• Home
  • Parashah
  • Ask the Rabbi
  • Festivals
  • Freemasonry
  • Articles
  • About
  • Books
  • Media

    Don’t be a donkey – Balak

    Rembrandt's Balaam & his Ass, 1626

    It’s not only in today’s sidra, with its exciting story of the talking ass, that Judaism shows an interest in animals.

    A basic principle of Jewish ethics is tza’ar ba’alei chayyim, not causing pain to any living creature.

    But while insisting that animals are part of God’s concern, Judaism believes that man is a higher species. Animals may therefore be used for the benefit of man, but that use must be limited and controlled for the benefit of the animal. Thus animal experimentation to assist medical science is permitted, but scrupulous care must be exercised and animals must not be handled routinely or roughly.

    In Never Torture an Animal, Sholem Aleichem presents this exchange between a little boy and his friend: “Your father is a goy!”

    “Why is he a goy?”

    “Because he has no sympathy for animals”.

    Unfortunately Jews and animals both often suffered from cruelty; Mendele Mocher Sefarim has a story, “The Little Calf”, in which a Jewish boy cries with a motherless calf, “Both of us have had to suffer at the hands of others”.

    Jewish literature often derives lessons from the characteristics of various animals. It is most unimpressed with the pig and considers its habits dirty as well as its meat non-kosher, and it tells a person, “Don’t be a chazzir!”

    Nor does it like snakes or serpents; the story of the serpent that led Adam and Eve astray shows what harm can be done by snakes in the grass.

    Judaism admires lions and advises at the beginning of the Shulchan Aruch, “Strengthen yourself like a lion to get up in the morning for the service of the Creator”.

    The basis of this dictum is the Ethics of the Fathers, which says, “Be strong as the leopard, light as an eagle, fleet as a hart and strong as a lion to do the will of your Father who is in heaven” (5:23).

    The Perek also recommends, “Be rather a tail to lions than a head to foxes” (4:20).

    Though Jews had dogs unleashed against them during the pogroms, our tradition thought highly of the dog because of its devotion to its master, which implies that humans can learn loyalty from the dog.

    There is a saying that when the Messiah comes the dogs will be the first to sense his arrival and will bark joyously (Bava Kamma 60b); likewise human beings should respond eagerly to the advent of redemption.

    But back to Bilam’s ass. The ass in the story was clever and sensitive and opened its mouth to rebuke its master for his lack of compassion: yet the folk view is that the ass is stupid and has no sense at all. Which is why the rabbis said unkind things about chamor nos’ei sefarim ­- “a donkey carrying books”.

    In today’s world that might be a person who has impressive qualifications but lacks common sense.


    Lord God, Creator of all:

    You made human beings the pinnacle of your creation. You gave them dominion; You ordained the pre-eminence of man over beast. But you made us masters, not tyrants. You commanded that we use and not abuse our powers over the animal kingdom. We thank You for our privileges; we accept our responsibility.

    Teach us to fulfil the word of Scripture: “A righteous person regards the life of his animal” (Proverbs 12:10). Give us the sensitivity to treat our animals kindly and with concern, admonished by Bilam’s ass which justifiably rebuked its master.

    Because You are the Shepherd who watches over human needs, may we always be shepherds who respect the needs of our animals.

    Remind us that the messianic redemption will commence with the animals, when “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6-9). May we be worthy of this fulfilment, and let us say Amen.

    Comments are closed.