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Yael Shemesh





Do Animals Feel Pain? Balaam’s Donkey vs. Descartes





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Yael Shemesh





Do Animals Feel Pain? Balaam’s Donkey vs. Descartes








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Do Animals Feel Pain? Balaam’s Donkey vs. Descartes

In contrast to Descartes’ theory of animals as automatons, the Torah and rabbinic text express deep concern for animal suffering. One vivid example is the donkey’s rebuke of Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me?” (Num 22:28).


Do Animals Feel Pain? Balaam’s Donkey vs. Descartes

Balaam and his Ass. Rembrandt van Rijn 1626 Musée Cognacq-Jay, Paris 

“The Goat is a Mere Machine”

The German-Jewish thinker, Solomon Maimon (1753–1800), recounts in his autobiography:

On another occasion I went to take a walk with some of my friends. It chanced that a goat lay in the way. I gave the goat some blows with my stick, and my friends blamed me for my cruelty. “What is the cruelty,” I replied. “Do you believe that this goat feels a pain, when I beat it? You are greatly mistaken; the goat is a mere machine.” This was the doctrine of Sturm[1] as a disciple of Descartes.
My friends laughed heartily at this, and said, “But don’t you hear that the goat cries, when you beat it?” “Yes,” I replied, “of course it cries; but if you beat a drum, it cries too.” They were amazed at my answer, and in a short time it went abroad over the whole town, that I had become mad, as I held that a goat is a drum.[2]

Maimon here invokes the doctrine first put forward by the seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650), that animals are automatons and lack consciousness, and consequently cannot feel pain. Under his definition that cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”),[3] humans are the only “thinking beings.” Animals are excluded. Because they are no different than machines, they do no merit (or require) any moral consideration.[4]

The idea that animals have no awareness of pain sharply contrasts with a number of passages in the Torah such as the story of Balaam’s donkey, which is all but incomprehensible according to the Cartesian system.

Balaam’s Donkey as a Character

Balaam the Seer angers God when he chooses to go with the officials from Moab to curse Israel, and God sends an angel with a drawn sword to block Balaam’s path. Balaam does not see the angel, but his donkey does and, understanding that the angel poses a danger to his master, the donkey veers from the path to save him from being struck down.

The story continues with God miraculously granting the donkey the power of speech. But even at this point in the story, the animal has acquired an extraordinary status, as a character whose vantage point is noted by the Torah no less than three times (“the donkey saw,” Num. 22:23, 25, 27):

כב:כג וַתֵּרֶא הָאָתוֹן אֶת מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה נִצָּב בַּדֶּרֶךְ וְחַרְבּוֹ שְׁלוּפָה בְּיָדוֹ וַתֵּט הָאָתוֹן מִן הַדֶּרֶךְ וַתֵּלֶךְ בַּשָּׂדֶה…
22:23 And the donkey saw the angel of YHWH standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand. The donkey swerved from the road and went into the fields…
כב:כה וַתֵּרֶא הָאָתוֹן אֶת מַלְאַךְ יְ-הוָה וַתִּלָּחֵץ אֶל הַקִּיר…
22:25 And the donkey saw the angel of YHWH and pressed herself against the wall…
כב:כז וַתֵּרֶא הָאָתוֹן אֶת מַלְאַךְ יְ-הוָה וַתִּרְבַּץ תַּחַת בִּלְעָם…
22:27 And the donkey saw the angel of YHWH and she lay down under Balaam…

Balaam, whose eyes are blind to the divine revelation,[5] strikes the donkey each time it saves him from the angel’s unsheathed sword.

כב:כג … וַיַּךְ בִּלְעָם אֶת הָאָתוֹן לְהַטֹּתָהּ הַדָּרֶךְ.
22:23 … and Balaam struck the donkey to turn her back onto the road.
כב:כה … וַיֹּסֶף לְהַכֹּתָהּ.
22:25 … and he struck her again.
כב:כז … וַיִּחַר אַף בִּלְעָם וַיַּךְ אֶת הָאָתוֹן בַּמַּקֵּל.
22:27 … and Balaam was furious and struck the donkey with his staff.

The third time, when the donkey, having nowhere else to go, simply lies down on the ground and stops moving, the already irritated Balaam is infuriated, and, unlike the first two times, we are now told that he struck the donkey “with his staff” (בַּמַּקֵּל; 22:27).

At this point, the animal is granted the ability to speak, and it uses the opportunity to rebuke its master:

כב:כח וַיִּפְתַּח יְ-הוָה אֶת פִּי הָאָתוֹן וַתֹּאמֶר לְבִלְעָם מֶה עָשִׂיתִי לְךָ כִּי הִכִּיתַנִי זֶה שָׁלֹשׁ רְגָלִים.
22:28 Then YHWH opened the donkey’s mouth, and she said to Balaam: “What have I done to you, that you have struck me three times”?

