It is time for Jews to restore and transform the ancient and largely forgotten Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah l’Ma’aser b’Heimot (the New Year for Tithing Animals) into a day devoted to considering how to improve our relationships with animals. The holiday occurred on the first day of the month of Elul (Aug. 21 this year) and was initially devoted to counting domesticated animals intended for sacrificial offerings (Mishnah, Seder Moed, Tractate Rosh Hashanah 1:1).
There is a precedent for such a transformation. Rosh Hashanah l’Ilanot (New Year for Trees), a day intended for tithing fruit trees for Temple offerings, was reclaimed in the 17th century by mystics as a day – Tu b’Shevat – for appreciating nature and its beauty and bounty.
It is important that Rosh Hashanah la’b’Heimot (the New Year for Animals) becomes a day devoted to increasing awareness of Judaism’s powerful teachings on the proper treatment of animals and to a tikkun (healing) for the horrible ways that animals are treated today on factory farms and in other settings.
Currently, with regard to animals, Jewish religious services, Torah readings and education are primarily focused on the biblical sacrifices, animals that are kosher for eating, and laws about animal slaughter. This emphasis on animals that are to be killed should be balanced with a greater emphasis on Judaism’s more sympathetic teachings; for example, “God’s compassion is over all his works [including animals]” (Psalms 145:9) and “the righteous person considers the lives of his or her animals” (Proverbs 12:10). Another example is that farmers are not to yoke a strong and a weak animal together, nor to muzzle an animal while the animal is threshing in the field. As well, the Ten Commandments indicates that animals, as well as people, are to rest on the Sabbath day and there are many parts in the Torah mandating that Jews are to avoid tsa’ar ba’alei chaim, causing any unnecessary “sorrow to animals.” Moses and King David were deemed suitable to be leaders because of their compassionate care of sheep when they were shepherds.
Despite these and additional teachings, most Jews ignore the widespread abuses of animals. For example, egg-laying hens are kept in cages so small that they can’t raise even one wing, and they are debeaked – without the use of anesthetics – to prevent them from harming other birds by pecking them, due to their natural instincts being thwarted. More than 150 million male chicks are killed annually, shortly after birth, at egg-laying hatcheries because they can’t lay eggs and haven’t been genetically programmed to have much flesh. Dairy cows are artificially inseminated annually so that they will be able to continually produce milk, and then their babies are taken away almost immediately after birth, often to be raised for veal, under very cruel conditions.
Renewing and transforming the ancient holiday is especially important today because a shift away from animal-based diets, in addition to lessening the mistreatment of animals, would reduce the number of diet-related diseases that are afflicting Jewish and other communities. A shift would also reduce environmental and climate change threats to humanity that are greatly increased by the massive exploitation of animals for food. And it would encourage Jews to consider plant-based diets that are more consistent with Jewish mandates to preserve human health, treat animals with compassion, protect the environment, conserve natural resources, help hungry people, and pursue peace and justice.
Transforming the holiday would show that Judaism is applying its eternal teachings to today’s important issues, and improve the image of Judaism in the eyes of people concerned about animals, vegetarianism, the environment and related issues, by reinforcing a compassionate side of Judaism. The holiday might even bring back some Jews who are currently alienated to some extent from Judaism, especially those who are concerned about animal welfare, and strengthen the commitment of vegetarian and vegan Jews who are already involved in Jewish life, but feeling somewhat outside the Jewish mainstream, as they are often among a small minority in their congregations.
The first day of the Hebrew month of Elul is an appropriate time for this renewed holiday because this date is the beginning of the month-long period of introspection during which Jews are to examine their deeds before the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Starting on that date and for the entire month of Elul (except on Shabbat), the shofar (ram’s horn) is blown in synagogues during morning services to awaken people to their responsibilities, and that is an appropriate time to consider how we can improve conditions for animals. It is significant that, for chiddur mitzvah, to enhance mitzvot (commandments), the shofar and other ritual objects should ideally come from animals that have been raised without cruelty and have died natural deaths.
A coalition of Jewish groups is leading a campaign to make this renewed holiday an important part of Jewish life today and I was part of recent Zoom events in the United States, United Kingdom and Israel, at which rabbis, Jewish vegetarian and vegan activists, and environmentalists discussed many issues related to the renewal initiative and answered questions about it. The group is also compiling lists of Jewish organizations, rabbis and other influential Jews who support the initiative. And it is planning to use the next year to create sample holiday haggadot, outlines of sample holiday seders, and other materials that can help expand holiday activities in the coming years.
Working to renew an ancient Jewish holiday that most Jews are completely unaware of may seem audacious, but it is essential, in my opinion, to helping revitalize Judaism, improving the health of Jews, sharply reducing the massive mistreatment of animals, and shifting our precious but imperiled planet onto a sustainable path.
Richard H. Schwartz, PhD, is professor emeritus, College of Staten Island, president emeritus of Jewish Veg and president of Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians. He is the author of several books, including Judaism and Vegetarianism and Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet, and more than 250 articles at jewishveg.org/schwartz. He was associate producer of the documentary A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World.