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Though we may think of the scientific definition of life as objective, it is as human a construct as any other. In this case, it can even be an obstacle to noticing – and internalizing – that Judaism has a very different take. From the beginning, the Torah refers to animals as living; plants, however, are never described as such. The main difference between animals and plants is free movement. (Interestingly, though plants are not described that way, moving water sometimes is. Of course, it is a figurative non-literal use of the term since water does not move itself.)

The reason movement is so important is that it is the basis of action; and it is ultimately this G-d-like ability to act that is equated with life. True, we generally don’t hold animals accountable; yet their ability to act is what prompts the Torah to occasionally speak about evil animals (as in Bereshit 37:19). That must be why the Torah concerns itself so much with animals. And that is also why, no matter how valuable a stone or plant might be, the main sacrifices have always been animals. By ascribing life to them and thereby placing them in a separate category that also includes people and G-d Himself, the Torah is telling us that even the smallest, simplest animal is fundamentally more important than anything the Torah does not describe as living.


Among other important lessons from this is that the only way to measure the importance of something is by its resemblance to G-d. And in the case of man, that is often up to us.

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Rabbi Francis Nataf ( is a veteran Tanach educator who has written an acclaimed contemporary commentary on the Torah entitled “Redeeming Relevance.” He teaches Tanach at Midreshet Rachel v'Chaya and is Associate Editor of the Jewish Bible Quarterly. He is also Translations and Research Specialist at Sefaria, where he has authored most of Sefaria's in-house translations, including such classics as Sefer HaChinuch, Shaarei Teshuva, Derech Hashem, Chovat HaTalmidim and many others. He is a prolific writer and his articles on parsha, current events and Jewish thought appear regularly in many Jewish publications such as The Jewish Press, Tradition, Hakira, the Times of Israel, the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Action and Haaretz.