Learning Torah by caring for a pet

Learning Torah by caring for a pet

Tuesday morning was a strange one for me.

For the first time in over 27 years, there was no four-legged family member to greet me. There was no one to feed before my first cup of coffee. There was no one to plop down beside my chair as I davened. Nellie Bly, the last of my three dogs, had died the morning before.

The emptiness of the house that morning, and the empty feeling inside me, made me consider how important pets are in our lives – not just from the comfort they can bring, but also the valuable lessons they teach us about Torah law.

Especially we who live in cities and suburbs, far removed from the natural world that God said was “very good” – we take too many things for granted. Before we eat a piece of bread, for example, we recite a blessing, “Who brings forth the bread from the earth.” As any schoolchild will tell you, bread comes from the store, in a package, just like fruits, vegetables, and hot dogs. Milk comes in cartons, not from cows.

The brachah over bread is meant to remind us how wrong that is. There are many steps involved in turning a wheat seed into a loaf of bread, and many people are occupied in each of these steps. Few of us think about that when we put bread on the table.

Few of us think of nature at all.

That in itself is a sin of sorts. Most people believe the sin of the Tower of Babel was that its builders wanted to reach the heavens, there to make war on God. Not so. “Come,” the Torah quotes the builders as saying, “let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky…, else we shall be scattered all over the world (see Genesis, Chapter 11:4),” meaning they would be forced to live with nature rather than away from it.

Earlier, in Chapter 4, Cain’s punishment for committing manslaughter was not just being exiled from the land, but becoming a builder of cities.

Owning a pet helps bring us back down to earth, especially when it comes to engaging in areas of Jewish law we otherwise hardly notice.

Take feeding animals, for example.

When a person makes a motzi before eating bread, bread must be eaten before the person may speak. Say anything between blessing and completion, and the blessing must be repeated – with two notable exceptions.

The first is a logical one. If, after making the motzi, the person offers someone else a piece of bread and says, “take a piece and make a brachah,” the blessing stands.

As for the other notable exception, the Babylonian sage, Rav Sheshet said, “Even [if the person making the motzi paused to say] ‘mix [food] for the oxen,’ he [or she] need not [repeat] the brachah.”

Explained the sage Rav Yehudah in the name of Rav, “A person is prohibited from eating before feeding his [or her] animals, as it is written [in Deuteronomy 11:15], ‘I will provide grass in the fields for your animals,’ and [only then does it say] ‘and you will eat and be satisfied.'” (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Brachot 40a.)

The use of Deuteronomy 11:15 is significant because it is part of the second paragraph of the Shema, which means we are supposed to be reminded of this requirement at least twice a day, when we lie down and when we rise up.

Maimonides, it seems, rules this way, as well (see Mishneh Torah, The Laws of Blessings, 1.8), although there are some who insist that elsewhere (in the Laws of Slaves) he considers it an option only. His words here, however, offer no sense of leeway; animals come before humans when dinner is being served. In fact, the overwhelming majority of halachic decisors consider feeding animals before ourselves a requirement.

Well they should, because Torah law over and again shows concern for the needs and even the feelings of animals.

Too many people glibly refer to “dumb animals,” but the Torah does not agree that animals are dumb. That “the serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild beasts” (see Genesis 3:1) suggests that all non-human creatures are capable of thinking.

The Torah also assumes animals have emotions, including envy, and even a moral sense, as well. (Science, by the way, confirms both the emotions and the moral sense.) God, after all, commanded the animals to be vegetarians, just as He did humans (see Genesis 1:30). Because they killed for food, just as we humans did, they, too, were destroyed in the Great Flood. God would not command those who cannot understand His commands, and He would not punish them for not understanding.

Often, the Torah’s concern for animals and birds shows up in pointed references. Exodus 23:5-6 and Deuteronomy 22:4, for example, require helping animals that are suffering under a heavy load.

Deuteronomy 25:4 forbids muzzling an ox during threshing so as not to cause it psychological pain. Psychological pain also is behind two commandments in Leviticus 22. Verse 26 prohibits removing a firstling from its mother before she has weaned it. Verse 28 prohibits killing an animal and its young on the same day. Psychological pain also is seen in Deuteronomy 22:6, which requires us to chase a mother bird far away before stealing her fledglings or her nesting eggs.

And no less than three times are we enjoined not to cook a calf in its own mother’s milk. The cow will not know what we are doing, but we surely would.

Finally, in Exodus 23:12, the Torah explains why we are not allowed to work our animals on Shabbat: “in order that your ox and your ass may rest.”

These are important commandments, but strange ones to people without pets, just like “Who brings forth bread from the earth” is strange to those who think bread comes from someone called Wonder.