Exploring Sacred Narratives
Anymals work with God in the Tanakhiv—they share in the unfolding of events and even provide moral guidance to humanity: a snake speaks with the first humans, a donkey admonishes a wayward gentile, lions decline to consume Daniel. This section of the website focuses on the donkey in Numbers 22. (For an analysis of the snake narrative, see 4.5.II. “The Snake of Genesis 3”). Also of great importance in understanding our rightful relations with anymals, the Bava Metziav tells the story of a calf, a weasel family, and the renowned Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi. The presence, voices, and actions of anymals in sacred writings have much to teach about rightful relations with God’s creatures and with the Creator.
I. The Donkey and Balaam of Numbers 22
(This subsection of the website is the original work of Dr. Lisa Kemmerer).
In Numbers 22, Balak (king of Moab and enemy of the Jewish people) commissions Balaam (a non-Jewish seer or prophet) to curse the Israelites, who are camped nearby. On the way, the donkey (whom Balaam is riding) sees an angel with sword drawn, which her rider does not see—importantly, which her rider cannot see. Consequently, when the donkey swerves around the angel into a field, her irritated rider strikes her and turns her back to the path. The angel then relocates, standing directly in the middle of the path where it runs between two walls. The donkey swerves, but in negotiating the tight space, scrapes her rider’s foot against the wall. Her rider again strikes her. Finally, the angel stands so that the donkey cannot pass, and so the donkey lies down, feeling the sting of Balaam’s staff a third time.
After the third strike, God opens the mouth of the donkey to accuse the abusive man, to ask why he treats her so unkindly, why he has such a short memory of their long-term relationship and commitments, and why he has so little understanding of or caring for the donkey: “Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey,” so that the donkey spoke to Balaam: “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” (Numbers 22:28). Balaam offers a threatening response rooted in pride: “Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now!” (Numbers 22:29). Again speaking through the donkey, God challenges Balaam’s cruelty and his threat of unjust deadly force, reminding him of the donkey’s goodness and of their long-term relationship—which Balaam seems to have forgotten: “Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?” (Numbers 22:30).
Faced with the obvious truth, Balaam backs down and replies, “No.” God then allows Balaam to see the angel, and the angel speaks directly to Balaam in solidarity with God and the donkey, joining God to challenge Balaam’s cruel dominance:
(Numbers 22: 32–33)
The angel of the Lord said to him, "Why have you struck your donkey these three times? I have come out as an adversary, because your way is perverse before me. The donkey saw me, and turned away from me these three times. If it had not turned away from me, surely just now I would have killed you and let it live."
The angel admonishes Balaam and lets him know that, were it not for the donkey, Balaam would have been struck dead—only the angel’s concern for the life and wellbeing of the innocent donkey protected Balaam. Hearing this, Balaam abandons his mission to curse the Israelites, and instead speaks only the words God has put in his mouth, blessing the Israelites.
Shayne was confiscated by the Israeli police after his previous “owner” was caught abusing him when he was laboring pulling a cart. Though he has terrible scars on his nose from the abuse he received as a working donkey, Shayne is a sweet and gentle soul.
(Lucy’s UK Donkey Foundation)ix
In Numbers 22 the donkey is an agent of God and represents all that is good. Balaam is the “bad guy”—the bad guy fails to think of the donkey as a person, as an individual with whom he has a relationship, and is abusive toward the donkey, even threatening the donkey’s life. Numbers 22 teaches of God’s relations with the faithful, including anymals, and teaches rightful human-anymal relations. The “beast of burden” is able to see the angel of God, but Balaam cannot. The angel only spares Balaam in order to protect the donkey. God and the angel speak up against Balaam striking the donkey.