When Balaam answers, with a strange equanimity to the animal’s ability to speak, he ironically accuses it of abusing him—when in fact he is the abuser—and exclaims that if he had a sword he would kill it (v.29), when the donkey has in fact saved him from the angel’s sword.

The animal replies sagely:

כב:ל הֲלוֹא אָנֹכִי אֲתֹנְךָ אֲשֶׁר רָכַבְתָּ עָלַי מֵעוֹדְךָ עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה הַהַסְכֵּן הִסְכַּנְתִּי לַעֲשׂוֹת לְךָ כֹּה?
22:30 “Am I not your donkey, upon which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Was I ever accustomed to do so to you?”

The Angel Sides with the Donkey

Just how appropriately it has behaved and spoken is confirmed when the angel rebukes Balaam. First, he repeats the animal’s complaint, in the same words the donkey uses, thereby validating it (v. 32):

עַל מָה הִכִּיתָ אֶת אֲתֹנְךָ זֶה שָׁלוֹשׁ רְגָלִים?
“Why have you struck your donkey these three times?”

Second, he makes Balaam aware that everything the donkey has done was for his own good and that he owes the animal his life (vv. 32–33):

כב:לב … הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי יָצָאתִי לְשָׂטָן כִּי יָרַט הַדֶּרֶךְ לְנֶגְדִּי. כב:לג וַתִּרְאַנִי הָאָתוֹן וַתֵּט לְפָנַי זֶה שָׁלֹשׁ רְגָלִים אוּלַי נָטְתָה מִפָּנַי כִּי עַתָּה גַּם אֹתְכָה הָרַגְתִּי וְאוֹתָהּ הֶחֱיֵיתִי.
22:32 … It is I who came out as an adversary, for the errand is obnoxious to me. 22:33 And when the donkey saw me, she shied away because of me those three times. If she had not shied away from me, you are the one I should have killed, while sparing her.

Balaam is forced to apologize and admit his sinful behavior, pleading that the reason he erred was because, unlike his donkey, he did not know the angel was there (לֹא יָדַעְתִּי כִּי אַתָּה נִצָּב לִקְרָאתִי).

Animal Suffering in the Torah

The story of Balaam’s donkey is an extreme instance of something we see elsewhere in the Torah, that animals have feelings and it is incumbent upon humans to take this into consideration. In contrast to Descartes’ notion, which circulated widely and had a detrimental influence on the treatment of animals (as can be seen in Solomon Maimon’s story),[6] the Torah never doubts that animals feel pain and that a goat is most certainly not a drum.

Many laws and regulations follow from this recognition, intended to prevent or minimize the suffering of animals, such as:

Unloading an overpacked animal (Exod 23:5)[7]

כִּי תִרְאֶה חֲמוֹר שֹׂנַאֲךָ רֹבֵץ תַּחַת מַשָּׂאוֹ וְחָדַלְתָּ מֵעֲזֹב לוֹ עָזֹב תַּעֲזֹב עִמּוֹ.
When you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from assisting him, you must nevertheless assist him.

Giving animals rest (Exod 23:12)

שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲשֶׂה מַעֲשֶׂיךָ וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי תִּשְׁבֹּת לְמַעַן יָנוּחַ שׁוֹרְךָ וַחֲמֹרֶךָ וְיִנָּפֵשׁ בֶּן אֲמָתְךָ וְהַגֵּר.
Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor, in order that your ox and your ass may rest, and that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed.

Giving the mother a week with its baby (Lev 22:27)

שׁוֹר אוֹ כֶשֶׂב אוֹ עֵז כִּי יִוָּלֵד וְהָיָה שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תַּחַת אִמּוֹ וּמִיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי וָהָלְאָה יֵרָצֶה לְקָרְבַּן אִשֶּׁה לַיהוָה.
When an ox or a sheep or a goat is born, it shall stay seven days with its mother, and from the eighth day on it shall be acceptable as an offering by fire to YHWH.

Not slaughtering baby and mother in one day (Lev 22:28)

וְשׁוֹר אוֹ שֶׂה אֹתוֹ וְאֶת בְּנוֹ לֹא תִשְׁחֲטוּ בְּיוֹם אֶחָד.
No animal from the herd or from the flock shall be slaughtered on the same day with its young.

