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Rosh haShanah la’Behemot: A New Year’s Day for Domesticated Animals

Image: “Mann mit Kalb” (1963) by Gabriele Waldert (License: CC-BY-SA 3.0)

One of the most delightful things I learned about Judaism growing up was that rabbinic Judaism had not one, but four new year holidays (according to the Mishnah Seder Moed 1:1). There’s the well known and widely celebrated Rosh Hashanah La’Olam — for the World — an annual commitment to maintaining and sustaining creation through the beneficial work of our activities, and through repairing ourselves and our manifold relationships within the work of creation. (This occurs on Rosh Ḥodesh Tishrei.) There’s the fairly obscure Rosh Hashana La’Melakhim — for Kings — an annual commitment to our calendar founded upon a society of justice. (This occurs on Rosh Ḥodesh Nissan.)

I was overjoyed to learn we had a new year day for trees — TREES! — they had their own special day — Rosh HaShanah La’Ilanot (on Rosh Ḥodesh Shvat and Tu Bishvat). Finally, there was a new years day for animals domesticated within human society — Rosh Hashanah La’Behemot (on Rosh Ḥodesh Elul). It’s been my dream since 5th grade to revive this holiday as a day to promote the mitzvah of tsaar baalei chayim — being mindful of the suffering of all living creatures. Growing up I remember discovering this mitzvah in Hebrew Day School, in Ḥumash class. In loving animals, finding this mitzvah helped me love the tradition of my people even more. I always wondered why Tu Bishvat was actively celebrated while Rosh HaShanah LaBehemot was so neglected, forgotten, and completely obscure. For most of my life, I’ve been extremely concerned with the industrialization of the meat industry, the exploitation of hundreds of animal species for food, slavery, and entertainment and how otherwise compassionate and thinking people, Jews among them, have turned a blind eye to the horrors of an industry that only exists to serve human appetites. I’ve been horrified by the abuse of ethics for unnecessary animal testing of cosmetics, the plight of formerly domesticated animals that now live as scavengers in our cities as strays, and how an increasing number of once wild animals are becoming dependent on human society as their own ecosystem and ability to find food for themselves in the wild is disrupted by the encroachment of (agricultural, housing, and transportation) development.

And so I resolved to revive it. Two years ago I was happy to find, and not the least surprised to discover that Sarah Chandler and Rabbi Jill Hammer had created a blessing and ritual for the day. Last year, I posted a sourcesheet on the day hoping it would in the very least begin to spark others imaginations. I contacted Richard Schwartz, author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, and president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America, to articulate the idea. He was so kind and receptive, and speaking with him helped me better explain the idea. I’ve been keen to recover and signify the existing minhagim for the day — listening to the first blast of the shofar announcing the beginning of Elul Zman — the period of time preceding the Yamim Noraim — the high holy days — intended as a period for tshuva. It seemed to me entirely appropriate that if we are enjoined to see ourselves as the divine flock being tithed on Rosh Hashanah, then we should become mindful of our responsibilities to the creatures who depend so much on our beneficence — not only animals directly in our care such as our pets, but also all the animals exploited for the sake of our consumer choices, all of the animals once domesticated by our ancestors, and all of the animals currently being domesticated and being made dependent upon us and the kindness of our children and our children’s children.

I’ve been intent on seeing this grow stronger with each succeeding year. After sharing this idea, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz included me on the Advisory Committee for the Shamayim v’Aretz Institute — a new organization to promote animal welfare and healthy living broadly throughout the Jewish world. while at the Siach Conference in Tiberias, Nigel Savage invited participants to pitch their ideas to attract potential collaborators and I pitched Rosh Hashanah Labeheima. I was so gratified to find a handful of others interested and ready to help work on this including Yossi Wolfson, of the International Jewish Vegetarian Society. I set up a Facebook page and a Facebook event page. A press release is being drawn up and folk are beginning to think of other ways to celebrate this day. Richard Schwartz is suggesting a seder and haggadah for Rosh HaShanah Labeheima. I hope to talk more about this at the DIY Judaism retreat at Isabella Freedman Retreat Center after Shabbes on August 18th.

About Aharon N. Varady


Aharon’s Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes . He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words.

8 comments to Rosh haShanah la’Behemot: A New Year’s Day for Domesticated Animals

  • Kol hakavod, Aharon, for your pioneering work on restoring and transforming the ancient, generally forgotten Rosh Hashanah for the animals. Such a day is needed very much today in order to increase awareness of Judaism’s beautiful teachings on compassion for animals and to help reduce the massive current abuses of animals on factory farms and in other settings. It also is extremely important that people recognize that the production and consumption of meat and other animal products is causing an epidemic of diseases in the Jewish community and other communities and also significantly contributing to climate change and other environmental threats to all life on our planet.

    I look forward to continuing to work with you to restore and renew Rosh Hashanah La’b’heimot with the hope that this will end the horrible current abuses of animals and help shift our imperiled planet to a sustainable path.

  • I urge everyone reading this blog to do all you can to help restore, renew, and transform this ancient holiday, for the sake of the animals and for all life on the planet. It is essential that we break through the apathy, denial, and lack of awareness as the planet increasingly approaches climate and other catastrophes.

  • Via Richard Schwartz, you have greatly inspired me and, through me, various others. Major kudos!

    I will be conducting a seder (based on the info from OpenSiddur.org) in San Francisco on Sunday and am very excited!

    I may also use info from my:

    The Vegetarian Mitzvah
    http://www.brook.com/jveg

    Ten Commandments Regarding Animals
    http://www.all-creatures.org/articles/ar-tencomm.html

  • I am currently working on a Sourcebook that will be useful for Rosh Hashanah for animals in future years. If you have suggestions for material and/or contacts, please let me know at president@JewishVeg.com .

  • Alice Green (nee Bruechert)

    Thank you for sharing the photograph of the sculpture by Gabriele Waldert. Gabriele Waldert was my grandmother’s eldest sister, they had a middle sister Marianne Waldert. Gabriele Waldert was born in 1902 in Bohemia which later came to be known as the Sudetenland and died in Vienna in March 1991. I loved her dearly and was very close to her after my grandmother died in 1978. She was a brilliant sculptor who had shows all over Europe including the Sorbonne. I recognized the sculpture immediately because each time I stayed with her in Vienna I saw the miniatures of all the sculptures she made. She loved animals and sculpted many of them. It would be good if you can mention something more about her other than mentioning her name. She suffered a great deal in her life for her art. At the end of World War II in 1945, the land which belonged to my father’s family for over 700 years was taken by the Russians and my great-aunt was sent to do time in a Russian forced labor camp. Fortunately, a friend who had political influence rescued her from the camps in 1948. He established her in an apartment in Vienna where she worked on her art and shared her knowledge with budding artists and was an active member of the art community, there are several sculptures by her in Vienna. I have photographs of her in her old age with me in Vienna if you would like me to share them with you please let me know.

  • Lorenz Bruechert

    Thank you for taking the time to find this sculpture made by our great aunt (Gabriele Waldert) and present it here in your website. Her art work meant a great deal to her. For my sister (Alice Green (nee Bruechert)) and I it means a great deal to us to see her art continue to be appreciated and remembered by new generations.

  • You’re absolutely welcome! I’d love to learn more about her and her work.

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