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.
“Rosh haShanah la’Behemot: A New Year’s Day for Domesticated Animals” is shared by Aharon N. Varady with a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International copyleft license.