Eating before Feeding Your Animals

Question #1: Coffee and the concierge


“Was Noach permitted to have his morning coffee before he brought all the animals breakfast?”

Question #2: Dog’s best friend

“I would like to eat an apple. Must I first feed Fido?”

Question #3: Fish on Shabbos

“On Shabbos, may I make kiddush before I feed the fish?”


Taking care of all the animals in the teivah was not easy, and was even harder for an inexperienced zookeeper like Noach. Understanding Noach’s travails provides ample opportunity to discuss the ruling of the Gemara (Brachos 40a; Gittin 62a) that one may not eat without first feeding his animals, as the Torah says, in the second paragraph of Shema, And I will provide grass in your field for your animals, and only subsequently does the Torah say, and you will eat and be satisfied (Devorim 11:15).

Analyzing the mitzvah

There are numerous questions about this mitzvah:

Is this required min hatorah or miderabbanan?

Are we forbidden to eat only a full meal, or even just a snack?

=May I quench my thirst before I provide water or feed my animal? In other words, does the prohibition apply only to eating or also to drinking?

Does this mitzvah apply on Shabbos and Yom Tov?

These and other questions will be addressed in the course of this article.

Torah or rabbinic?

Let us start with a basic question: Is the obligation to feed my animals before I eat min hatorah or miderabbanan?

A prominent, early acharon, Rav Yaakov Reischer (Shu”t Shevus Yaakov 3:13), rules that, although the Gemara cites a pasuk as the source for this halachah, it is required only as a rabbinic mitzvah, and the pasuk is an allusion, what Chazal call asmachta. Although I have seen authorities quoted as holding that the requirement is min hatorah (see, for example, Sedei Chemed Volume I, page 40), I have not yet found anyone who rules this way clearly. Quite the contrary, the Rambam (Hilchos Avodim 9:8) states that feeding your animals before you eat is an exemplary way to act, but is not required.

Of course, this leads to another question: How can the Rambam rule that feeding your animals before you eat is merely an exemplary act, when the Gemara prohibits eating before you feed your animals? The Nishmas Odom (5:11) raises this question, answering that the Rambam, presumably, had a variant text of the Gemara, and even suggesting what he thinks that text was.

A full meal or a snack?

Are we forbidden to eat only a full meal before feeding our animals, or are we prohibited to eat even a snack?

This question is subject to a dispute among early authorities, which appears to be based on how one reads and understands the pertinent passage of Gemara. The two times the Gemara cites this mitzvah in our published editions, it quotes varying and conflicting passages. In Brachos, the Gemara reads, It is prohibited to eat before you provide food for your animals, whereas in Gittin the passage reads, It is prohibited to taste [food] before you provide food for your animals. In Chazal’s lexicon, eating usually implies eating a full meal, whereas te’imah, tasting, implies eating a snack. Thus, the text in Brachos (eat) implies that the prohibition is limited to eating a full meal, but that one may eat a snack even though he has not yet fed his animals. On the other hand, the version in Gittin (taste) implies that a snack is prohibited.= However, I found variations on the Gemara texts, including versions in both places that prohibit tasting, and versions in both places that only prohibit eating. Most significantly, both the Rif and the Rosh, two of the most preeminent authorities, state in their comments to the passage in Brachos that tasting is prohibited. It seems that they prohibit even snacking prior to feeding one’s animals, which is also implied by the Beis Yosef (Orach Chayim 167).

The two major commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch seem to dispute whether one may snack prior to feeding one’s animals — the Taz (167:7) expressly permits snacking before feeding your animal, whereas the Magen Avraham (167:18) implies that it is prohibited.

An in-between meals snack

Some authorities endeavor to resolve the inconsistency between the two Talmudic versions of the text. The Nishmas Odom suggests that the two versions are not contradictory. It is prohibited to eat a meal without feeding your animal first, and that one who is planning to sit down to a meal may not taste anything of the meal without first feeding his animals. However, it is permitted to eat only a small snack prior to feeding your animals, when that is all one intends to eat. This approach is how the Nishmas Odom concludes in his magnum opus, the Chayei Odom (5:11), where he implies that one may eat a snack before feeding one’s animals.

The Nahar Shalom (167:4) answers the contradiction  in the two texts in a similar fashion, ruling that when it is meal time, one may not eat even a snack, out of concern that he’ll forget to feed his animals, but between meals, one may eat a snack without feeding his animals first. This approach is also quoted by the Kaf Hachayim (167:52) as definitive halachah. However, the Shevus Yaakov, the Kesav Sofer (Shu”t Orach Chayim #32) and the Mishnah Berurah (167:40) all prohibit eating even a snack before feeding one’s animals.

