While organizations such as PETA and local SPCAs were created to protect animals and safeguard them from undue suffering and cruelty, the Torah has, for millennia, maintained strict laws regarding the treatment of animals.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Kee Teitzei, the Torah presents several such laws, one of which is the following (Deuteronomy 22:10): “You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together.” The reason should be clear. An ox is a heavier and, presumably, stronger beast of burden than a donkey. It would be unfair to both animals. The ox would become impatient because the donkey’s relative weakness would slow it down. The donkey would not be able to keep up with the ox, and that too would cause it to suffer. The Talmud (Bava Kamma 54b) extends this prohibition to all animal species.

The Ba’alei Tosafot, in their commentary on the Torah, offer a wholly different rationale for the prohibition. Think of the poor donkey, they suggest. The ox, from the vantage point of the donkey, is chewing the entire time of their work. “Why is the ox rewarded with food, and I am not?” imagines the donkey. In reality, of course, the ox is not eating. It is merely chewing its cud, a physiological reflex with which the donkey is unfamiliar. Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz, the late dean of the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem used this teaching to underscore how compassionate and empathic we must be. If we must show such empathy to a donkey, he declared, consider how we should treat one another!

The Torah’s legislation to care for all of God’s creations, whether human, animal or even vegetable, has been solemnly safeguarded by Jews, and to a degree, all of humankind, for over 3,300 years. When we look into the Torah, we are amazed to find numerous revolutionary ideas that speak to us today.

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