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Rav Moshe Cordovero on Compassion For Animals
From The Vision of Eden: Animal Welfare and Vegetarianism in Jewish Law and Tradition by Rabbi David Sears

There is none so patient and humble as our God in His attribute of Kesser (the Supernal Crown). For He is absolute compassion; before Him there is no flaw or transgression, no severe judgment or other quality that could prevent Him from watching over [Creation] and bestowing bounty and goodness constantly. So, too, should a person conduct himself. Nothing in the world should prevent him from doing good to others; no transgression or misdeed should deter him from helping whoever needs a favor, always and at every moment. Although God transcends Creation, He sustains all living beings, from the highest to the lowest, and does not disparage any creature - for if He were to reject any creature due to its inferiority, none could exist for even a moment. Instead, He watches over and shows mercy to all. Similarly, a person should be beneficent to everyone, and no creature should seem despicable to him. Even the smallest living thing should be exceedingly worthy in his eyes; he should consider it and exert himself for its benefit. This quality, too, comes from the attribute of Kesser (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, Tomer Devorah, chapter 2).

One should respect all creatures, recognizing in them the greatness of the Creator, Who formed man with wisdom. All creatures are imbued with the Creator's wisdom, which itself makes them greatly deserving of honor. The Maker of All, the Wise One who transcends everything, is associated [with all His creatures] in having created them. If one were to disparage them, God forbid, this would reflect upon the honor of their Maker.

This is the meaning of the verse, "How worthy are Your works, O God..." (Psalms 104:24). It does not say "how great (gadlu)" but "how worthy (rabbu)," as in the verse "the head (rav) of his house" (Esther 1:8), indicating great importance. [The verse concludes,] "You have made them all with wisdom." That is, since Your wisdom is imbued in them, Your works are great and worthy. Therefore, a person should consider the Divine wisdom within them, and not their disgrace (ibid.).

One's compassion should extend to all creatures, and he should not disparage or destroy them, for Divine wisdom extends to all Creation: "silent" things [such as dust and stones], plants, animals, and humans. For this reason our sages warned us not to treat food disrespectfully. Just as Divine wisdom despises nothing - since everything proceeds from it, as the verse states, "You have made them all with wisdom" (Psalms 104:24) - so should a person show compassion to all of God's works.

That is why Rabbi Yehudah the Prince was punished when he did not show pity to a calf that tried to evade slaughter by hiding behind him. "Go!" he told it. "You were created for this purpose." Compassion shields against the Divine attribute of strict judgment. Therefore, suffering - which derives from [the Divine attribute of] strict judgment - came upon him. But when Rabbi Yehudah the Prince had mercy upon a weasel, quoting the verse, "His mercies extend to all His works" (Psalms 145:9), he was delivered from strict judgment. The light of Divine wisdom spread over him, and his suffering disappeared.

Similarly, one should not disparage any creature, for all of them were created with Divine wisdom. One should not uproot plants unless they are needed or kill animals unless they are needed. And one should choose a humane manner of death for them, using a carefully inspected knife, in order to be as compassionate as possible (ibid. chapter 3).

[The Zohar states that while crossing a stream, Rabbi Yossi stepped on some worms and exclaimed that he wished such creatures did not exist. At this, his master Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai declared that it is forbidden to disparage or to kill any creature, for they all serve to benefit the world (Emor, 107a).]

One might ask: if so, how can the Torah permit us to kill a snake on the Sabbath in the land of Israel, or [to kill any dangerous or bothersome animal] under similar circumstances?

The term "disparage" could mean either in word or in deed. Rabbi Yossi was guilty of both. First, by stepping upon the worms, he violated the prohibition of wantonly killing small creatures that are not harmful to humans [such as flies, gnats, and worms]. Second, by exclaiming, "Would that they did not exist!" he spoke disrespectfully regarding the order of the universe, which reflects upon the honor of the Creator. If a dangerous creature threatens a person, or if there is a harmful snake in one's house or courtyard, one is justified in killing it to avoid being hurt. However, if a snake is in the field going its own way, one must not interfere with it; for the snake is fulfilling its mission according to the Divine will. The story cited above attests to this, as do many such stories that we have discussed elsewhere.

