The treatment of animals
Kindness to animals was one of those principles that were so ingrained in Israelite culture, that it was not considered necessary to have any direct commandment about it. This is in the same vein as for example, how there are no written laws on hospitality, because the rules of being a good host and guest were so ingrained in Israelite culture, that it was not considered necessary to write commandments about them.
Similarly with the kind and humane treatment of animals. There are no direct references or commandments regarding the rights of animals, but you can see it in several places, underneath the surface as part of Israelite culture.
For example, in Gen 24:14 & 19, because Rebecca had concern for the camels, Abraham’s servant knew she was the right wife for Isaac. She offered to water the camels until they had all had their fill, which would have involved considerable labour. And the law forbidding eating an animal while it is still alive (Gen 9:4) presupposes a concern for the suffering of the animal. Also Moses and David were said to have been chosen as leaders of Israel, because of their experience as shepherds who showed kindness to their animals.
‘Fill the earth and subdue it’
A big sticking point for people outside Hebrew culture in understanding humanity’s biblical relationship to the animal kingdom, is the verse in Gen 1:28 – pointed in the Massoretic text to read as ‘mil’u et ha-arets ve-khivshuha’, often translated in English as ‘Fill the earth and subdue it’.
The verb translated as ‘subdue’ is kabash. However, the last letter, a shin ( שׁ ), can also be read as the letter sin ( שׂ ) – without modern pointing, the two letters look exactly the same. The Massoretic pointing of the text interprets the reading as kabash – ‘to trample over, to tread underfoot’, (probably because of Ps 8:6, but this refers to the metaphor of a king’s subjects being ‘under his feet’); or even, ‘to subjugate and oppress’, hence the interpretation of ‘to subdue’. However, if the verb is read as kabas, then the verb means ‘to force to beget’ – that is, to force something to be fruitful and plentiful (hence the Hebrew word for lamb, keves). If the verb is read this way, then the verse implies that we are to be good stewards of creation, to look after the earth and help God to make it fruitful and abundant.
Consider this: Can we really justify continuing to believe that God commanded humanity to subjugate and oppress His creation? Can we really justify a belief that God commanded humanity to ill-treat and abuse His creation? If we cherish an image of a loving, nurturing, creating God, then we should read the verb as kabas – to force to be fruitful, and NOT kabash – to subjugate and oppress. How can we understand a creating God if we think He has commanded us to destroy His creation?
Biblical Commandments that reflect the Hebrew mindset
The one commandment that comes immediately to mind is the one that on the Sabbath, even our animals must rest (Ex 20:10). If a society had no concern for its animals, that society would get Gentiles to work their animals for them on the Sabbath. However, this commandment leaves no room for doubt; the right to rest on the Sabbath and refresh oneself extends even to our animals.
Torah does enjoin kindness to animals. “If you see the donkey of your enemy fallen under its burden, and your instinct is to refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.” (Ex. 23:5).
Prov 12:10 says, “A righteous person regards the life of his beast, but the innermost feelings of the wicked are for cruelty.” It is considered a kindness in Israelite tradition to feed animals even on the Sabbath, or help them if they are in trouble on the Sabbath, or carry tools and equipment to help save an animal on the Sabbath, or to milk a cow on the Sabbath if she is suffering from an over-abundance of milk. And before an owner could sit down to eat, it was considered a great virtue to feed one’s animals first.
On the other hand, animals should not be subjected to psychological torture. For example, an ox must not be muzzled while treading grain (Deut. 25:4), but must be free to eat of the grain while working, exactly the same as a human worker is allowed to do (Deut. 23:26 [23:25 Christian bibles]). It would be cruel to prevent an animal from eating the very food it is treading in plain sight.
It is forbidden to castrate or emasculate an animal, just as it forbidden to do so for a human being.
It is forbidden to yoke animals of different species for example when ploughing (Deut. 22:10) because to do so would be a cruelty to the weaker animal.
Mother and young must not be slaughtered on the same day (Lev. 22:28), and it is forbidden to take both a wild bird and young from a nest. When the mother is liberated the eggs or young may be taken (Deut. 22:6). This law assumes a measure of conservation, since the mother can breed again, but taking both would kill off the supply of eggs or young.
In Israelite culture, unlike the cultures of the surrounding peoples, Israelite kings did not engage in hunting for sport; it was not part of the culture, and in time came to be considered distasteful, even there are no laws as such forbidding it in Torah. Even when hunting for food, it was considered distasteful to hunt with dogs, as they would torment the animal before its death.
As for the slaughter of animals, it is an underlying part of Hebrew culture that the slaughter should be as quick as possible, to cause the animal as little pain and distress as possible. In spite of the attempts made in various western countries to forbid the Jewish mode of slaughter on the grounds of cruelty, this institution of Judaism still stands as far more humane than any of the modes employed by non-Jews (eg electric shock)
Even though there are no direct commandments to show kindness or concern for animals, it is an ingrained part of Israelite culture. A person’s compassion can be measured by how far they will go to show concern even for animals. The relationship between humans and animals, according to the Hebrew mindset, is that of a benevolent king and his subjects, or of a caring and nurturing steward.