At this point, we can address one of our opening questions: “I would like to eat an apple. Must I first feed Fido?”

According to the Taz, the Chayei Odom, the Nahar Shalom and the Kaf Hachayim, one may eat an apple or some other snack before feeding his dog, although the Nahar Shalom and the Kaf Hachayim permit this only when it is not meal time. On the other hand, many other authorities prohibit eating even a snack without first feeding one’s animals.

Is instructing enough?

The Nahar Shalom and the Kaf Hachayim also permit the following. They contend that if the owner commanded his servants to feed the animals, he may begin his meal. Since his instructions will be obeyed, he does not need to worry that his animals will go hungry. However, other authorities do not record this lenient ruling (see Mishnah Berurah).

Drinking before feeding

Is it permitted to drink before one feeds the animals, or it the prohibition limited to eating?

Based on the Torah’s description of how Rivkah greeted Eliezer, the Sefer Chassidim (#531), makes a distinction between eating and drinking. The Torah teaches that Eliezer asked her for a little bit of water, and she answered him, I will serve you water and also your camels. The Sefer Chassidim asks how Eliezer could drink without first providing the camels with water. He concludes that although one may not eat without first feeding one’s animals, it is permitted to drink. This conclusion is quoted by many later authorities (for example, Magen Avraham 167:18; Birkei Yosef 167:6; Mishnah Berurah 167:40; Shu”t Har Tzvi 1:90), although several others (Pri Megadim, Mishbetzos Zahav 167:7; Shu”t Kesav Sofer, Orach Chayim #32) dispute it. For example, the Pri Megadim rules that when the animals are thirsty, one is required to water them before one may drink. He contends that Rivkah offered the men to drink first, because the camels were not as thirsty. This was because the camels had been =drinking roadside water that people would consider too dirty to drink.

Another approach is that of the Chasam Sofer=, who contends that when someone is offered food by a host, he may eat without first feeding his animals, since the host has no obligation to feed the guest’s animals. This explains why Eliezer drank before watering his camels.

Yet another approach to explain Rivkah’s actions is that she assessed that it was dangerous for Eliezer and his men not to hydrate themselves immediately, and that pikuach nefesh certainly supersedes the requirement to feed or water the animals first (Or Hachayim, quoted by Yad Efrayim on Magen Avraham 167:18).

A drinking problem

Why should drinking be permitted before one feeds one’s animals when it is forbidden to eat, and, according to many authorities, even to have a small snack? Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank (Shu”t Har Tzvi, Orach Chayim 1:90) provides two reasons for this distinction. First, suffering from thirst is far more uncomfortable than suffering from hunger, so the Torah did not require one to remain thirsty in order to make sure that the animals are fed. Second, the Torah forbade eating before feeding one’s animals out of concern that once one gets involved in eating, he may forget to feed his animals. Drinking does not create this concern, since it takes less time and does not involve as much procedure.

Is Shabbos different?

May one eat on Shabbos and Yom Tov before feeding one’s animals? The Kesav Sofer rules that the prohibition of eating before one feeds one’s animals applies only to eating a meal that does not fulfill a mitzvah, but that one may eat on Shabbos and Yom Tov before one has fed one’s animals, since this eating fulfills a mitzvah. Not all authorities appear to accept this ruling.

Dog’s best friend

Let us return to one of the questions we raised above: “I would like to eat an apple. Must I first feed Fido?”

An anonymous questioner asked the great eighteenth-century halachic authority, Rav Yaakov Emden, whether one may eat before feeding his dog or cat. The Yaavetz (She’eilas Yaavetz #17), an acronym by which Rav Emden was often called, responded that he is uncertain as to why the questioner thought that dogs and cats should be treated differently from any other of G-d’s creatures. He then suggests two reasons that might explain why the questioner thought that one may eat before feeding one’s dog or cat. Each of these reasons requires an introduction.

Beheimah versus chayah

For certain laws, the Torah divides animals into two categories, beheimos and chayos. These two categories defy a clear translation in English, although often beheimos are called domesticated animal species and chayos are called wild species. Rav Yaakov Emden suggested that perhaps the questioner thought that the requirement to feed your animals before you eat applies only to species of animal that qualify as beheimah and not to those that are chayah, and that the questioner thought that both dogs and cats are categorized as chayos, thereby exempting the owner from the obligation of feeding his animals before eating. The Yaavetz does agree that both dogs and cats are categorized as chayos — the Mishnah (Kelayim 8:6) quotes a dispute between Rabbi Meir and the Sages as to whether a dog is considered a chayah or a beheimah. According to the Sages, whose ruling is the halachic conclusion, dogs qualify as chayos, and the Yaavetz endeavors to demonstrate that cats also qualify as chayos.