Shooing the mother bird (Deut 22:6-7)[8]

כִּי יִקָּרֵא קַן צִפּוֹר לְפָנֶיךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּכָל עֵץ אוֹ עַל הָאָרֶץ אֶפְרֹחִים אוֹ בֵיצִים וְהָאֵם רֹבֶצֶת עַל הָאֶפְרֹחִים אוֹ עַל הַבֵּיצִים לֹא תִקַּח הָאֵם עַל הַבָּנִים. שַׁלֵּחַ תְּשַׁלַּח אֶת הָאֵם וְאֶת הַבָּנִים תִּקַּח לָךְ לְמַעַן יִיטַב לָךְ וְהַאֲרַכְתָּ יָמִים.
If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life.

No muzzling while plowing (Deut 25:4)

לֹא תַחְסֹם שׁוֹר בְּדִישׁוֹ.
You shall not muzzle an ox while it is threshing.

The rabbis legislated additional laws protecting animals from suffering, beyond those mentioned explicitly in the Torah, such as,

  • Shechitah – the requirement to slaughter animals by cutting the windpipe and carotid arteries in one motion, which causes the animal to die quickly;
  • Ever min ha-chai – the prohibition to consume flesh taken off a living animal;
  • Feeding – the requirement to feed one’s animals before eating (b. Berakhot 40a).[9]

All of these rules take for granted the idea that animals can feel physical and even emotional pain. The rabbis even coined a term for this, צער בעלי חיים “animal suffering,” the avoidance of which some texts declare to be a Torah principle (b. Shabbat 28b, b. Baba Metziah 32b).

The Calf and the Weasels

While the rabbis do not prohibit eating, and thus killing animals, a story about R. Yehudah the Prince and his attitude toward animals illustrates some ambivalence toward slaughtering animals.[10] The Talmud says that R. Yehudah the Prince was punished with suffering because of an act he did, and later relieved of suffering because of an act he did (b. Bava Metzia 85a):

על ידי מעשה באו מאי היא? דההוא עגלא דהוו קא ממטו ליה לשחיטה, אזל תליא לרישיה בכנפיה דרבי, וקא בכי. אמר ליה: זיל, לכך נוצרת. אמרי: הואיל ולא קא מרחם – ליתו עליה יסורין.
[The suffering] came about because of an act – what was it? A calf was being brought to be slaughtered. It ran off and hid under the corner of Rabbi [Yehudah HaNasi]’s cloak and was crying. He said to it: “Go, for this is the reason you were created.” The [heavenly angels] said: “Since he has no mercy, let us cast suffering upon him.”
ועל ידי מעשה הלכו – יומא חד הוה קא כנשא אמתיה דרבי ביתא, הוה שדיא בני כרכושתא וקא כנשא להו, אמר לה: שבקינהו, כתיב ורחמיו על כל מעשיו. אמרו: הואיל ומרחם – נרחם עליה.
[The suffering] went away because of an act – what was it? One day, Rabbi [Yehudah HaNasi]’s maid was sweeping the house, and [she saw] baby weasels on the floor and was about to sweep them away. He said to her: “Leave them, for scripture says (Ps 145:9), ‘His mercy is upon all creatures.’” The [heavenly angels] said: “Since he is being merciful, let us have mercy on him.”

This story is the polar opposite of Salomon Maimon’s anecdote about his beating a goat like a drum.

Animals Feel Pain Like Humans (Maimonides)

In his Guide of the Perplexed, Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) struggles with defining the difference between humans and animals, without denying the reality of animal feelings. Thus, in his discussion of divine providence (3:17), he denies that God watches over individual animals. And yet, at the same time, he asserts:

As for their dictum: “[To avoid causing] suffering to animals is [an injunction to be found] in the Torah” – which they learn from the verse (Num 22:32) “Why have you struck your donkey” – it is set down with a view to perfecting us so that we should not acquire moral habits of cruelty and should not inflect pain gratuitously without any utility, but that we should intend to be kind and merciful even with a chance animal individual except in case of need “because your soul desires to eat flesh” (Deut 12:20), for we must not kill out of cruelty or for sport.[11]

Using the angel’s rebuke as the source of the law seems to be Maimonides’ own invention; it does not appear in either Talmud or the standard midrashim.[12]

In a later discussion (3:26), Maimonides responds to the dictum in Genesis Rabbah 44, that implies that laws have no moral purpose, and uses shechitah as its example:

רב אמר לא נתנו המצוות אלא לצרוף את הביריות בהם, וכי מה איכפת לו להקב”ה מי ששוחט מן הצואר ומי ששוחט מן העורף, הוי לצרוף את הביריות,
Rav said: “The commandments were only given to purify the people with them, for what does it matter to the Holy One, blessed be He, if the person slaughtering an animal does so from the front of the neck or the back of the neck? This [command to slaughter from the front] is only to purify the people.

