Why animals need their own New Year

“There are four new years,” explains the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 1:1). The best known is Tishri 1, the New Year par excellence, Rosh Hashanah, when “all who enter the world pass before God”. Next most familiar is Shevat 15, the New Year for Trees, the Jewish “Earth Day”. Least known is Ellul 1, the New Year for the Tithing of Cattle.

It sounds irrelevant: how many of us today keep cows? And anyway the date only really mattered while the Temple stood.

Yet there is a drive among Jewish environmentalists to develop the day into a Jewish New Year for Animals. This isn’t merely sentimental. It’s not about bringing our mongrels to shul for mi-sheberachs, let alone making a chopped-liver effigy of them or a vegetarian equivalent for kiddush, like the worst excesses of the bark-mitzvah catering market.

It’s about seeing the sacred in all living beings and understanding our own place in an immense and intricate material and spiritual ecology. This belongs to what the sages called “accepting the yoke of the sovereignty of God”, by acknowledging that we exist not to exploit and kill other forms of life, though we may use them thoughtfully and compassionately for our livelihood, but to protect the earth and its creatures which are entrusted by God to our care. It is a day on which to abjure cruelty and affirm our kinship with creation.

The Jewish way is not to invent a new date but to build on existing moments in the traditional calendar. What then was the New Year for the Tithing of Cattle? Maimonides describes it in Hilchot Bechorot (6:1): “It is a positive commandment to separate one out of every 10 kosher animals born to a person each year. This mitzvah applies only to cattle and sheep, as Leviticus 27:32 states: ‘All the tithes of your cattle and sheep…’”

The Talmud deemed that most animals were born by the month of Av; a tenth of the newly born could therefore be consecrated for Temple sacrifice at the start of Ellul.

This hardly sounds like the best date to celebrate animal life. But it shows that our ancestors lived in close connection with animals. The Torah makes this clear. If a sheep or ox gets lost or an over-laden donkey collapses under its load we must help (Deuteronomy 22:1-4). Such occurrences must have been as frequent then as traffic accidents today. It was a civilisation less anthropocentric and less alienated from the natural world than now.

This closeness is expressed in Judaism’s injunction against tza’ar ba’alei chayim, inflicting suffering on living creatures. Like Buddhist prayer for “all sentient beings”, it shows deep compassion before the fact that animals also experience pain. Based on the Torah’s ban against immediately separating young from their mothers, Maimonides understood this to include emotional suffering as well. If “God’s mercies are upon all God’s works” (Psalm 145:9), human mercies should include animals too.

This attitude is a sharp indictment of how we treat animals today. The meat industry may be less culpable for how it kills them than for how it makes them live, with the immense cruelties of factory production and mass transportation. The dairy industry is also far from innocent.

It’s sometimes argued that compassion should be reserved for humans, that “Nazis were sentimental about pets”. The latter may be true. Yet there’s a profound connection between our attitudes to human pain and animal pain. What we don’t see doesn’t bother us. Just as we’re generally untroubled by the pain entailed in meat and eggs arriving neatly on the shelf, so we’re often heedless of the human misery behind so many products we want to buy cheap.

The Bible is also deeply sensitive to wild animals. The Psalmist feels in the deer’s longing for water the image of our yearning for God. The author of Job finds in the secretiveness of animals a sign of God’s mysteries. Rabbinic Judaism countenances encroachment on the natural world out of genuine human need, but not through carelessness, cruelty, greed, wastefulness, or ever to an extent which threatens biodiversity. After all, we say daily, “God, how manifold are your works.”

What might a New Year for Animals look like? Ellul 1 is when we first blow the shofar, whose raw call awakens an awareness of a world deeper and more extensive than human society alone. This cry should be accompanied by two modes of liturgy: penitence, “For the sins we’ve committed in cruelty to lives with no political voice or economic power”; and praise, “Praise God, wild and domestic animals, creeping creatures and birds on the wing” (Psalm 148). If I was brave, I would add a Council of All Being, developed by Rainforest to help us recognise, not just intellectually but experientially, our bond with nature. Participants choose an animal, and through quiet reflection, try to imagine how life feels from inside its skin.

Then we should go out and care for the beautiful world committed to our trust.


This piece first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle

Our four new prayers to reflect modern troubles, fears and hopes

The Selichot are to the High Holydays what a prelude is to beautiful music. Stirring penitential prayers, they are recited from the start of Elul by Sefardic Jews, and from the Saturday night at least four full weekdays before Rosh Hashanah by Ashkenazim. Together with the daily blowing of the shofar they announce the approach of the Days of Awe.