Numbers 22 provides “a moving and eloquent plea on behalf of beasts of burden everywhere,”[x] reminding those who would bully or exploit anymals (let alone kill anymals)—even domesticated or farmed anymals who appear willful and disobedient—that God cares for every living creature and that every living creature is a creature of God. Numbers 22 reveals God’s sensitivity, attentiveness, and closeness to anymals, simultaneously teaching that unkindness to anymals is unacceptable in the sight of God, reiterating the expectation that humanity (including those who are irreligious) be kind in their dealings with anymals.xi In so doing, Numbers 22 challenges humanity to reflect on our relations with anymals, especially those with whom we establish personal relations across time—those who fall most closely under our power. This story reminds that when we establish such relations we accrue responsibilities, and that these responsibilities grow across time, that all creatures are God’s and not ours, that the Creator remains personally invested in all living beings, and that God works through anymals and in so doing sometimes speaks to us. Numbers 22 reminds that anymals are not ours, but God’s, and we are tasked with serving and protecting all that God has created on behalf of the Creator. (For more on God’s ownership of creation, see 4.2.II “Creator” and for more on duties assigned to humanity by God, see 4.2.I.F “Duties Assigned by God”).
Donkeys are gregarious, inquisitive, affectionate, and very social. In their natural habitat, they travel in tight-knit herds, but around the world, they’re forced to do hard labor, exploited for entertainment, and killed for their body parts.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals)xii
Numbers 22 invites us to revisit our relations with God’s many living creatures: Do we serve and protect them on God’s behalf? Do our consumer choices respect and protect God’s creatures?
II. Calf, weasels, and Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi from Bava Metzia (Chapter 7, 85a)xv
The Bava Metziaxvi tells of a calf, a weasel family, and a Rabbi—none other than Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, also called Judah the Prince, “Rebbi” (teacher par excellence), and “Rabbeinu HaKadosh” (Our Holy Rabbi). Yehuda HaNasi (135-220) was a master of Jewish oral law, portions of which he wrote down to create the earliest authoritative compilation of Jewish oral law,xvii the Mishna (“repetition”),xviii central to the Talmud (Jewish religious law or Halakhah).xix The importance and weight of Yehuda HaNasi as a religious/moral authority in Judaism would be difficult to overstate.
Jews have tended to understand sufferings to be brought by God because of and in response to transgressions, with the understanding that more serious transgressions bring more serious sufferings.xx For this reason, according toBava Metzia 85a, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi viewed afflictions as precious, even if he suffered considerably. For example, he “accepted thirteen years of afflictions upon himself; six years of stones in the kidneys and seven years of scurvy [bitzfarna]. And some say it was seven years of stones in the kidneys and six years of scurvy.”xxi
Why was he so afflicted? What action caused this highly-esteemed rabbi to suffer such misery?
The Bava Metzia (Chapter 7, 85a) tells us that, on the way to slaughter, a calf approached Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and begged to be spared. The Rabbi responded, “Go, as you were created for this purpose.”xxii
Needless to say, the rabbi’s response was devoid of compassion. Instead of pleading on behalf of the calf and saving the calf’s life—instead of empathizing with the calf and providing aid and comfort—Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi callously sent the terrified calf along to slaughter. The Bava Metzia tells us that heaven was displeased with this cold response, and so Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi was inflicted with painful ailments: “It was said in Heaven: Since he was not compassionate toward the calf, let afflictions come upon him.”xxiii And so he suffered for years from kidney stones and scurvy.
Kidney Stones bring more frequent urination and make urination difficult and painful—causing a burning sensation. Most of the misery of kidney stones is caused by obstruction of urine,” which “can lead to infections—the urine becomes stagnant and static, and doesn’t drain well—and can cause the kidney to swell, which is a large component of the pain.”xxv Kidney stones also move around inside the body—in the kidney, between kidney and bladder, and finally out through the urethra—causing pain in the side, back, belly, groin, and testicles. Severe pain sometimes lasts from 20 minutes to an hour, and sometimes causes nausea and vomiting, fever and chills.xxvi
Scurvy is also painful, especially across time—and deadly. From weakness, irritability, low grade fever, and aching legs, scurvy progresses to hemorrhaging, painful joints, tooth decay, shortness of breath, chest pain, eye irritation, headaches, and mood swings, then culminates in general pain and swelling, tooth loss, internal hemorrhaging, nerve pain, convulsions, organ failure, delirium, coma, and death.xxvii
Having kidney stones and scurvy for years, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi must have suffered terribly—and all of this misery was brought by God because of the rabbi’s indifference to a calf headed for slaughter. There would seem no stronger statement of the moral importance of kindness to anymals, yet the story goes on, further affirming the importance of compassion and of overt kindness toward anymals: According to the Bava Metzia, the rabbi suffered in these ways until he spoke up on behalf of a family of weasels.