Although he tries to explain the philosophical point of this “strange and unparalleled dictum” as arguing that commandments are there to make humans obedient to God, he is unsatisfied with this as a full explanation of this law:

If one studies the truth of the matter, one finds it to be as follows: As necessity occasions the eating of animals, the commandment was intended to bring about the easiest death in an easy manner.

Maimonides expands on this point at length in the section of the Guide dedicated to explaining the point of the commandments (3:48):

Now since the necessity to have good food requires that animals be killed, the aim was to kill them in the easiest manner, and it was forbidden to torment them through killing them in a reprehensible manner by piercing the lower part of their throat or by cutting off one of their members…
It is likewise forbidden to slaughter “it and its young on the same day” this being a precautionary measure in order to avoid slaughtering the young animal in front of its mother. For in these cases, animals feel very great pain, there being no difference regarding this pain between man and the other animals. For the love and the tenderness of a mother for her child is not consequent upon reason, but upon the activity of the imaginative faculty, which is found in most animals just as it is found in man….
This is also the reason for the commandment “to let [the mother] go from the nest…. If then the mother is let go and escapes of her own accord, she will not be pained by seeing that the young are taken away.

“It Is Sinful to Cause Pain to Animals” (Sefer Hasidim)

In his moralistic work Sefer Chasidim, Rabbi Yehudah he-Chasid, the leader of the German pietists and a contemporary of Maimonides, writes poignantly about the problem of cruelty to animals, including everyday cruelties such as spurring one’s horse to make it run faster (Sefer Chasidim, 44 [standard ed.]):

אף אם עשה צער לבהמה בחנם כמו שמשים עלי’ משאוי יותר מכדי הראוי ומכה אותה והיא אינה יכולה ללכת בא לדין על שציער בע”ח וכן המושכים אזני החתולים להשמיע צעקתם הם חוטאים גם דרשו חכמים ביום [ההוא נאום ה’] אכה כל סוס (בשגעון ורוכבו בעורון) [בתמהון ורוכבו בשגעון] (זכרי’ י”ב ד’) עתיד הקדוש ברוך הוא להפרע עלבון סוסים מרוכביהם על שהכו אותם במגפיים שקורין ספורני בלע”ז.
It is sinful to cause pain to animals. Therefore, don’t place too heavy a burden on an animal, don’t beat it ruthlessly, and don’t pull a cat’s ears to make it scream. According to the Sages, this thought is implied by the verse, “In that day—declares God—I will strike every horse with panic and its rider with madness” (Zechariah 12:4). They expound this to mean that in the future God will punish horsemen for goading their horses with their spurs.[13]

Thus, R. Yehudah HeChasid, like Maimonides, believed that animals feel pain and anguish.[14]

“Animals, like Man, Have Sensations” (Samson Raphael Hirsch)

In the nineteenth century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote sharply and with emotion about human beings’ propensity to ignore the similarity between themselves and animals:

There are probably no creatures that require more the protective Divine word against the presumption of man than the animals, which like man have sensations and instincts, but whose body and powers are nevertheless subservient to man. In relation to them man so easily forgets that injured animal muscle twitches just like human muscle, that the maltreated nerves of an animal sicken like human nerves, that the animal being is just as sensitive to cuts, blows, and beatings as man.
Thus man becomes the torturer of the animal soul—which has been subjected to him only for the fulfillment of humane and wise purposes—sometimes out of self-interest, at other times in order to satisfy a whim, sometimes out of thoughtlessness, yes, even for the satisfaction of crude satanic desire.[15]

So in contrast to Descartes’ relegation of animals to the status of machines that feel no pain, the Torah and Sages had no doubt that they can suffer both physical and mental distress and that we should do our utmost to spare them pain. In one exceptional incident, that of Balaam’s donkey, an animal that is being abused is actually allowed to protest its pain and humiliation verbally.

Personal Postscript: Contemporary Treatment of Animals

How can this insight be reconciled with the merciless treatment of animals which has become the standard of the modern food industry—including the kosher food industry—such as the confinement of laying hens in cages so small that they cannot move? This is a weighty question—and for me, one of the most important issues that should trouble every woman and man who wishes to act ethically and according to the halakhic code.[16]


June 25, 2018


Last Updated

March 29, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Yael Shemesh is an Associate Professor in Hebrew Bible at Bar-Ilan University and the head of Fanya Gottesfeld Heller Center for the Study of Women in Judaism. She holds a Ph.D. in biblical studies from Bar-Ilan University and is the author of Mourning in the Bible: Coping with Loss in Biblical Literature (Hebrew), “The Stories of Women in a Man’s World: The Books of Ruth, Esther, and Judith” (in Feminist Interpretation of the Hebrew Bible in Retrospect) and “‘And Many Beasts’ (Jonah 4:11): The Function and Status of Animals in the Book of Jonah”(JHS 10).