The Tzedakah of Animals

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, October 21, 2022 / 26 Tishrei 5783

I will be speaking about Measure 114 tomorrow during Shabbat services; this measure will be on our ballots.

Summary: This week, I review the difference between tzedakah and gemilut chasidim, explained below, and use that as a jumping off point to consider the tzedakah of animals.

Reading Time: Four minutes
Judaism usefully distinguishes between the values of tzedakah and gemilut chasidim. Tzedakah refers to our requirement to provide materially for others; many Jews are familiar with Maimonides’ famous ladder of tzedakah. In Rambam’s golden ladder, the lowest rung occurs when we give unwillingly, while the seventh and highest level consists of an anonymous donor and recipient. Yet above even this, Maimonides adds an eighth level, to prevent poverty in the first place, by endowing someone with sufficient resources or teaching someone a trade, such that the individual will know self-sufficiency and independence.

Gemilut Chasidim, meanwhile, is the mitzvah and the practice of acts of loving-kindness. In this sense, it both incorporates and supersedes tzedakah because we can perform acts of loving-kindness for rich and poor, living and dead. Moreover, while tzedakah had caps to prevent the donor from ending up impoverished, there are no such limitations to loving-kindness.

Despite the clear distinction between these two concepts, in colloquial use Jews will sometimes consider acts of loving-kindness to be tzedakah. Over the past week, this got me thinking. Not everyone has money to offer up. Does this mean that such a person can fulfill the commandment of lovingkindness but not charity? Perhaps in such a case, we can fairly call actions that are meant to raise up someone from some sort of spiritual poverty to be spiritual tzedakah, while an act of kindness may have a different object. We can be kind to someone even if they are not lacking something. This sort of kindness is like frosting on the cake of life—we don’t need it, but it sure is sweet. There are many forms of kindness that provide something essential to us. They fill a gap.

What brought this idea up was a sustained consideration of the ways in which the animals we live with continually provide for people. After all, 70% of American homes have at least one pet. When we think about the relationship between humans and pets, our first stop must be the transactional nature of the bond. Humans adopt pets with a clear intention to provide food and shelter as well as medical care to the animals we invite into our homes. Grooming, toys, maybe a doggy sweater, may be part of that equation. From this viewpoint, the relationship between us and our pets is somewhat transactional and one-directional. We give to them because we have money and because we want to.

Our cats and dogs have many forms of exchange that they offer us. Clearly, affection and love are the most obvious forms of spiritual tzedekah that our furry friends consistently provide us. Emotional support animals, for example, are supplying us with something in short supply and help ground us when we feel most ill-at-ease. Animals also constantly give us their beauty. It so often shines out of them, touching us deeply and reminding us of how precious life is, bringing smiles to our faces.

Like Maimonides ’ ladder of tzedakah, there are still other rungs. Dog owners seem particularly attached to the unconditional nature of their love for us, which extends beyond emotional support. Few of us know how to love unconditionally; it seems only the most highly evolved and spiritual humans ever achieve this level. Our thinking minds constantly interfere in the heart’s work. In this way, our pets model for us a quality in which we indeed are spiritually impoverished.

Humans are also pretty self-conscious; for some, this self-consciousness can be debilitating, so it reduces some quotient of joy for most of us. Pets, meanwhile, can be so remarkably goofy and uninhibited that they can bring out our own goofy natures, raising us up yet again. In a connected vein, as marvelous as human consciousness is, there are countless ways to perceive reality. Our animals provide us access to this; therefore they widen our scope of what it means to be aware.

Finally, the most obvious gift that our furry friends provide us is their presence. Whether you have an under-the-sofa-cat who is skittish, or a rambunctious terrier who likes to chew up the sofa, they fill our homes with their personality, presence, and warmth. When their time comes to leave us, whether through illness or disappearance, we are made aware of their outsized contributions, the spiritual tzedakah which they constantly provide us without fanfare, day in and day out.

As we begin the book of Genesis again, the place of animals in God’s world is highlighted for all to see. Let’s celebrate the animals in our lives. Like us, they are only here for a short while.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

I am certain that there are more rungs on the animal’s ladder of tzedakah. Can you think of some?

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