Shabbos 128 Tzaar Baalei Chayim (preventing cruelty to animals)

The Gemara on 128b brings the ruling of Rav Yehuda in the name of Rav that states that if an animal fell into a trench/stream with water in it on shabbos and is not able to get out, one may stack/throw cushions one on top of another to allow it to climb out.
It questions this ruling from a Beraisa which states that in such a case, one should bring it פרנסה (sustenance- presumably food,water etc.) where it is, which implies that using cushions to help it out is forbidden.
The Gemara concludes that when it is possible to take care of its needs where it is, one should indeed do so, but if this is not possible, one is permitted to help it out using the cushions.
It then challenges this “leniency” on the basis that the cushions will be ruined, and there is a rabbinical prohibition against מבטל כלי מהיכנו ,ruining an instrument in a way that it will no longer be fit for its purpose on Shabbos.
Finally, it concludes that seeing as “tzaar baalei chayim” (avoid suffering to animals) is a biblical commandment and ruining a vessel is a rabbinical prohibition, the biblical concept of tzaar Baalei chayim pushed aside the rabbinic concern of ruining a vessel.
At first glance, this sugya seems to be establishing a rule that should perhaps even be obvious- the biblical requirement to prevent distress to animals pushes aside rabbinical prohibitions.
However, a look at the flow of the sugya reveals that this is far from obvious.
Firstly, if there was such a blanket rule, why was it necessary to allow this specifically in this case?
Secondly, if this is indeed true, why is this only permitted if it is impossible to take care of the animal while it is in the trench? Surely the animal still gets a degree of distress by not being able to get out, and one should be able to override the rabbinical prohibition simply to stop this distress, not just to give it food and water?
As such, one is almost forced to deduce from this sugya that there is no blanket permission to transgress any rabbinic prohibition to avoid distress to animals, AND that not every form of distress is equal.
The prohibition of making a vessel unusable is indeed pushed aside for this reason, and it is possible that other rabbinical prohibitions of similar nature or status are as well, but that is about all we can get from here.
In addition, it seems that the level of distress required to activate this “pushing aside” must be rather significant, at the level of hunger or thirst, and not just emotional distress or frustration.
If this legalistic analysis is indeed correct, it seems to be rather counter intuitive on an ethical and logical level, and some further explanation is in place.
Although it can argued that concern for the welfare of animals should be axiomatic to human nature and perhaps be in the category of simply דרץ ארץ קדמה לתורה, (basic decency precedes Torah,) there are a number of places in the Torah where concern for animals is evident explicitly as well, despite the fact that using animals for human needs and divine sacrifice was clearly sanctioned.
From the very beginning, we see that man is charged with working the garden of Eden and looking after it and its inhabitants (Bereishis 2/15.)
During the period of the flood, Noah was given responsibility not only for saving his family and anyone who would repent (there were none,), but also representatives of every living species (Bereishis 7/2.)
The Torah commands us to avoid eating blood of any animal, see as it contains the essence of its life-force (Devarim 12/23.)
Virtually all our leaders acted at least in their early years as shepherds, and the Midrash attributes this to the need for our leaders to be people who are merciful and concerned for all creatures )Shmos Rabbah 2/2 )
We are commanded to give the carcass of a טריפה (animal unfit for consumption due to injury) to the dogs, and the Gemara stresses how dogs are to be treated with extra compassion due to the difficulty they face in finding food (Shabbos 155b.)
One of the most poignant examples of the disdain that the Torah treats cruelty to animals must surely be the episode of the wicked heathen prophet Bil’am and his donkey (Bamidbar 22)
The exchange of words between him and his donkey leaves little place for doubt that the Torah’s harshest judgement of Bil’am, besides for his hatred of the Jewish people, is the utter callousness that he shows towards his loyal ass.
One is forbidden to kill an ox and its child on the same day (Vayikra 22/28), and is required to send away the mother bird before taking its young (Devarim 22/7), and although the reasons for these commandments are somewhat more controversial , it certainly appears at face value that they are connected to the need to have mercy even when performing cruel tasks needed for one’s own sustenance (See Ramban Devarim 22/6 , and his reference to the Rambam in the Moreh(3/48))
The Gemara (Bava Metzia 85a) tells us how Rabbi Yehuda haNasi himself, the great redactor of the Mishna, was walking on his way and a calf came and pleaded for him to save him from being taken to the slaughter.
Instead of helping him, or perhaps thinking that he was, he instructed the calf to go willingly to the slaughter, as this is what it was created for (to feed man.)
As a result of this callous response, the Gemara relates that extreme suffering was decreed on him.
This suffering only ended when he had repented and showed that he had changed his ways.
His maid was clearing out some weasels from the house and he told her to let them be, seeing as “His mercy is on all his creatures.”
Presumably Rebbe had learnt the lesson that it is man’s role to follow in the ways of Hashem and to be merciful like he is even in a situation when the law is not on the side of the supplicant.
Even if the calf was technically serving its purpose, he should have acted mercifully and saved it, or at a minimum, spoken to it in a more empathetic way.
Yet the most official halachik source for an obligation to not only refrain from actions that cause distress to animals but to actively strain oneself to prevent it, seems to be the commandment to help offload a donkey.
The Gemara (Bava Metzia 32b) explains the overreaching scope of this requirement as being a proof that צער בעלי חיים דאורייתא (avoiding distress to animals is a biblical requirement.)
We see clearly from this, that the biblical requirement to prevent suffering to animals is not limited to taking care of their food and water, but also to the distress felt by a loaded donkey.
Returning to our sugya and the animal in the stream, perhaps one needs to conclude that the case we are dealing with assumes that the animal is not in particular distress where it is, and that the main distress it faces is lack of food.
On a hot day in the African bush, one often sees animals enjoying time in the water, and so long as the water is not too deep for it to stand, it might not endure significant distress if it waits there till after shabbos, so longer as it has food.
If however, the animal is in significant stress just by virtue of being stuck in the trench, it seems logical that helping it out with cushions would also be permitted, and that if this is not sufficient, any other rabbinical prohibition could also be pushed aside in order to help it out.
In practise, there is much debate about when “tzaar baalei chayim” pushes off other halachik concerns, we have only come to open the discussion.
These posts are intended to raise issues and stimulate further research and discussion on contemporary topics related to the daf. They are not intended as psak halacha.

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