"The Holy One, Blessed be He, sustains all creatures" (Talmud: Shabbos 107b)
The Talmud records that Rabbi Yehudah said in the name of Rav: "In all creation there is nothing that lacks a divinely-appointed purpose" (Shabbos 77b). All forms of life serve the unifying Divine purpose, and the Divine plan entitles each creature to receive what it needs in order to fulfill its purpose within creation. As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes in his commentary on the Torah (Genesis 15:8), this Divine plan is called "tzedek" - one of the biblical terms for justice; moreover, the benevolent deeds which fulfill this plan are called "tzedakah." Our sages therefore describe the Creator's nurturing of all life in the following manner:
"He does tzedekah and nourishes, supports, and sustains all who come into the world and all that He created." (Tanna Devei Eliyahu 17:8)
A person who strives to live according to the Torah's principle of tzedek in all areas of his existence is called a "tzadik." In this spirit, King Solomon wrote, "A tzadik knows the needs of his animal's soul" (Proverbs 12:10). The Malbim, a noted 19th century biblical commentator, explains that the tzadik understands the nature of his animal, and he gives the animal its food in its proper time and according to the amount it needs. He also makes sure to fulfill the mitzvah to feed one's animal before one feeds oneself. For the tzadik, writes the Malbim, lives according to the following code: "The tzadik acts according to the laws of tzedek; not only does he act according to these laws with human beings, but also with his own animal."
The Malbim mentioned the mitzvah to feed our animals before we feed ourselves. In the following passage, the Talmud states that a source for this mitzvah can be found in the Divine statement which mentions the feeding of animals "before" the feeding of human beings:
"Rabbi Yehuda said in the name of Rav: A person is forbidden to eat before he gives food to his animal, as it states (Deut. 11:15): 'I will give grass in your fields for your cattle,' and it then concludes, 'and you shall eat and be satisfied.' " (Brochos 40b)
Based on the above teaching, the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, an abridged code of Torah law, states: "One who owns animals or fowl that depend upon him for their sustenance is forbidden to eat anything until he feeds them (42:1). (Some possible exceptions are discussed in the notes which appear at the end of this letter.)
What is the reason or reasons for the mitzvah of feeding our animals before we feed ourselves? Before we begin to discuss this question, we need to be aware that our finite minds cannot fully understand the infinite wisdom of the Compassionate Creator Who gave us the Torah and its path of mitzvos. For example, we may not be aware of all the various ethical, spiritual, and metaphysical benefits which a mitzvah brings to ourselves and the world. As a result, when we begin to discuss a reason for a mitzvah, we do so with the humble awareness that the Torah is a deep sea of spiritual wisdom and we have only begun to explore the surface of this sea.
One possible reason for this mitzvah is because human beings were assigned the task of being the caretakers of the earth and its creatures (Genesis 2:15). This mitzvah therefore serves as a reminder of our Divine mandate. In addition, this mitzvah may be a branch of another mitzvah which we will discuss in future letters: the prohibition against causing needless pain to living creatures. As we shall later discuss, this prohibition also obligates us to alleviate the pain of a suffering animal; thus, if animals in our care are hungry, we certainly have an obligation to feed them! The book, "The Vision of Eden" by Rabbi David Sears (pages 203, 204), cites other reasons offered by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. For example, Rabbi Kook writes:
"Aside from enjoining us to recognize our obligation of active concern for the welfare of all creatures, according to the lofty station of this holy directive, it is required as an act of justice, since by means of the animal, the human being forth bread from the earth, and 'abundant produce from the power of the ox' (Proverbs 14:4)." (Ein Ayah, Vol. II, Berachos, chap. 6, par. 26)
Rabbi Kook adds: "This precept not only expresses compassion, but also reflects the justice of showing gratitude; for if not for the animal, the human being would not gain the necessities of life."
We refer to the obligations of a mitzvah as "halacha" – Torah law. The word "halacha" is derived from the Hebrew word "holech" – to walk. For a halacha reveals the way we are to walk in this world. And the halacha to feed our animals before ourselves remind us to walk in this world in a way which is both compassionate and just to other living creatures.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
Related Teachings and Comments:
1. Rabbi Kook offers another reason why we feed our animals before ourselves. He states: "It also must be pointed out that a human being who lacks food temporarily can quiet the distress of his soul by pursuing various forms of spiritual gratification, due to his higher soul and intellect. However, the animal that suffers pangs of hunger has nothing with which to distract her soul."
2. According to halacha, we are allowed to drink before giving water to our animals. We learn this insight from a story about our righteous mother, Rebecca: After a long journey, Abraham's servant, Eliezer, arrived at the well of her village, and the young Rebecca, who was at the well, first gave drink to the weary and thirsty Eliezer, before giving drink to his animals (Genesis 24:11-21). Another source for this teaching is the following Divine statement to Moses: "Give drink to the congregation and to their animals" (Numbers 20:8). Moses was told to give water to the people "before" the animals. The reason for this halacha may be because a human being initially experiences more suffering from thirst than from hunger; thus, a human being will find it harder to postpone drinking than to postpone eating. (See the commentary of the Torah Temimah to Genesis 24:14.) In fact, the Ohr Ha-Chayim writes that a human being is even permitted to eat before his animals when there is danger to human life or when a delay in eating would cause human suffering (commentary to Genesis 24:19). For example, someone who was feeling weak would be allowed to eat before giving food to his animals.
After writing the above, I was informed by Rabbi David Sears that there is a new Torah work which discusses the above laws called "Nefesh Kol Chai" – The Soul of All Living Beings" by Rabbi Yitzchak Eliyahu Stern. This work was published in Jerusalem two years ago by Mosad le-Idud Limud ha-Torah. Rabbi Stern states that the law of feeding one's domestic animals first only applies to the case of a meal, not a snack (citing the Taz and a number of other halachic authorities.) He also states that human suffering takes precedence over feeding one's animals -- although he should feed them as soon as possible afterward. He brings this in the name of the Yad Ephraim, Orach Chaim, 167 on the Magen Avraham, s'if katan 18, in the name of the Ohr Ha-Chayim on Geneisis 24:19.
Rabbi Stern also cites the law that with regard to drinking a human being takes precedence, and he cites Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank who states that the reason is because a human being initially will have more suffering from postponing drinking than from postponing eating (Har Zvi on Orach Chayim 1, no. 90).
3. The above information is for study purposes and is not meant to serve as a final source of halachic decisions. If you have practical halachic questions, please ask a qualified halachic authority. Some sources which discuss the above information are: Sefer Chassidim 531, and Magen Avraham to Orach Chayim 167:6 – Section 18 of Magen Avraham.