In this week’s parshah Bilam agreed to travel to Balak, the king of Moav, for the purpose of cursing Bnei Yisrael. En route, his trusted donkey suddenly refused to continue on its path, instead veering to the side of the road.
At one point the donkey smashed Bilam’s leg into the wall. Bilam hit his donkey three times. The reason that his donkey would not proceed was because it saw a malach standing in the road with his sword drawn. Bilam did not see this and therefore hit his donkey. Hashem then allowed the donkey to speak to Bilam, and the donkey informed him as to why he was not continuing down the road. Hashem allowed Bilam to see the malach as well. The malach said to Bilam, “Why have you hit your donkey three times?”
The Rambam, in Moreh Nevuchim (cheilek 3, perek 17), writes that the pasuk that describes the malach’s rebuke of Bilam for hitting his donkey is the Torah source for disallowing one to cause pain to an animal – known as tza’ar ba’alei chaim. There are many other sources brought by the Rishonim and Acharonim regarding this. Rashi, in Shabbos 128b, says that tza’ar ba’alei chaim is derived from the pasuk in Parshas Mishpatim: “Azov ta’azov imo.” We learn from this that one must help unload his fellow’s animal, due to the strain that the load is causing.
Rabbeinu Peretz, in Baba Metzia 32b, says that there is no Torah source for tza’ar ba’alei chaim; rather, it is a halacha l’Moshe miSinai. The Shita Mekubetzes, in Baba Metzia there, quotes a Raavad that says that we derive this prohibition from the aveirah of placing a muzzle on an ox when he is plowing. The Sefer Chareidim (14:1) says that tza’ar ba’alei chaim is part of the mitzvah of vehalachta bidrachav (and we should follow in Hashem’s ways). The Chasam Sofer, in Baba Metzia there, says that tza’ar ba’alei chaim is derived from the pasuk of “verachamav al kol ma’asav” (and He has mercy on all of His creations).
The source that the Rambam cites, however, is difficult to understand. The Terumas HaDeshen (cheilek 2, siman 105) writes that one may cause tza’ar if there is a legitimate purpose, e.g. for a refuah, among others. The Rama codifies this in Even Haezer 5:14. There, the Shulchan Aruch says that it is prohibited to sterilize an animal. The Rama there says that for a refuah or other legitimate purposes, sterilization and other forms of tza’ar are permitted. He adds, though, that when it is not for refuah purposes, the world’s minhag is not to inflict tza’ar – as this is achzariyos.
But if it is not prohibited when there is a purpose for inflicting the tza’ar, why was Bilam chastised for tza’ar ba’alei chaim? Did he not have a purpose for hitting his donkey, namely to get it to listen to him and cooperate by traveling on the path?
In order to explain this we must understand the fundamental reason why we are ever allowed to cause tza’ar to an animal for our purposes. It is not because our needs outweigh those of animals. Instead, it is because Hashem created animals to serve us. But there is a caveat. This permission is only granted provided that our action is permitted. If one is performing a forbidden action, he has no rights over the animals. It is only to perform the permitted actions that Hashem allows us to use His animals.
Bilam decided to travel to Balak despite Hashem telling him not to. He thought he could find the time when Hashem was, kaviyachol (so to say), angry and then curse Bnei Yisrael against Hashem’s will. Since this trip was not the action that Hashem wanted Bilam to take, Bilam had no rights over the animal kingdom on this trip.