Fur is being banned in NYC. This obviously affects all the Hasidic Jews. What’s the Torah opinion on fur?
Thanks for your question. Let me clarify the matter for those not in the know. The sale of fur is being considered for a ban in New York City; wearing fur is not being banned. This impacts thousands of people who work for hundreds of businesses, many of which have been around for generations. That’s putting a lot of people out of work who have never done anything but the fur trade.
Incidental to that, some Hasidic sects will be affected by this ban because of the custom for the men to wear fur hats known as streimels. Some legislators are pushing for a “religious exemption” to allow streimels to continue to be available. Some people say that a religious exemption is unnecessary because wearing a streimel is not a religious obligation. Still other people opine that a religious exemption would be dangerous because excepting the chasidim from the ban would foment anti-Semitism. But let’s address the halachic question rather than the political ones.
Fairly recently, I addressed our obligations toward the environment. There, I pointed out the directives that God gave Adam (and through him, all mankind):
Genesis 2:15 tells us, “And the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and to protect it.” This sounds like an obligation rather than a privilege but the very next verse says, “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying ‘Of every tree of the garden you may eat freely…’” so we see that the garden was actually intended for our use.
From these directives, we see that we are permitted to use the environment but not to abuse it. This includes killing animals for food, skins, and presumably fur, though hunting for sport is frowned upon. The particular issue at hand is called tzaar baalei chaim – causing needless suffering to living things.
There is ostensibly a difference between meat production and fur production in how the animals are treated. Animals for food are typically slaughtered – in Jewish law, we strive to do so in the most humane way possible – but the methods used in fur trapping are often perceived to be somewhat gorier and/or more painful. Whether or not that is an accurate assessment, it’s not necessarily tzaar baalei chaim because one is not hurting the animal gratuitously; it’s being done for some human need.
Similarly, there are those who object that fur is simply unnecessary. This is not a halachic parameter, as the same can be said about meat. Some object to killing animals for meat as unnecessary given our modern food and nutrition options but doing so is unambiguously permitted by the Torah. God gave permission to Noah for his descendants to eat meat, saying, “The fear and awe of you (i.e. mankind,) shall be upon every beast of the earth, every bird of the air, everything with which the ground swarms, and all the fish of the sea; they are delivered into your hand. Every living thing shall be food for you, just like the vegetation I have given you” (Genesis 9:2-3). Later, regarding kosher meat, the Torah explicitly permits one to slaughter meat “as much as your soul desires” (Deuteronomy 12:21), not restricted by one’s dietary requirements per se.
God told Adam that mankind was to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and every living thing that crawls on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). These things were given to us to use as we deem necessary. That doesn’t give us the right to cause any more pain to an animal than necessary but it does permit us to cause animals a certain degree of pain if it serves some human purpose. This purpose doesn’t have to be necessary for survival. It can be for luxuries.
If one’s moral compass steers them away from meat, leather or fur because they feel they don’t truly need these things and they oppose causing any pain at all to an animal, that’s a wonderful thing. But if others feel differently, halacha does permit these things despite the obvious downside in terms of animal suffering.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent