A familiar, but seemingly out-of-place sight in certain parts of Manhattan is a horse-drawn carriage among the city’s bustling automotive traffic. However, if New York State Senator Tony Avella and Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal had their way, carriage-pulling equines would no longer be seen on the streets of the Big Apple. The two have recently introduced bills that would prohibit the operation of horse-drawn carriages in New York City. (Click here and here for the text of the bills.) Although similar bills have been unsuccessful in the past, there are a number of other cities that have enacted similar restrictions in busy areas for the sake of public safety. See, e.g., Las Vegas Municipal Code § 11.39.030, Toronto Municipal Code § 545-65. While New York’s proposed legislation states that it is aimed at promoting the safety of the horses, passengers, motorists, and pedestrians due to potential traffic accidents, Senator Avella has stated that he is also concerned about possible mistreatment of the horses.
At first blush, it might seem that there is no halachic issue involved in the use of horse-drawn carriages. After all, the Torah contains several references to the use of animals for transporting people or other burdens, implicitly condoning the practice. See, e.g., Bereishis [Genesis] 45:23, 46:5; Bemidbar [Numbers] 7:6-8; Devarim [Deuteronomy] 22:4. However, there is a concept in halacha known as tza’ar ba’alei chayim (literally: the pain of living creatures), which prohibits the infliction of pain upon animals. Would tza’ar ba’alei chayim place any restrictions on the use of animal-powered transportation, such as horse-drawn carriages?
The Gemara discusses tza’ar ba’alei chayim in its analysis of the mitzvah of helping another person unload his donkey that cannot continue to bear its burden. See Shemos [Exodus] 23:5; Bava Metziah 32a-33a. The Gemara notes that not only is the purpose of this mitzvah to save another from monetary loss that might result from the physical damage to the animal, but it is also aimed at alleviating the suffering of the animal. Bava Metziah 32a. This Talmudic discussion seems to indicate that tza’ar ba’alei chayim is of Biblical origin (de’oriasa), not a rabbinic decree (derabbanan). See Kesef Mishna, Hilchos Rotze’ach, ch. 13, § 9. Furthermore, it is clear from this source that not only does tza’ar ba’alei chayim prohibit actively causing pain to an animal, but one must even affirmatively alleviate the pain of an animal caused by another person or by natural circumstances. See Shabbos 128b; Minchas Chinuch § 80.
There are two significant qualifications to the prohibitions/obligations imposed by tza’ar ba’alei chayim. First there is no prohibition against causing an animal a minimal amount of pain or discomfort, only substantial pain. Nimukei Yosef, Bava Metziah 17b. (However, the line between minimal and substantial pain is not so clear––at least to me.) Second, one is allowed to cause even a substantial amount of pain if it is done le’tzorech adam––in furtherance of human needs, such as loading a heavy burden on an animal for transport. R. Shmuel Wosner, Sheivet HaLevi vol. 2, § 7. However, one should refrain from an activity that will cause an animal extreme pain (e.g. starving livestock), because cruelty is not a Jewish trait. Rama, Even Ha’Ezer §5(14) (citing Terumas Hadeshen, vol. 2, § 105); Sheivet HaLevi, vol. 2, § 7; See also, Bava Metzia 85a (describing how R’ Yehuda Ha’Nasi was punished for failing to have mercy on an animal).
Still, one question remains that affects the issue of using animals as transportation in an age of motorized vehicles. There is a disagreement among halachic authorities as to the exact parameters of le’tzorech adam: is it limited to things that are strictly necessary for human needs, or does it extend even to activities that are not necessary, but merely desired for monetary gain or leisurely purposes? Some maintain that one may only inflict substantial pain upon an animal for things that are strictly necessary. Thus, according to this view, although one may use an animal as a wall of a sukkah by tying it down next to the other walls, he may not do so unless he has no other way of making a kosher sukkah. R. Chaim Palagi, Ruach Chaim, Orach Chaim § 630(2); see also Or Zarua, Hilchos Shechita § 386 (last few lines) (discussing plucking a bird’s feathers to facilitate slaughter). Others maintain that one may cause pain to an animal for pecuniary or cosmetic purposes (such as docking or cropping a dog’s ears or tail), as long as it is not extremely painful and cruel. Terumas Hadeshen, vol. 2, § 105; Sheivet HaLevi, vol. 2, § 7. Consequently, assuming that pulling a heavy carriage for several hours a day can cause a horse substantial discomfort, it would seem that there would be a halachic dispute as to whether or not it is considered le’tzorech adam and therefore not prohibited by tza’ar ba’alei chayim. While it does provide a livelihood for the operators and enjoyment for riders, transportation by horse-drawn carriage is not strictly necessary for human needs due to the existence of motor vehicles.