When I was on Shlichut in the United States, I was a high school Judaic studies teacher. During Asseret Yimei Teshuva, my students asked me to take them to “do kapparot” with chickens. We watched as the birds arrived, were used for the kapparot, and then were shechted. In addition, we observed the mitzvah of covering the blood and saw the chickens being cleaned, checked and kashered according to the halachah. As is customary, the meat was subsequently given to the poor.
My students took pictures and videoed the entire process and later showed the movie in class. After class, a group of girls approached me, appalled. How does Judaism permit such cruelty to animals, they wanted to know. Why should animals be slaughtered simply to allow humans to be granted atonement for their sins? The girls were specifically disturbed that such an act should occur precisely during Asseret Yimei Teshuva – a time of mercy and forgiveness. They felt that treating animals in this manner contradicted the concepts of rectification and spiritual elevation.
In order to respond to these questions, we must examine the Torah’s view of the relationship between man and animals. In my opinion, our parsha, Parshat Shmini, is the point of departure for such a study.
In the second half of the parsha, we find a lengthy discussion of the kashrutof different types of animals: cattle, beasts, fowl and fish. Some, such as fish, are identified as kosher according to their characteristics; others, such as birds, must appear on a specific list of names. Immediately following this discussion, the next parsha begins with laws pertaining to people:
“A woman conceives and gives birth to a male.”
This juxtaposition leads Rashi to cite R’ Simlai from the Midrash:
“Just as man was created after all the cattle, beasts and birds, so too his law is explained after the laws of the cattle, beasts and birds.”
Rashi’s statement leads the Siftei Chachamim to wonder why man was in fact created after the cattle, beasts and birds. The answer is found in the Gemara (BT Sanhedrin 38a):
“Why was man created on Erev Shabbat?… So that if [man’s] mind should become arrogant, he can be told: ‘A mosquito preceded you during Creation.”
Hence, man was created last, after all the animals.
The Gemara’s response is puzzling. What is the significance of telling a proud and arrogant person that a mosquito preceded him? Moreover, what does it matter anyway that a mosquito was created first?
Right from the start, the Torah teaches us the Divine order of creation: what was created on each day. This order is highly significant, because each creation is designated as a preparation for the following creation. Each creation is meant to serve and to attend that which is created next.
Thus, the plants, which were created on the Fifth Day, rely on the light of the sun – which was created on the Fourth Day – in order to grow. Furthermore, animals, which were created on the Fifth and Sixth Days, eat these plants and make use of the trees. This is the natural order that prevails throughout the Divine creation.
Interestingly enough, the animals which, according to our parsha, are forbidden to be eaten are precisely those that disturb this natural order by devouring other animals. Similarly, the permitted animals are only those who maintain this order and are plant-eaters. This distinction is exemplified by the kashrut signs for animals: split hooves and cud-chewing. Only true plant-eaters bear these two traits. For instance, split hooves are a poor substitute for a predator’s claws but are well-suited to long-distance travel in search of fodder. Even the forbidden birds are predatory.
Consequently, man who was created last, on the Sixth Day, can and must use animals for his own needs, according to the natural order as determined by the Creator. However, there is one caveat. In turn, man must recognize that something was created after him – namely, Shabbat.
Shabbat symbolizes holiness and emphasizes that the Holy One, Blessed Be He, is the Creator at the core of all creation. In this way, matters are returned to their roots, and the circle of creation is closed. Shabbat, which serves as a lofty moral and ethical standard, teaches man that he is not the omniscient master of creation. Instead, man, as a mere servant and messenger of the Creator, is tasked with leading all of creation and with moral completion and repair, in Hashem’s light.
If a person accepts this order and willingly serves the Shabbat, then he may use the animals – which were created before him – in order to achieve his mission of uplifting the entire creation, based on that order. But if a person refuses to recognize that his task is to accent the moral aspect of creation – in other words, if he arrogantly chooses to view himself as the king of creation – he thereby upturns the entire order of creation. As a result, he may no longer employ that which preceded him during creation, because in his pride, he knowingly shattered creation’s sequence.
The ultimate goal of this sequence is to allow man – the shaliach tzibur of creation – to properly serve Hashem. To put it another way, this is the Torah’s “food chain”, which leads to the spiritual elevation and redemption of the entire creation.
The shofar is an excellent example of this idea. While animals use their horns for ramming and fighting, man takes those same horns and elevates them by incorporating them into our prayer service.
The Gemara (BT Brachot 35a) employs this same principle with respect to fruit. Before a person recites the correct blessing, the verse “The land and its fullness are Hashem’s” applies, and a person is not yet entitled to eat the fruit. However, following the recitation of the blessing, a different verse becomes relevant: “But the earth He gave to the children of men”.
By properly blessing Hashem, a person shows that he views himself as Hashem’s servant and a messenger for morally repairing the world and is therefore privileged and granted permission to use the entire creation for this purpose.