However, the Yaavetz notes that the prohibition to eat before feeding your animals applies equally to beheimos and chayos. Although there are several areas of halachah in which there is a difference between kosher beheimos and kosher chayos, there is only one Talmudic source that discusses what halachic difference it makes whether a non-kosher animal is categorized as a chayah or as a beheimah. This source is a Tosefta (Kelayim 5:5) that discusses the above-mentioned dispute between Rabbi Meir and the Sages whether a dog qualifies as a chayah or as a beheimah. The Tosefta’s ==question is, what difference does it make whether a dog is a chayah or a beheimah. The Tosefta explains that the difference in halachah is germane to someone who gives all his chayos to his son, whether his dogs are included in the gift. According to the Sages, the dogs have now been given to the son, whereas according to Rabbi Meir, they remain property of the father.

The Rash, one of the early Baalei Tosafos, adds another similar halachic difference that will result from the question as to whether a creature is a beheimah or a chayah: The case where someone declared all his chayos to be kodesh, which means that they have all become property of the Beis Hamikdash. According to Rabbi Meir, since dogs are beheimos, in this situation his dogs will remain his property, whereas, according to the Sages, Fido and his buddies have now become property of the Beis Hamikdash and require redemption.

Both the Tosefta and the Rash imply that the mitzvah of feeding your animals before you eat applies equally to beheimos and to chayos.

This Tosefta answers another question, which arises from a mishnah that states that a pig qualifies as a beheimah, whereas the elephant, the monkey and the arod, a type of wildass (probably an onager) are chayos. Since these are all non-kosher species, what difference does it make in halachah whether these species qualify as beheimah or as chayah? The answer is that after Mr. Goldberg gave all the chayos in his personal zoo and petting farm to his son as a gift, who owns the pigs, the elephants, the monkeys and the onagers? The halachah is that Mr. Goldberg still owns the pigs but he has given the elephants, the monkeys and the onagers to his son. (I will not delve into the question why Mr. Goldberg owned a pig.)

Feed your workers!

Having rejected this attempt to explain why his questioner thought one may eat before he feeds his dogs and cats, the Yaavetz suggests another possibility why dogs and cats would be excluded from the requirements of this mitzvah. Perhaps the requirement to feed your animal before you eat is because it is working for you, and the questioner thought that dogs and cats are not considered workers. According to this approach, one would be permitted to eat before feeding the fish or the canaries, since they are basically pension receivers, whereas one would be required to feed his carrier pigeons, cattle, sheep, goats, horses, donkeys and gaming falcons before eating.

However, the Yaavetz rejects both suppositions of this approach.

First, he contends that both dogs and cats qualify as workers, dogs because they serve as loyal watchmen and cats because they clear the house of mice.

Second, the requirement to feed your animal has nothing to do with whether the animal works for you; once you are responsible for the animal, the rules of tzaar baalei chayim, not to cause an animal to suffer, require you to provide it with food. Thus, even pension-receiving animals are entitled to be fed, and the owner must attend to them before he is permitted to eat.

Man’s best friend

So, is there any reason to treat dogs and cats differently from other animals?

Notwithstanding the Yaavetz‘s rejection of both of his suggestions why dogs and cats should be treated differently from other animals, he concludes that, although one is required to make sure that one’s dogs and cats are fed, one is not required to feed them prior to his own eating. He presents the following novel suggestion: Since both of these species do not have difficulty finding food on their own, the responsibility to feed them does not lie so heavily on the owner to feed them before eating. The prohibition to eat before feeding your animals is restricted to animals that, once domesticated, would not be able to find food without the owner feeding them. The Yaavetz contends that only animals that may have difficulty finding food on their own create an onus on the owner to the extent that he may have to go hungry until he provides them with victuals.

By the way, I found very few later authorities who quote this position of the Yaavetz authoritatively.

Returning to Noach

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 108b) records that Shem, the son of Noach, was once telling Eliezer, Avraham’s servant, how difficult life was in the teivah. Shem recounted: “It was quite difficult. A creature that usually eats in the daytime, we fed by day. One that eats at night, we fed by night. My father did not know what to feed the zekisa. One day, he was sitting and slicing a pomegranate, and a worm fell out, and the zekisa ate it. From that day on, we made a mix of bran and allowed it to turn wormy, after which time the zekisa ate it.”


Why are we required to feed one’s animals before we eat? The Yad Efrayim (on Orach Chayim, Magen Avraham 167:18) suggests the following: One should always look at himself as unworthy to receive Hashem’s bounty. Perhaps one’s only merit to be fed is that we feed the animals that are dependent upon us. Thus, this mitzvah has a secondary goal – not only to teach us to be concerned about Hashem’s creatures, but also to teach us humility.