A Biblical Approach to the Relationship Between Man and the Animal Kingdom

BY: Toviah Moldwin.

The topic of the relationship between man and the animals in Jewish tradition is not one which has gone unnoticed by the scholars of our religion. Numerous articles and books have been devoted to explaining the theological and legal aspects of how people should properly relate to animals. This article is an attempt to look at the same issue from a slightly different perspective: that of the Hummash and its traditional commentaries. In particular, this article will focus on the early chapters of the book of Genesis, as these chapters lay the groundwork for our understanding of the relative places of man and animal in God’s world.

Immediately subsequent to the creation of Adam, God instructs Adam as to what food he may consume: “And God said, behold, I have given to you every grass which produces seed over the face of all the Earth, and every tree which contains a fruit that produces seed, it shall be to you as food.”[i] The Talmud notes that this verse conspicuously omits any mention of animals, thereby indicating that God did not permit Adam to eat meat.[ii] The Talmud also notes that, although in the previous verse God had blessed Adam that he would “rule over the fish of the sea, birds of the sky, and every living creature that teems on the Earth,” this was only meant to permit Adam to utilize animals to perform labor for him, not to consume their flesh.

The Talmud goes on to say that this prohibition was repealed in the time of Noah. After Noah exits the ark, God tells him, “Any teeming creature which lives, to you it shall be for food, like the grass of the field I have given to you everything.”[iii] With this statement, God permitted Noah (and, by extension, all mankind) to eat the previously prohibited meat of animals. The Talmud’s reading of these verses would appear to be the plain sense of the biblical narrative, and this reading was also adopted by a number of prominent medieval Jewish biblical commentators, including Rashi, Nahmanides, and Abraham ibn Ezra.[iv]

It is evident from these passages that, despite the fact that God originally intended there to be a hierarchy of species wherein man was to be superior to the animals, it was only subsequent to the Flood in the times of Noah that man was permitted to eat meat. This presentation of the relationship between man and the animal kingdom spurs two questions: 1) why did the original conception of man’s relationship with animals not include a permission to consume meat, and 2) what changed after Noah survived the Flood? The resolutions to these two questions will not merely help us better understand the biblical narrative; they can also be significant in terms of identifying the biblical view of the relationship between man and the animal kingdom.

A simple yet compelling answer to the first question can be found in Nahmanides’ commentary to Genesis 1:29.  Nahmanides writes that the reason why man was not originally permitted to eat animal meat is because “those that possess a mobile soul [i.e. creatures who have the ability to move about: animals] have somewhat of a superior quality in their souls, similar to a soul which possesses intellect, and they have the ability to choose that which is good for them and [display preference for] their food, and they flee from pain and death.” In other words, Nahmanides feels that, since animals display a decision-making capacity similar to that of humans, it is inappropriate for man to slaughter another soul-bearing creature for his own consumption.[v]

We are thus led to the second question: if animals possess a soul similar to that of man, why was man permitted to consume animal meat after the Deluge? To this question, Nahmanides responds (basing himself on the midrash in Genesis Rabbah 28) that, in the years prior to the Deluge, both the animal kingdom and humankind behaved in immoral and perverse ways. As such, God had actually intended to completely wipe out all animal species, but as a reward to Noah for his righteous behavior, God kept members of each species of animal alive purely for the gastronomical enjoyment of Noah and his descendants.

It would emerge from Nahmanides’ interpretation of this biblical narrative that, although prior to the story of Noah, animals were considered an integral component of God’s initial conception of the world, subsequent to the Flood, the only function of the animal kingdom was to benefit man. Thus, though animals continued to possess consciousness and intelligence after the Flood, God still permitted man to consume their meat.

R. David Kimhi (Radak), in his commentaries to Genesis 1:29 and 9:4, offers a different explanation as to why Noah and his descendants were permitted to consume meat when it had previously been prohibited. According to Kimhi, when God created the world, He foresaw that He would eventually have to destroy the inhabitants of the Earth – with the exception of Noah and his family – in a Deluge, and that Noah would fulfill God’s will to save members of each animal species. Because God wished to reward Noah for expending the effort to rescue the animals, He did not permit mankind to consume meat until Noah’s time, at which point God conferred permission to consume meat upon Noah as a reward for his efforts in saving the animal kingdom.[vi]

There is one significant point of divergence between the approaches of Nahmanides and Kimhi. Nahmanides assumes that the animal kingdom was preserved purely for the sake of mankind, and if not for the righteousness of Noah, the animal kingdom would not have survived. Kimhi would argue, however, that God did, in fact, intend to save the animals for their own sake, and Noah was rewarded by being permitted to eat meat because of his role in saving the animals from the Deluge.

