When I was small, favourite things were the dried flower my parents bought me as a treat from Hoyes, the sweet shop. You put the flower in a jar of water and it would unfurl, a growing, gripping thing.
The Mishnah, edited in the Galilee around 200CE, often seems to me like that: a text which unfolds, growing in one’s mind, complex, vital. One of my favourite mishnayot concerns Rosh Hashanah (rapidly approaching).
It begins unexpectedly: ‘There are four new years…’ The first is the 1st of Nisan, new year for kings (important for dating documents). The second is today, the 1st of Elul, new year for tithing cattle. The third is the 1st of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah par excellence, when every living being passes before God. The four is the 15th of Shevat, new year for trees.
As this Mishnah opens out I feel it encompass every aspect of life: our practical and financial affairs; our connection with God and conscience; our response to trees and nature and our relationship with animals.
This is, admittedly, a liberal interpretation. In fact, the new year for trees was a date for taxing crops. The new year for cattle was when farmers had to give every tenth lamb and calf to the Temple. But today, just as the Rosh Hashanah has become a time of profound reflection on what it means to be human, so Tu Bishevat calls on us to examine our attitude to nature, and the 1st Elul has been rebranded as the Jewish New Year for Animals.
I’ve always liked animals; my parents assumed I’d be a vet. I include an extra word in my prayers every day: when we ask God to bless the years, I add ‘vehabriyot - and the animals’.
In Biblical and early rabbinic times, Jews had close relationships with nature. ‘The righteous person feels for the life of his domestic animals,’ teaches Proverbs. Oxen and asses must not be burdened on Shabbat. But donkeys often feel cold, so it’s permitted to put a blanket over them on Shabbes. Tsa’ar ba’alei chaim, the prohibition against making animals suffer, is regarded as Torah law, legislation of the highest authority.
Maimonides noted that mother animals feel pain similar to humans when separated from their young. Nachmanides observed how animals can make choices and some show love, implying that they have souls.
I admit I’m sentimental, but I believe this New Year for Animals is highly important. I’m horrified by how we as a species treat them, excepting only our beloved household pets. In Curlew Moon, Mary Colwell records how many people hadn’t even noticed that they hadn’t noticed how the haunting calls of these remarkable birds, once so familiar, had become absent. The spring, and all the seasons, had simply fallen silent around them; they hadn’t even realised. I fear we’re the same.
Judaism teaches that we’re part of creation, dependent on it, interdependent with it and answerable to God for our relationship towards it.
If animals could write, there would be trillions of signatures on their ‘J’accuse’. How we treat food animals is unthinkable; that is, virtually all of us fail to, choose not to, or can’t bear to think about it. Where’s the humility; where’s the compassion? Unless we sharpen our agrichemical laws, the small mammals and songbirds will be gone from our fields. And we call ourselves human, humane!
Yet we almost all say we love nature. In Jewish teaching love is never just sentiment but always also commandment, as the Torah demands: ‘You shall love the Lord your God’ – and all God’s works.
Like the Rosh Hashanah, today’s New Year for Animals calls us to teshuvah, repentance, rethinking, realignment of who we are.
Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov, a good and thoughtful month of Elul