Rabbi Judah haNasi was an eminent scholar who compiled the Mishna circa A.D. 200. The Rabbi was renowned for his piety as well as for his intellect, but the tale that is told about him and a frightened calf, reveals another dimension to the man and has to do to with his developing compassion for animals.
This story is recorded in the Talmud and is startling in its implication that the harm we do to animals can result in human suffering. Conversely, the story demonstrates that in showing compassion to other creatures, human beings are, themselves, blessed.
The Talmud tells how the Rabbi went through a long period of time when he endured great physical pain. Because he was such a saintly man and devoted himself to the things of God, neither he nor anyone else could imagine what he could have done to bring such misfortune upon himself.
There was much discussion about the Rabbi's suffering, just as there had been in the biblical story of Job and his friends. But unlike the story of Job, whom the Bible seems to vindicate of any wrongdoing, the Talmud reveals that Rabbi Judah had done something wrong. The story follows. "A calf was being taken to the slaughter when it broke away and hid its head under the Rabbi's skirt, moaning. 'Go' said he [to the calf] 'for this wast thou created.' Upon hearing this they said [in heaven] 'Since he has no pity, let us bring suffering upon him.'
The Rabbi did not know what had brought about his affliction, and sometimes suffering causes a person to harden his heart. But that did not happen to Rabbi Judah. Instead, he became a more compassionate person.
The Talmud relates that one day his housekeeper came upon some small rodents and was about to kill them when the Rabbi intervened. He told her "Let them be for it is written [Psalm 145:9] that 'His tender mercies are over all.'"
When this act of compassion for animals was observed from Heaven, it was said "Since he is compassionate, let us be compassionate to him." And the Rabbi's health was restored, his suffering ended.
Although this narrative appears in the Talmud, it was hundreds of years before anyone pointed out that the episode provided a basis for arguing against killing animals, even for food. And when the issue finally did surface the religious debate was worded quite simply, and to the point. "If Rabbi Judah was punished because he handed a calf over to the slaughter, and was again rewarded because he protected a dumb creature from death, should we not learn from this not to slaughter any animal..."
The answers to this inquiry were neither direct nor to the point. Instead, scholars debated about what was the ideal age for killing cattle, implying that the Rabbi's guilt had to do with a matter of timing, rather than a lack of compassion. Another argued that the Rabbi suffered because he was guilty of not appearing to be merciful. He said that R. Judah should have delayed the slaughter of the calf for a day or two, thus insuring that the common folk who viewed the incident would not think it permissible for them to be "hard-hearted in their relations to both man and beast." The animal could have been killed later, with no damage done.
But regardless of such irrelevant commentaries, the Talmudic episode remains a powerful testimony to the need for compassion and empathy for animals as well as for humans.
Although Rabbi Judah's piety and learning exceeded that of most men, he was held accountable for the lack of spiritual development that manifested itself in his treatment of the terrified calf. It was only when his compassion grew to embrace all God's creatures that Heaven, itself, smiled upon him.