The Selichot service contains beautiful and well-known motifs. The moving proclamation of forgiveness, ‘Lord, Lord, God merciful and gracious, patient and full of loving-kindness’, forms the chorus not just of the Selichot, but of Yom Kippur itself. Even more stirring, especially because of its melody, is the Shema Koleinu: ‘Hear our voice and take pity us… Do not cast us off in our old age or forsake us when our strength fails’. As someone said to me recently, ‘The older I get, the more I mean those words’.

There’s also much in the Selichot which is raced through in silence or simply left out. Yet many of these pieces are deeply impassioned, the outpouring before God of fear and trauma, faith and trust:

Shelter me in the shadow of your hand…Protect the remnant of my exiles wherever they may be. (Isaac ben Samuel of Narbonne, for the fifth day of Selichot) 

The powerful feeling in these prayers made me ask what we’d say today were we frankly to express our troubles, fears and hopes. As a result my community is composing four special meditations which will include pictures, film and contemporary voices, as well as music.

One such ‘prayer’ focusses on the natural world and the urgent need to change our attitude to creation so that we understand ourselves not as apart from, but as a part of, the spiritual and physical ecology of the planet. It will be based on images and sounds from the natural world, and quotations, without the spoken word.

Another meditation will be formed from the narratives of refugees, Jews and non-Jews, forced to flee religious or racial persecution. ‘You have known the soul of the stranger’, says the Torah; we witness constantly how this soul is laid bare to countless miseries. The ‘prayer’ will be a plea, to ourselves as much as to God, to take greater heed.

The third subject, sadly unavoidable, is violence and terror. This is the year of the killings in Paris and Copenhagen. Jews anywhere, alongside those who write and fight for freedom of speech and democracy, have been made targets. So also have countless Christians in the Middle East and defenceless Muslims in Africa and Asia. The meditation will focus not only on the evils perpetrated, but especially on the need for solidarity and courage.

Last but not least we will express our hope for a better world through a prayer for all children, including their wishes in their own words.

Together with reflective music, these meditations will be integrated into our traditional Selichot service. They will set honestly before our conscience and before God the troubles which beset our world and help us resolve to do more to heal these wounds in nature and humanity in the year ahead.

The service will take place on Saturday night, 5 September – 9.30pm. Online booking link: http://bookitbee.com/e/ccwm7


This piece first appeared in The Jewish News

I am my prayer

(Forgive me, this is written in unanticipated haste)
What does one pray for amidst life’s joys and life’s pain? One sees so much of both. There’s the radiance of young love; the tenderness of tried and tested, reliable affection; the enthusiasm of new friendship and the reliable sensitivity of friends of old. There is the beauty of this world of trees and birds, of snow and mountains (I remember almost running up a mountain path in Scotland to view from the top a different, silent universe of descending slopes of snow to the brilliant sea beyond). There is the wonder of young life discovering its mysteries (like the puppy in the garden trying to master the responses of all four of its legs at once). There is a different kind of joy which often accompanies age, together with its frailties but undimmed by them; a wisdom, generosity and affection which one often sees in the quiet smile of people over a certain age…
There is much sorrow too. Some of it is close to home, within the radius of what we must all expect to encounter, loneliness, the loss of someone we love, whose company somehow made life safe and without whom space itself, the very air, feels different, less substantial, less sustaining so that sometimes even going outside can be frightening. There is physical and spiritual suffering, illness, heartache and mind-haunting fears, anguish which neither our words nor actions often seem able to diminish. Just beyond our personal ambit, or maybe within the circles of those we have come to know, lie other forms of suffering: having no home or country to feel safe, fleeing war, carrying the indelible images of the violent destruction of places and people one loved, one once held in one’s arms, went out with for a drink; homelessness, hunger, fear, the inescapable feeling that violence is following at one’s back…
So what does one pray for?
One prays for the obvious things; safety, food, health, peace, for ourselves, our neighbours, our people, everyone, all life. One prays that what one encounters in life should serve to open and not close the heart. One prays for moral and emotional courage. One prays for the closeness of God, that we find the source of God’s sacred spirit within us, as if the heart were a well and one had only to go down deep enough for it to be replenished with fresh, pure water. One prays to be privileged to sing with life, to cherish and nurture life. One prays that kindness will ignite further kindness, love further love, justice further justice, and that all the good we do will be carried by life into further lives and deeds, for the impact a person may have had by the end of his or her days is unfathomable and immeasurable, since one cannot possibly know to what goodness it has led.
Our prayers should to be like a torch, a head-light or a heart-light, pointing forward to illuminate the path ahead, which we then try to follow in our deeds. ‘I am my prayer – v’ani tefilati –‘ said the Psalmist. Our deepest prayers are not extraneous from ourselves, but the essence of the people we are and aspire to be.

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