By Rabbi Boruch M Boudilovsky
Recent headlines have told the story of cecil the lion Cecil, who was controversially killed by hunters. He was a known lion who reportedly ruled over two prides and was under study by Oxford University.
His killing by an American dentist who allegedly paid some £35,000 for the adventure, raised awareness and anger. Airlines such as Delta, American and United have banned the transport of animal trophies.
The halachic prohibition on engendering suffering upon animals, Tzar Baalei Chaim, is well known. But what are the specific parameters of this prohibition? Does it include killing animals for food? Is it permitted to use animals for medical research? Is hunting allowed?
In one 18th century example where classic halachic literature addresses these questions, Rav Yechezkel ben Yehuda Landau, an halachic authority, author, and rabbi of Prague, was asked in reference to a Jewish person who owned a large European estate encompassing fields and forests.
The owner inquired if he would be halachically permitted to hunt wild animals on his property, using a rifle. In a detailed written response, Rav Yechezkel says that first, any use of animals which benefits people would not be prohibited. This is why it is permitted to kill animals for food and to use animals for scientific research.
Secondly, he argues that this specific prohibition does not forbid killing animals. Rather, it forbids causing suffering to live animals. Therefore, this prohibition would not apply when the hunting is a swift killing of the animal that does not cause pain.
However, the author then continues with an ethical consideration of the question from a Jewish perspective: “The activity of hunting is traditionally associated with characters such as Nimrod and Esau. This is certainly not the spirit of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. How can someone Jewish kill animals for no other reason than hunting during spare time? To hunt animals in their natural habitat [where they present no danger to humans] is to simply pursue one’s negative ambitions and desires. Therefore, from an ethical perspective, one must strictly abstain from such activity.”
Rav Landau enforces this argument by stating the halachic prohibition to place oneself in danger for no reason. Since entering areas of wildlife and hunting can be dangerous, it is forbidden.
This Jewish halachic response was written long before modern awareness of animal welfare issues. It expresses the ethical values which historically inspired our nation, and will hopefully continue to shape our moral standards.
Boruch M Boudilovsky is rabbi of Borehamwood and Elstree United Synagogue