Let me see if I understand this. Jewish law, and especially Torah law, is really old, like, you know, maybe 3,500 years or so old and, you know, it’s like got nothing to say to us today because we’re living in, you know, modern times, and like modern’s got to be better than, you know… that old stuff.
To be sure, the Torah contains some laws that belong to a bygone age, but what law code does not? A Pennsylvania law still on the books requires motorists driving through certain rural areas at night to stop every mile and send up a flare. A woman in Bristol, Tenn., can still be sent up river to do hard time for a year just for stopping on the street to fix her stockings. In Memphis, a woman driver technically still needs a man running in front of her vehicle waving a red warning flag for all to see.
Then there is this gem of an out-of-date entry from Texas: "When two railroad trains meet at a crossing, each shall stop and neither shall proceed until the other has passed." (See Stephanie Paul’s article on LegalZoom.Com.)
Though, today, for right now, we may not need know how to prepare an animal for sacrifice, the Torah and the body of Jewish law that emerges from it possess a great deal of modern relevance. It has proven its relevance countless times in the past (and, God-willing, countless more times in the future).
But recent headlines highlight an area where Jewish law is not just relevant, but superior to the "modern" codes so many people regard as much more advanced:
According to American law, it is legal to fire a shotgun filled with several hundred lead or steel pellets that are just under a tenth of an inch in diameter at a bird that probably weighs no more than a pound, thereby turning it into Swiss cheese — provided, of course, that you pay for the privilege.
How can a law that allows one to do that for any reason, much less for sport, be considered more advanced and even more enlightened than Torah law?
To be clear, Torah law does not forbid hunting absolutely. As the 18th century sage Rabbi Yechezkel Landau noted, "in case of human need" hunting maybe permissible, but even then one must "measure the proportion between the human need factor and the suffering caused to the animal."
Pointedly, Landau states that "it is forbidden to exceed this permit for the sake of pleasure," adding that "it is not a Jewish quality to be a hunter purely as a pastime or for sport…." Hunting, he says, "is not a trait of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; for how can a Jew put to death an animal, for no reason other than to waste his time in the pursuit of hunting…?" (See Noda B’Yehuda Yoreh De’ah ‘:10.)
There are two primary categories of Torah law involved here. One is that of bal tashchit (literally, do not destroy), which forbids the willful destruction of anything useful or potentially useful without a valid reason. To kill an animal simply for the sport is a gross violation of bal tashchit. To kill it for its skin or fur is very likely a violation, too, unless the carcass itself can be put to good use, which does not include eating it, since an animal killed in any manner other than ritual slaughter is not kosher.
Of far greater importance here, however, are the laws of tzar ba’alei chaim, or "causing distress to living things." This category of law forbids causing unnecessary pain or suffering to animals, birds, and fish, and is well-rooted in the Torah.
Sometimes, it shows up in oblique ways. For example, this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, states, "When a man steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for the ox, and four sheep for the sheep. (Exodus ‘1:37)" Why only four sheep?
One answer is supplied by Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who said, "Observe how great is the importance attached to the dignity of Man, for in the case of an ox which walks away on its own feet the payment is five-fold, while in the case of a sheep which was usually carried on the thief’s shoulder [meaning the thief demeaned himself out of compassion for the sheep] only four-fold has to be paid." (See BT Bava Kamma 79b.)
More often concern for animals and birds shows up in pointed references. Two, for example, are found in this week’s Torah portion. The first, Exodus ‘3:5-6, states, "When you see the she-donkey of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him." (Deuteronomy ”:4 goes even further, stating, "If you see your fellow’s ass or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it; you must help him raise it.")
The second direct reference in Mishpatim is found in Exodus ‘3:1’. The Torah already declared that, on Shabbat, not even animals could be made to work. Now that commandment is repeated, only this time with an explanation: "in order that your ox and your ass may rest…."
Elsewhere, Deuteronomy ”:6 requires us to chase far away a mother bird before stealing her fledglings or her nesting eggs. Deuteronomy ‘5:4 forbids muzzling an ox during threshing because its instinct would be to graze, and the muzzle would cause it psychological pain. Psychological pain is also behind two commandments in Leviticus ”. Verse ‘6 prohibits removing a firstling from its mother before she has weaned it. Verse ‘8 prohibits killing an animal and its young on the same day. And no less than three times are we enjoined not to cook a calf in its own mother’s milk.
As difficult as it is for me to admit, New Jersey’s annual bear hunt probably would pass the Noda B’Yehuda’s test, but filling a one-pound bird full of metal pellets for fun cannot be justified under any rationalization.
Give me Torah law anytime.