The Journey to Unity 173a
When Animals Take Priority: Part One
Dear Friends,
The Talmud records that Rabbi Yehudah said in the name of Rav: “In all
creation there is nothing that lacks a divinely-appointed purpose” (Shabbos
77b). All forms of life serve the unifying Divine purpose, and the Divine
plan entitles each creature to receive what it needs in order to fulfill its
purpose within creation. As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes in his
commentary on the Torah (Genesis 15:8), this Divine plan is called
“tzedek” – one of the biblical terms for justice; moreover, the benevolent
deeds which fulfill this plan are called “tzedakah.” Our sages therefore
describe the Creator’s nurturing of all life in the following manner:
“He does tzedekah and nourishes, supports, and sustains all who come into
the world and all that He created.” (Tanna Devei Eliyahu 17:8)
A person who strives to live according to the Torah’s principle of tzedek in
all areas of his existence is called a “tzadik.” In this spirit, King
Solomon wrote, “A tzadik understands the feelings of his animals” (Proverbs 12:10). The Malbim, a noted 19th century biblical commentator, explains that
the tzadik understands the nature of his animal, and he gives the animal its
food in its proper time and according to the amount it needs. He also makes
sure to fulfill the mitzvah to feed one’s animal before one feeds oneself.
For the tzadik, writes the Malbim, lives according to the following code:
“The tzadik acts according to the laws of tzedek; not only does he act
according to these laws with human beings, but also with his own animal.”
The Malbim mentioned the mitzvah to feed our animals before we feed
ourselves. In the following passage, the Talmud states that a source for
this mitzvah can be found in the Divine statement which mentions the feeding
of animals “before” the feeding of human beings:
“Rabbi Yehudah said in the name of Rav: A person is forbidden to eat before
he gives food to his animal, as it states (Deut. 11:15): ‘I will give grass
in your fields for your cattle,’ and it then concludes, ‘and you shall eat
and be satisfied.’ ” (Brochos 40b)
Based on the above teaching, the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, an abridged code of
halacha, states: “One who owns animals or fowl that depend upon him for
their sustenance is forbidden to eat anything until he feeds them (42:1).
The work “Nefesh Kol Chai” is an anthology of various halachos (including
differing halachic opinions) regarding our treatment of other creatures, and
it discusses the following question: What if a person has animals that are
able to find food on their own? The “Nefesh Kol Chai” cites sources which
indicate that although the minimum requirement of the halacha does not
require that one feed these animals before one’s self in such a case, it is
nevertheless praiseworthy to do so. The Hebrew word “chesed” refers to
overflowing love, and going beyond the requirement of the halacha in such a
situation, states the “Nefesh Kol Chai,” is a “midas chassidus” – acting in
the spirit of love. According to Jewish tradition, a “chassid” is a person
who understands the spirit of each mitzvah, as well as the goal of the Torah
path; thus, the chassid lovingly desires to go beyond the minimum
requirement of the halacha in life-affirming ways which do not cause harm to
himself or others.
To delay feeding a hungry animal which depends on us causes suffering to the
animal; thus, “Nefesh Kol Chai” cites sources which indicate that the
mitzvah of feeding our animals before we feed ourselves enables us to avoid
violating the Torah prohibition against tzaar baalei chayim. In addition, it
enables us to also fulfill the mitzvah to emulate the Divine compassion.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen
Related Teachings:
1. “Nefesh Kol Chai” cites sources which indicate that if we are thirsty, we
are permitted to drink in order to quench our thirst before giving water to
our animals. The permission to drink first only applies if we are genuinely
thirsty. It does not apply if we merely want to drink for pleasure.
Satisfying the thirst of our animals takes priority over our drinking for
Although there is a halachic opinion which states that just as we must feed
our animals first, so too, we must give them drink first, Rabbi Yitzchak
Eliyahu Shtisman, the author of “Nefesh Kol Chai,” told me that the main
halachic view is that we are permitted to drink first, if we are thirsty.
2. Why does the halacha, which requires that we feed our animals before
ourselves, allow us to drink before we give water to the animals? “Nefesh
Kol Chai” cites several reasons. One of the reasons is that when it comes to
food, it is usually easier for a human being to fast than an animal;
however, when it comes to thirst, it is usually easier for an animal to
delay drinking than for a human being. (In fact, there are certain species
of animals which can go without water for a very long period.) Another
suggested reason is that if a person sits down to eat, there is a
possibility he can get so involved with eating that he may forget to feed
his animal, which is another reason why feeding the animal takes priority;
however, when it comes to drinking water, there is less danger that a person
will get so involved in drinking water that he will forget to give drink to
his animals. (According to this reason, the permission to drink first does
not apply to intoxicating beverages which could cause a person to forget his
obligation to his animals.)
3. The Sefer Chassidim (531) is one of the sources which states that we are
permitted to drink something in order to quench our thirst before giving
water to our animals. As a source for this halacha, he cites a story about
our righteous mother, Rivkah: After a long journey, Avraham’s servant,
Eliezer, arrived at the well of her village, and the young Rivkah first gave
drink to the weary and thirsty Eliezer, before giving drink to his animals
(Genesis 24:11-21). Another source is the following Divine statement to
Moshe, our Teacher: “Give drink to the congregation and to their animals”
(Numbers 20:8). Moshe was told to give water to the people “before” the
4. If a delay in eating would cause a definite or even a possible danger to
a person’s life, he or she should eat first and then feed the animal. What
if a delay in eating poses no danger, but would cause some suffering to the
person? Can this person eat something first in order to alleviate the stress
“before feeding the animal? “Nefesh Kol Chai” cites differing halachic
views on this issue.
5. The above information is for study purposes and is not meant to serve as
a final source of halachic decisions. If you have practical halachic
questions, please ask a halachic authority.
Hazon – Our Universal Vision:

2 thoughts on “When Animals Take Priority: Part 1

  1. Yeah, you’d think it would come naturally to people, but, at least in mainstream Christianity, you have this mentality of the earth being made for man’s benefit, and that’s not what the biblical text says at all.
    It says that man was given the earth to take care of.

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