Rosh Chodesh Elul

1st Elul  2021 Rosh Hashanah Le’ma’aseir Behema    9th August

Mishnah tells us there are four New Years, and the 1st of Elul is the New Year for the accounting purposes of tithing domestic animals.

While this is a date for a Temple practise and therefore has no practical significance today, the date has been glossed in order to publicise the Jewish value of Tza‘ar Ba’alei Hayim  – of preventing the suffering of animals.

The phrase originates in a Talmudic discussion about the treatment of domestic beasts, their loading and the conditions they must work under (BT Bava Metzia 32b).

Hebrew uses a number of words for animals – in Genesis animals, like humans are “Nefesh Chaya” – living souls. Biblically we see behema/ot are domesticated animals, Chaya (literally “alive” the word for wild animals (in modern Hebrew the generic word for animals, while wild animals are chayat bar, animals of the wild). But this  Talmudic  phrase Ba’alei Hayim not only recognises that animals are living, but that they are quite literally the masters or owners of life.

What does it mean to be an owner of life? And how does seeing our domestic animals as such figures influence how we think of them and treat them?

Judaism generally treats God as the Owner of Life – the One who gives and takes away life. We read in Talmud (Berachot 60b) the prayer familiar to all who read the morning service, the Elohai Neshama…:

When one awakens, one recites:
My God, the soul You have placed within me is pure.
You formed it within me,
You breathed it into me,
and You guard it while it is within me.
One day You will take it from me and restore it within me in the time to come.
As long as the soul is within me, I thank You,
O Eternal my God and God of my ancestors, Master of all worlds, Possessor of all souls.
Blessed are You, O Eternal who restores souls to lifeless bodies.

While it is clear that the Talmudic phrase “Ba’alei Chayim” is referencing animals that are in the service of human activity, it uses a lens we frequently ignore or even deny. Animals, even those who work for us or are farmed and herded in order to provide food for us, have a level of existence and meaning that also reflects the Creator of Life. We humans may have accorded ourselves the highest level in the creation story, the ones who name the animals and who will use them for our own benefit, but animal life too is important and has a spark of divine force, and it is not enough simply to avoid unnecessary cruelty.

Talmud tells us (BTBava Metzia 85a) “Once a calf being led to slaughter thrust its head into the skirts of Rabbi [Yehudah HaNasi]’s robe and began to bleat plaintively. “Go,” he said, “for this is why you were created.” Because he spoke without compassion, he was afflicted [at the hand of Heaven].(the midrash tells us he suffered toothache for 13 years)

Then one day, his maidservant was cleaning his house and came upon some young weasels. She was about to chase them away with a broom, when Rabbi Yehudah said to her, “Let them be, for it is written: ‘God’s tender mercies are upon all God’s works'” (Psalms 145:9). They said [in Heaven], “Since he is merciful, let him be treated with mercy.” [Thereafter, his pain ceased.]

This day, Rosh Chodesh Elul, is the day to consider the value of Tza’ar Ba’alei Hayim and ask ourselves, how do we value Creation in our daily lives.

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