milk, the life substance that would have sustained that animal’s life.

Despite the Torah’s long history of concern for animals, the rather subtle principle that one should not eat before feeding one’s animal is still quite remarkable. After all, why should an animal’s hunger come before human hunger?

In his acclaimed commentary to the Torah, the Torah Temimah, Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein (1860-1941) explains that, despite the common perception, the practice of not eating before feeding one’s animals is not a law that is codified in the Code of Jewish Law, but rather falls into the category of “Midat Chassidut,” a merciful action. He cites the Magen Avraham (Basic commentary on Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim, by R’ Avraham Gombiner, 1634-1682, of Kalisch, Poland), who in turn cites the Sefer Chassidim (Classic work of Mussar, Halachah, customs, Bible commentary, and Kabbalah, authored by R’ Yehduah HaChassid of Germany, c.1150-1217), which states that animals take precedence only with regard to food, but not with respect to water. After all, Rebecca offered Abraham’s servant, Eliezer, water first, and only then did she draw water for his camels. Rabbi Epstein explains the difference between liquids and foods by stating that people may start eating even though they may not be hungry. One drinks, however, only when thirsty. Since thirst causes bodily pain, the bodily pain of a human precedes the bodily pain of an animal. Thus, Rabbi Epstein concludes that if a person were hungry to the point of bodily pain, that hunger would take precedence over an animal’s hunger. Nevertheless, Maimonides (the Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204) does codify this law (Hilchot Avadim 9:8) by stating that it is a mitzvah to feed one’s animals and servants first, before he himself eats.

A fascinating derivative of this practice is the law that is codified in the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law 169:1, which states that one who is being served aromatic foods by a servant or a waiter is not permitted to eat unless he or she first offers some food to the servant or waiter. The commentators explain that even if the servant had previously eaten, or will be given a much richer food than the master eats (e.g. filet mignon), it is still not proper to take advantage of the servant by passing aromatic food before him and not allowing him to eat.

Once again, we encounter another of the precious tidbits of Judaism that underscore not only the extraordinary humanity of Judaism, but the sacred spirit that pervades Judaism’s rules and regulations.

May you be blessed.

Please note: This year, the joyous festival of Tu b’Av, the fifteenth of Av, will be celebrated on Tuesday night and Wednesday, August 4th and 5th, 2009. Happy Tu b’Av (for more information, please click here)