One day, a maidservant was sweeping out the house and came upon a family of weasels. She was sweeping the young ones out of the house when Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi noticed and said to her, “Let them be, as it is written: ‘The Lord is good to all; and His mercies are over all His works’ (Psalms 145:9).” Once again, heaven took note, but this time the response was positive because the rabbi had taken action to protect the vulnerable: “They said in Heaven: Since he was compassionate, we shall be compassionate on him, and he was relieved of his suffering.”xxix
Bava Metzia 85a tells us that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi ’s afflictions “came upon him due to an incident and left him due to another incident.”xxx More specifically, God brought suffering to this highly esteemed rabbi because of his failure to help a calf to escape slaughter, and those sufferings were relieved only after he protected a weasel family, with young in need of protection, that had taken up residence in a human home.
Bava Metzia 85a teaches us that indifference to anymals and failure to act on their behalf or in ways that are sensitive to their needs is not only a punishable transgression but can bring severe consequences. Conversely, these lines of the Bava Metzia teach that those who stand against such selfish and cruel norms are to be rewarded. Importantly, in so doing, these passages indicate that the quiet acceptance of cultural norms that harm anymals, such as sending them to slaughter or eradication of “pests,” can carry serious divine retribution, while standing up against such norms makes one worthy of rewards from heaven.
Pirkei Avot, Avot 2.1:
Apply your mind to three things and you will not come into the clutches of sin: Know what there is above you: an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and all your deeds are written in a book.xxxii
Many years ago, I was fishing, and as I was reeling in the poor fish, I realised, "I am killing him — all for the passing pleasure it brings me." Something inside me clicked. I realised, as I watched him fight for breath, that his life was as important to him as mine is to me.
Paul McCartney, musician, The Beatles)xxxiii
In sacred writings of Judaism, the presence and voices of anymals provide moral guidance. In Numbers, God speaks through a donkey, reminding that we are to serve and protect creation on behalf of the Creator, as the Creator would do, and that God has a sustained interest in the well-being of all living creatures. Bava Metzia 85a retells the experience of a highly esteemed rabbi who showed indifference to an anymal in need and who was thereby afflicted with painful ailments only relieved when he changed his behavior to assist anymals threatened by humanity. Both of these narratives remind that we are to serve and protect what God has created, as indicated in Genesis 2:15, and that this requires us to be proactive on behalf of anymals—even against widely accepted cultural norms—and that doing so can bring rich rewards while failure to do so can carry heavy penalties.
[iv] When referencing and exploring core Jewish and Christian texts, this website uses the English translation generally preferred by scholars, the New Revised Standard Version, which can be accessed here: https://www.bible.com/bible/2016/GEN.1.NRSV
[v] A book of civil law in the Talmud. The Talmud (composed of the Mishnah and the Gemara) is the source for Jewish Halakhah (law). The Mishnah is the original written version of the oral law and the Gemara holds rabbinic discussions on the Mishnah. The Bava Metzia is in the Nezikin, which is in the Mishnah.
[viii] Courtesy of Unsplash. https://unsplash.com/photos/MG36o6sEIpU
[ix] “Shayne.” Lucy’s UK Donkey Foundation: Donkey Gallery. https://www.lucysdonkeyfoundation.org.uk/donkey-gallery?lightbox=dataItem-kdgcqkni
[x] Regenstein, Lewis G. Replenish the Earth. NY: Crossroad, 1991. 24.