According to Kimhi, it emerges that the postdiluvian existence of the animal kingdom is not merely meant for the sake of human consumption; rather, the animal kingdom is considered to be an integral component of the eternal divine conception of the universe, and it is mankind’s obligation – as it was Noah’s – to ensure the continued survival of the animal kingdom. Furthermore, even according to the approach of Nahmanides, though the animal kingdom was preserved purely for the benefit of mankind, the fact remains that animals do possess consciousness and a certain amount of intelligence, and there is thus some value in respecting this aspect of the animal kingdom and in feeling some degree of compassion and respect for animals as sentient beings.

R. David Zvi Hoffman, in his commentary to Parashat Re’eh, builds on this theme from the early chapters of Genesis and notes that the sentiment of having compassion for animals manifests itself throughout the Torah in a number of different places.[vii] Firstly, Hoffman notes that immediately subsequent to permitting man to eat meat, God enjoins Noah, “But meat with its soul, you shall not eat its blood,”[viii] which is understood by the rabbinic tradition to forbid all mankind from eating part of an animal while it is still alive.

According to Hoffman, this prohibition was enhanced for the Israelites during their travels in the desert, when God forbade the slaughtering of animals anywhere outside the grounds of the holy Tabernacle.[ix] This prohibition was repealed when the Israelites entered the land of Israel, but the Torah still required the Israelites to show their compassion for animals by not consuming their blood, a prohibition mentioned a number of times throughout the Torah.[x] This prohibition was necessary, according to Hoffman, because “consuming the animal’s blood, which contains the life-force, brings a person to cruelty.” [xi]

Hoffman also points out that a unique expression is used in the Torah in conjunction with the prohibition against consuming blood. The Torah rarely describes a specific reward for the observance of any individual commandment, but with reference to the commandments of honoring one’s parents,[xii] sending away the mother bird when taking its children,[xiii] and not eating blood,[xiv] the Torah uses the phrase, “in order that it should be good for you” or, “in order that your days should be lengthened.”  Hoffman points out that the common characteristic among all of these commandments is that they each possess a “humanistic” quality. In other words, these commandments serve to engender a sense of compassion within a person. [xv]

Hoffman’s approach to this recurring biblical theme appears to differ slightly from that of Kimhi and Nahmanides. According to Hoffman, the Torah obligates us to show concern for animals not necessarily because the animals “deserve” our respect and compassion, but rather in order to refine us, so that we not become cruel and inhumane people who are used to slaughtering and killing.

These three ideas – Nahmanides’ notion of animal sentience, Kimhi’s assertion that God rewarded Noah for his role in the preservation of the animal kingdom, and Hoffman’s emphasis on the importance of compassion for all life in order to refine the human character – should serve as important models for Torah-observant Jews when dealing with questions of animal rights, vegetarianism, and environmental issues. The Torah clearly gives mankind permission to consume animal meat, but this should not mitigate the fact that Jewish tradition also encourages a sense of compassion for animals and of responsibility for the continued existence of the diverse array of animal species that exist in our world.

Toviah Moldwin is a sophomore at YC majoring in Computer Science and is a Staff Writer for Kol Hamevaser.

[i] Genesis 1:29.

[ii] Sanhedrin 59b, as cited by Rav Yehudah in the name of Rav.

[iii] Genesis 9:3.

[iv] In their respective commentaries to Genesis 1:29 and 9:3.

[v] Maimonides makes a similar argument in Guide for the Perplexed III:48, in which he argues that the Torah enjoined the Israelites from slaughtering a mother animal and its child on the same day because animals possess emotions, and it would therefore be wrong to cause the mother grief by slaughtering the child in front of it (or vice versa).

[vi] Kimhi’s explanation is somewhat odd; generally one would assume that God does not withhold a particular desideratum from mankind in order to give it as a reward for a future good deed.

[vii] David Zvi Hoffman, Sefer Devarim al yedei David Zvi Hoffmann, trans. Zvi Har-Shefer (Tel-Aviv:  Hotsa’at Netsah, 1959-1961), p. 185.

[viii] Genesis 9:4.

[ix] Leviticus 17:4.

[x] E.g. Leviticus 7:26 and 17:10-14, Deuteronomy 12:23 and 12:27.

[xi] David Zvi Hoffman, Sefer Devarim al yedei David Zvi Hoffmann, trans. Zvi Har-Shefer (Tel-Aviv:  Hotsa’at Netsah, 1959-1961), p. 185.

[xii] Exodus 20:11.

[xiii] Deuteronomy 22:7.

[xiv] Ibid. 12:25.

[xv] It should be noted that Nahmanides in his commentary to Deuteronomy 22:7 takes a similar, if not identical, approach to that of R. Hoffman. I have focused here on the commentary of R. Hoffman because he articulates how this idea is a running theme throughout the Bible.