Even when creatures are sent on a mission to do harm, "God is good to all" (Psalms 145:9); for, in truth, this too is a good mission, since the death they cause will benefit the soul of the transgressor. God's mercy extends even to creatures that do not perform their mission [i.e., immoral people] in that He sustains them nevertheless. Thus, we are obligated to follow in His ways and show compassion toward all His works, never destroying them wantonly as long as they do not harm us. Moreover, to diminish God's Creation is to diminish the manifestation of His mercies. According to the diversity of Creation, through each and every species, God's mercies are evident. This is implied by the Divine blessing "to be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 8:17), as well as by the subsequent verse [in the psalm quoted above], "All Your works, O God, shall praise You…" (Psalms 145:10). That is, over each species in Creation, an angel is appointed who sings praises to the Creator; and the praises of the One who sustains all creatures are increased according to the multitude of angelic hosts. One who destroys a swarm of bees or flies or a colony of ants therefore destroys the praises of God, unless these creatures are in one's house and are harmful. In this case, it is permitted to remove them, albeit in the most humane manner possible. And even this is not proper according to what we see in tractate Ta'anis (85a) concerning the nest of weasels that were found in the house of Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi. He told his maidservant to leave them alone, for "His mercies are upon all His creatures."

Thus, wantonly to kill even harmful creatures such as mice and weasels would be unseemly, since unlike snakes they do not physically afflict human beings. It would be preferable for a person to keep a cat who will consume them, as this conforms to the ways of the angels who determine how one species is subjugated to another. This may be deduced from the words of the Book of Song (Perek Shira): "The mouse, what does it say? 'For You are righteous in all that comes upon us, for You have performed truthfully, and we have acted wickedly'" (Nehemiah 9:33). The cat, what does it say? 'I pursued my enemies and overtook them, and returned not until they were destroyed' (Psalms 18:39)." This teaches that [the preying of one species upon another] is God's will, and reflects His absolute mercy toward the needs of His creatures.

Similarly, Perek Shira concludes by describing how King David was pleased with himself upon completing the Book of Psalms, when he happened upon a frog [who contended that its own praises of God were superior]. This narrative does not mean to extol the croaking of the frog, but [the songs and praises of] the angel that presides over frogs. And their leaping, too, was an expression of the spiritual inspiration that came to them from their presiding angel, who sings melodies and praises to God.

This also applies to the frog's remark that it has resigned itself to its fate, to serve as food for the stork or crane, or another bird. In other words, the presiding angel itself fulfills the will of its Maker in compelling the families of frogs not to rebel, but submit to the species designated to consume them. Therefore, it is proper to raise other creatures to prey upon destructive animals, for this follows the natural order. Thus, when Rabbi Yehudah's maidservant came to destroy the weasels, he told her to let them alone; but, nevertheless, he raised cats, for this [way of ridding oneself of pests] reflects the Divine mercy. As our sages taught on the verse, "The righteous knows the nature of his animal..."[1] (Proverbs 12:10).

One might ask: since the calf was destined for slaughter, why was Rabbi Yehudah afflicted for saying, "Go, this is the purpose for which you were created"? To this it could be said that there might have been a transmigrated soul in the calf, and it was possible to save it for all eternity from an evil fate, from slaughter.[2] Or perhaps he should have entreated the slaughterer to postpone the killing at least for that day. [This would have served as an example of compassion to everyone present] (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, Ohr Yakar al HaZohar, Emor, 14:13, pp. 137-138).


[1] Rav Cordovero probably refers to Vayikra Rabba 27:11, which interprets the term "righteous" as referring to the Creator, Who "understands the nature of His animal" in mandating that His human subjects show compassion toward animals.

[2] That is, the calf's tikkun might have been accomplished by other means, without causing it distress.

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