[xi] “Beit Midrash.” Yeshiva: The Torah World Gateway: Jewish Laws and thoughts: Plants and Animals. https://www.yeshiva.co/midrash/31828
[xii] “PETA Is Helping Donkeys, Thanks to You.” PETAPrime. Dec. 16, 2020. https://prime.peta.org/2020/12/peta-is-helping-donkeys-thanks-to-you/
Courtesy of “Vegan Activist Appointed as Animal Rights
Advisor to Israeli Prime Minister.”
Plant Based News. June 18, 2019. Updated Sept. 28, 2020.
[xiv] Courtesy of We Animals Media. https://stock.weanimalsmedia.org/groups/
[xv] For more on Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and the calf, see
- Mindel, Nissan. “Rabbi Judah the Prince: Yehudah HaNasi.” Chabad.org. https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/112279/jewish/Rabbi-Judah-the-Prince.htm
- “Shemini: Rabbi Yehudah and the Calf.” https://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/21953
- Kemmerer, Lisa. Animals and World Religions. Oxford, 2012. 174.
[xvi] Quotes from the Bava Metzia are taken from The William Davidson Talmud, Bava Metzia Chapter 7, 85a-b at Sefaria: https://www.sefaria.org/Bava_Metzia.85a
[xvii] “First Complete Mishnah.” British Library. https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/first-complete-mishnah#
[xviii] “Judah ha-Nasi: Jewish scholar” Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Judah-ha-Nasi
[xix] Talmud (literally, “study”) is the generic term for the documents that comment and expand on the Mishna. See Talmud: What is the Talmud?” My Jewish Learning. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/talmud-101/
[xx] “Bava Metzia 85a-b: Forsaking the Torah” Dec. 2016.
[xxi] Talmud: Bava Metzia 85a. The William Davidson Talmud. Sefaria. https://www.sefaria.org/Bava_Metzia.85a.3
[xxii] Talmud: Bava Metzia 85a. The William Davidson Talmud. Sefaria. https://www.sefaria.org/Bava_Metzia.85a.6
[xxiii] Talmud: Bava Metzia 85a. The William Davidson Talmud. Sefaria. https://www.sefaria.org/Bava_Metzia.85a.7
[xxiv] Courtesy of We Animals Media. https://stock.weanimalsmedia.org/groups/
[xxv] “Why People Get Kidney Stones.” Health U: Hackensack Meridian Health https://www.hackensackmeridianhealth.org/HealthU/2020/09/09/why-people-get-kidney-stones/
[xxvi] “Kidney Stone Signs and Symptoms.” WebMD. June 27, 2020 https://www.webmd.com/kidney-stones/understanding-kidney-stones-symptoms
[xxvii] “What is Scurvy?: What are the Symptoms of Scurvy?” Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/scurvy
[xxviii] Courtesy of We Animals Media. https://stock.weanimalsmedia.org/groups/
[xxx] Talmud: Bava Metzia 85a. The William Davidson Talmud. Sefaria. https://www.sefaria.org/Bava_Metzia.85a.6
[xxxi] Courtesy of Unsplash. https://unsplash.com/photos/4YcsFOuiB4Q
[xxxii] Avot 2:1. Pirkei Avot. Sefaria: A Living Library of Jewish Texts. https://www.sefaria.org/Pirkei_Avot.2.1
[xxxiii] Sir Paul McCartney at “Fish Feel: Your Page.” Fish Feel. https://fishfeel.org/Sir-Paul-McCartney/
[xxxiv] Courtesy of Llosa, Emilio. “Vegetarian & Vegan Spotlight: Paul McCartney.” She Magazine: Features: Food. Dec. 3, 2018. http://shemagazine.ca/food/steal-style-micheal-buble/
[xxxv] Courtesy of We Animals Media. https://stock.weanimalsmedia.org/groups/
[xxxvi] “The Story of Staci.” Freedom Farm website: https://www.freedom-farm.org.il/en/the-story-of-staci/