At the Early Childhood Center, we always talk about a wonderful Jewish value that is sometimes hard to explain to young children. This is hoda’ah, translated as appreciation, gratitude, being thankful.
Since this can be a difficult concept for youngsters to grasp, we focused on their interests. And, through a Jewish lens, I told them that caring for animals is a mitzvah. This, in turn, led into how we care.
I took an idea from Joel Lurie Grishaver and Nachum Amsel’s “You Be the Judge: A Collection of Ethical Cases and Jewish Answers,” and the follow-up: “You be the Judge 2: A Collection of Ethical Cases and Jewish Answers.”
The young children became a bet din, a Jewish court of law, to decide the case: “Does Shabbat Have to Go to the Dogs?” The situation is common in many families; feeding the family pet is the responsibility of the children. In this situation, Josh forgot to feed the dog before Shabbat dinner, and as the family sat to pray and eat, the dog was barking. Grandma said to feed the dog after the blessings and dinner. Cousin David, on the other hand, said the dog should be fed before the blessings and before the family eats.
You be the judge: Should the dog be fed before the family eats? Or afterward?
Here’s what the sages said. A mitzvah, tzar ba’alei hayyim, forbids cruelty to animals. Not feeding animals is cruel. In the Torah, we read about Rebecca, who was kind to the camels. Then there is Moses, who brought water from the rock for the people and the animals.
According to Maimonides: “The sages made it a practice to feed their animals before they tasted anything themselves.” Rashi, in the Talmud, added, “One may even delay ha-motzi in order to feed animals.” Many rabbis have agreed that pets are our responsibility, which includes feeding them since they cannot get their own food.
In short, caring for animals is important and must come even before we take care of ourselves. It is a mitzvah and responsibility.
Getting back to the teaching, as my lesson was about gratitude and showing appreciation, I brought it back to being thankful for our pets. Then, one voice piped up, saying: “I’m thankful my mom feeds our dog!”