Editor’s Note: The Beet-Eating Heeb is the nom de plume of Jeffrey Cohan, a former journalist in Forest Hills, PA. He also blogs about Judaism and veganism on his own website.
A divinity student from a Presbyterian seminary approached The Beet-Eating Heeb recently and made a surprising comment.
“I’m so impressed,” he said, “with the emphasis that Judaism places on treating animals with compassion.”
The Beet-Eating Heeb didn’t know whether to kvell or to cry.
Kvell, because all levels of Jewish texts, from the Torah on down, express incredible sensitivity for the welfare of animals. The divinity student knew something about Judaism – on paper.
Cry, because concern for animals is almost totally absent from Jewish communal discourse, while literally billions of farm animals are suffering in abysmal conditions.
It is therefore, in the spirit of our Prophetic tradition, that a creative effort has arisen to rouse us from our chilling complacency and to focus attention on Judaism’s teachings about animals: Concerned Jews in Israel and the United States are trying to resurrect and reframe the ancient but long-forgotten holiday of Rosh Hashanah La B’Heimot, or New Year for Animals.
In the era of the First and Second Temples, Jews on Rosh Hashanah La B’Heimot selected an animal from their flocks for tithing, or sacrifice. The holiday is observed on Rosh Chodesh Elul, the first day of the Hebrew month that leads up to the main Rosh Hashanah.
At 6:00 p.m. this Sunday, on Rosh Chodesh Elul, a gathering of Jews will observe Rosh Hashanah La B’Heimot for the first time in more than 2,000 years. They will gather for a specially prepared Seder at the Caravan of Dreams Restaurant in Manhattan.
The idea of resurrecting this holiday is not as quixotic as it may first appear.
It is described as one of the four Jewish New Years in Mishnah Rosh Hashanah. And of the four, it is the only one that has disappeared from our communal radar screen.
The other three are The Rosh Hashanah, which obviously needs no introduction; Rosh Chodesh Nissan, which sets the stage for Passover; and Tu B’Shevat, which is itself a reframed holiday.
Indeed, it is Tu B’Shevat which establishes the precedent and creates the model for the new interpretation of Rosh Hashanah La B’heimot. Historically a holiday for calculating the date of trees, Tu B’Shevat has become a platform for promoting environmental consciousness in our modern era, after going practically unnoticed for several centuries.
While The Beet-Eating Heeb applauds the reinvigorated observances of Tu B’Shevat, he feels strongly that the need to bring back the New Year for Animals is even greater.
When you juxtapose our Torah against the horrific treatment of farm animals in our industrialized agricultural system, you will see a yawning gap. BEH refers to it as a “yawning gap” not just because the gap is wide, but because we seem to be collectively sleeping while animals suffer. We don’t hear their cries or screams.
You can make the case that the mistreatment and slaughter of some 9 billion farm animals in the U.S. each year is the single most serious abomination in our society, at least in terms of the scale of the misery. If it’s not the most serious abomination, it’s surely in the Top 10.
In this context, Judaism seems all the more relevant, and our teachings seem especially pertinent. The Beet-Eating Heeb does not have space in this blog post to even scratch the surface of Judaism’s extensive teachings about animals, so let’s just say that the divinity student had it right. Ours is a religion that brought compassion into a savage world, and that mandates compassion not just for people but for animals as well. In fact, the rabbis of the Talmud drew a rather thin line between humans and animals in assigning value to life.
Granted, Judaism’s emphasis on the comfort of animals is related to the agrarian societies of our ancestors, while today most of us live in cities. But in one vitally important respect, our animal-related teachings are more relevant than ever: Our ravenous appetites for meat, dairy and eggs puts us into a contractual relationship with unseen factory farms, and makes us complicit in the caging, the mutilation, the overcrowding, the disfiguration, the pain and the bloody killing of sentient beings.
This is why we must educate ourselves about our Torah and other texts. And this is why resurrecting and reframing the New Year for Animals is not just a quixotic idea, but a moral necessity for our times. If The Beet-Eating Heeb ever runs into that divinity student again, he hopes he can kvell, without crying.
Jeffrey Cohan can be contacted at (firstname.lastname@example.org)[mailto:email@example.com] and on Twitter at @beeteatingheeb. Find out more about the Seder this Sunday by emailing (info@JewishVeg.com)[mailto:info@JewishVeg.com]